A Classic Country Estate

The home of late mystery writer Sue Grafton and her husband Steven Humphrey tells a story all its own.

By Laura Ross
Photos by
Kathryn Harrington

Lincliffe sits like a jewel among the storied mansions of River Road, overlooking nearly 30 acres of gardens, woodlands and the Ohio River. Families have come and gone, but the myriad of stories within its majestic walls could fill a book.

That would be entirely appropriate and possibly a key to what Steven Humphrey and his late wife, internationally beloved mystery novelist Sue Grafton, had in mind when they purchased the property 20 years ago.

“There were holes in the walls and the ceiling on the third floor,” said Humphrey. “Linoleum was everywhere. We first looked at the house in 1999 and knew it had to be restored.”

Grafton, who revolutionized the mystery novel genre with her “alphabet” series featuring gumshoe Kinsey Millhone, was born in Louisville but spent many decades in California, where she and Humphrey also have a home in Santa Barbara (which is currently on the market.) Grafton passed away in 2017 following a battle with cancer.

Lincliffe, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a classic Georgian Revival estate with nearly 15,000 square feet on three floors and includes seven bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. It was built in 1911 for the prominent Belknap family. In the 1920s, the Crawford family moved in, and later in 1945, Lincliffe was purchased by the Gheens family, who lived in the home until the early 1980s. Later, Helen Combs resided at Lincliffe for several years until Grafton and Humphrey discovered it in 1999.

Walking through the front garden to the understated entrance takes you into a classic country house that could easily have been plucked from the English Cotswolds.

Bittners, which was founded in 1854, was already well established in Louisville when Lincliffe was constructed. Grafton and Humphrey called on the renowned design firm to recreate the former grandeur of their newly purchased, but faded and failing, home.

“We had to restore it completely,” said Douglas Riddle, president and COO of Bittners. “I believe Bittners used the original house plans when our team first met with Sue and Steve.”

“We gutted the kitchen to the concrete walls and ran new electrical,” said Humphrey. “We took a wall out between the scullery kitchen and the cooking kitchen. Structurally, we redid the third floor and built our offices, redid the bathrooms and built a theater room. It was fun, but a lot of hard work.”

The interior is classically sumptuous yet comfortable, a look that was a mix of the couple’s tastes and the design eye of Bittner’s retired designer Patrick Welch.

Creating a flow of classic beauty throughout the mansion was no small task. Welch and his team of designers over the years, including Bittners Vice President of Residential Interior Design Lori Andriot, filled the house with rich colors, fabrics and special touches that bring the essence of the lush gardens outside into the interior of the home.

“You don’t see this level of custom design much anymore in Louisville,” said Riddle. “The hours of artisanship that went into all the pieces, the quality and layering of fabric and all the custom furniture and fabrics are just phenomenal. It really is, sadly, becoming a bit of a lost art of design.”

The dramatic antique red and gold-etched ceiling in the main transverse hallway is set off by room after gorgeous room. Light rushes in from a series of French doors leading to the gardens and terraces. The hallway features Empire-style hanging brass lanterns, gold embellished mirrors and window treatments by Carlton V. with Stroheim trim. Four Louis XIV armchairs with antique needlepoint insets over Cowtan and Tout velvet fabric dot the hallway.

An original billiards room, paneled in dark wood, holds Humphrey’s prized 1905 Brunswick pool table. Two original cubbies on either side of the ornate fireplace were changed into closets at one point. However, after Humphrey and Grafton studied old photographs of the room, they happily uncovered the original horsehair upholstered backs for large benches that once flanked the fireplace discarded in the cavernous basement.

As expected, the library was a favorite haunt for Grafton. She helped design the room with Bittners and created a comfortable reading room with floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with her novels and a host of other contemporary works from mystery colleagues and other writers. Art and treasures collected in the couple’s world travels fill shelves and tabletops.

Nearby, the music room featuring a grand piano, is open and airy. A Lee Jofa sofa and Edward Ferrell club chairs in a red and cream Clarence House fabric welcome guests. Four Louis XVI side chairs covered in Scalamandre fabric provide additional seating. The draperies are parchment colored linen by Calvin.

A stunning sunroom with lattice woodwork throughout is a perfect spot for entertaining. It’s a favorite room in the winter when snow falls and creates a snow globe effect with the massive windows and doors. It has been converted into a home office by, and for, Humphrey’s new love, Janice Carter Levitch (publisher of The Voice-Tribune).

In the dining room, a crystal chandelier holds court over a custom-designed mahogany table and crimson silk chairs by Bittners with seating for up to 18 guests. Nearby is an antique sideboard holding silver serving pieces. Blue haze silk plaid draperies complement exquisitely hand-painted rare French Zuber scenic wallpaper.

Up a sweeping main staircase, the second floor holds tastefully designed bedrooms and bathrooms in a traditionally English country house design. The third floor beckons (via the staircase or an antique lift for two) and features a massive windowed hallway that leads to Grafton and Humphrey’s respective custom-designed offices, a bathroom and a theater room, complete with kitchenette, leather reclining seats, a popcorn machine and dozens of classic and contemporary movies on tap.

Humphrey has plans for the cavernous hallway. As he prepares to sell their Santa Barbara home, he wants to bring back art and a host of antique scientific instruments that Humphrey, who is a philosopher of physics, has collected. He plans to create a gallery for the art and antiques along the third-floor expanse.

Back downstairs, the enlarged kitchen is modern, light-filled and functional, creating a welcome space to harvest vegetables and fruit from the Lincliffe gardens.

When Andriot took on the redesign of the morning room in 2015, she followed the lead of the design before her.

“I wanted to preserve Lincliffe’s existing glamorous vibe, which was reminiscent of ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘Downton Abbey,’ while adding a more informal flare,” Andriot said. “The morning room was a more intimate space that Sue and Steve used quite often for reading and unwinding. I wanted to reflect the room’s elegance in a relaxed manner while keeping the focus on the exquisite views.”

“In order to achieve the restfulness they requested, I used a softer, muted color palette of smoky greys and blues,” Andriot added. “These hues captured an atmosphere of hazy mornings that allowed the beauty of the outside to be present in that space.”

Lincliffe’s expansive gardens are no less magical than the mansion’s interior and are a personal haven for Humphrey, who actively attends to his creations each day. Since acquiring Lincliffe, Humphrey and his colleagues Jeff Baldwin and Rick Heavrin have transformed the rolling acreage into eight formal, themed gardens that are breathtaking in their detail and careful, thoughtful plantings.

Humphrey discovered that John Olmsted, nephew of the legendary Frederick Law Olmstead, created the original site plan in 1905 and worked on terracing, planting trees and developing hardscape designs. In the late 1930s, noted landscape architect Bryant Fleming created the boxwood gardens and added the fountain, but other plans were never executed.

“It makes my imagination go, ‘Ooohhh,’” enthused Humphrey. “My gardens are like Sue’s books – I continually edit them.”

Humphrey’s garden “rooms” include a spectacular homage to the four seasons, an expansive allee of tall trees leading a path to vistas overlooking the Ohio River, herbaceous border gardens based on Kew Gardens in England, a wildflower garden, vegetable garden and a greenhouse, and includes beehives that produce a wealth of fresh honey each summer.

Humphrey meticulously plots an ever-changing inventory of flowers, plants, trees and statuary. “Once, about 10 years ago, I planted 7,000 tulips,” he said. “I have spectacular pictures of my ‘four seasons’ theme of tulips in white, pastels, oranges and rust colors. And, you know what? None of them came up the next year. That was the last time I did that!”

When Sue once commented that most of his gardens were hot and sunny, Humphrey created a cool shade garden for her. “It’s turned into one of my favorite gardens,” he said. “I planted woodland plants, hostas, ferns and more and added a fountain and benches. We’ve placed a plaque there in the shape of a book and named it the Sue Grafton Memorial Shade Garden.”

Inside and out, Lincliffe is truly a little piece of heaven on earth.

“When I first arrived (here), I was immediately taken by the entire experience,” said Bittners’ Andriot. “The grounds are magnificent. The estate has such a presence with its breathtaking architecture. It was an honor to work with Sue and Steve and be a part of Lincliffe’s history.”

Humphrey has no plans to leave Lincliffe. “I want people to visit, see it, have events here and enjoy the experience,” he says. “Lincliffe has been a joy and a true labor of love.”

“Lincliffe has such grace and style and if you listen closely, it tells a beautiful story, much like it’s owner did,” said Andriot.

And, the next chapter is sure to be a page-turner. V