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Tom Eblen: New company brings lived-in feel to vacant architectural marvel

Tom Caywood of Showcase Realty Services and designer Melody Farris Jackson have dressed up the Miller House for sale by  borrowing furnishings and renting it to temporary tenants.
Tom Caywood of Showcase Realty Services and designer Melody Farris Jackson have dressed up the Miller House for sale by borrowing furnishings and renting it to temporary tenants. Herald-Leader

The Miller House is a masterpiece of modern architecture that people either love or hate. When it was vacant and empty, some prospective buyers didn't know what to make of it.

The house off Chilesburg Road provided the perfect challenge for Tom Caywood's new company, Showcase Realty Services, which brings a different economic model to the business of staging vacant luxury homes for sale.

Working for the bank that has been trying to sell the Miller House for 16 months, Caywood and Melody Farris Jackson, an artist and designer, furnished and decorated the house. Then Caywood found three people to live there and keep it in tip-top shape to show prospective buyers.

Perry Dunn, an executive with First Federal Bank, said the house's transformation has been impressive. "Tom has really taken the bull by the horns to the point that we're considering raising the price," he said.

Susan Sloane of Prudential A.S. de Movellan Realty has the 5,771-square-foot house listed now for $999,000. That is down from an initial $1.5 million, Dunn said.

The Miller House, completed in 1992 for Robert and Penny Miller, was designed by José Oubrerie, a French architect and protégé of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of modern architecture. After Robert Miller's death, the house and 20.6 surrounding acres were sold for redevelopment in 2006.

Left empty, the Miller House was vandalized. An architect who admired the house created a non-profit foundation to buy it and two acres, and repaired the vandals' damage. He hoped to make the house the centerpiece for a development of other modernist homes, but the project failed amid the home-building slump.

First Federal took back the house in January 2011 and has been trying to sell it, Dunn said. That has been tough, in part because of uncertainly about the surrounding property, which once provided tree-covered vistas beyond the house's glass walls.

Caywood recruited Jackson to help him furnish and decorate the house. She was already very familiar with it: As a part-time teacher in the University of Kentucky's College of Design in 2008, she had her architecture students measure the Miller House to create precise drawings.

Built mostly of concrete, glass, steel and wood, the house felt emotionally cold without furniture and art, Jackson said. The brilliance of the house's design is in how it uses space and volume. But, when empty, it was hard for many people to visualize how it could be a comfortable place to live.

Jackson furnished the house with art, including some of her own, and a borrowed Horsemania horse that now stands in the dining room. Jackson and Caywood have filled the house with mid-century modern furniture borrowed from their own homes and those of friends.

"What I tried to do was make it so a prospective buyer could come in and say, 'Wow, I see how this house is put together,'" she said. "And having people inhabit the house allows us to fill cabinets and give it a homey feel."

Caywood, a former online advertising executive with the Herald-Leader and other newspaper companies, said he got the idea for Showcase Realty Services (Showcaserealtyservices.com) when he moved back to his hometown after living in San Jose, Calif., and Dallas.

Lexington had a number of unique luxury homes that had been on the market for a while. Owners were stuck with high carrying costs, such as utilities and lawn upkeep. They also sometimes had higher insurance premiums because vacant properties are more subject to accidental damage or vandalism.

Lexington also had a number of people with good incomes who wanted high-quality, short-term housing and flexibility for various reasons — a relocation, divorce or temporary job assignment.

The company works like this: Caywood furnishes and decorates the home at no cost to the owner or Realtor, except for any mutually agreed renovations. (The company works only with homes listed with Realtors.) He then finds "resident managers" to live in the home for below-market rent. They also pay utilities and routine maintenance in return for keeping the home neat and clean.

The result, Caywood said, is a win for everyone: The owner gets lower carrying costs and a more presentable and secure house to sell; the Realtor might get a quicker sale; the renter gets a high-quality house at a discount price; and Caywood makes money from the rental payments.

Since starting the company in November, Caywood said, he has worked with one house that sold. Now, in addition to the Miller House, he said he has a luxury condo and a horse farm on the market.

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