Inheriting a Whimsical Historic House

Finding themselves in possession of a large, important, whimsical, and historic house with outbuildings on 19 acres, a couple did the right thing—preserving its essence, restoring the grounds, and updating the essentials with sensitivity.

Sometimes dubious fortune is thrust upon you while you are busy making other plans. Jayme and Barbara Kuhn learned they had inherited Do Nothing Farm—a historic property in the hamlet of Cornwallville, New York—just after they’d begun major restoration of a different property nearby.

A classic “gentleman’s farm,” Dunix was for decades the country escape of the family of the inventor of carbonated water.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

So they didn’t move into Do Nothing Farm right away. What finally pushed the timeline was when, after selling that restored property, called Butterfly Farm, the buyer emailed them to say they were two days’ drive away. As luck would have it, Jayme, a restoration contractor, and Barbara, a third-grade teacher, had employed various family members skilled in carpentry and construction to ready a usable kitchen at Dunix—the house’s shortcut name for Do Nothing. They just made that deadline. 

A makeover in the 1890s deepened the porch, now supported by massive Tuscan columns. The wicker is antique.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

The rambling, three-storey house and its 19 acres had spent most of its early life as the property of John Matthews and his family. Matthews, the “Soda Fountain King,” had used marble chips from the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to make carbonated soda water. After the family’s arrival in 1859, several renovations of the house ensued. (The house had started as a modest farmhouse, built in the 1830s.) After she found a family journal in the house, Barbara would discover archival Matthews-family photos on eBay, many taken on the vine-covered porch added in the late-Victorian era.

The rubblestone chimney in the living room probably dates to the 1895 renovation, as does the bench seat with cutout arm. 

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

A search alert on eBay led her to a collector and Matthews friend: “I told him I owned the family home in New York. He said, ‘Not Dunix?’ and I said ‘Yes’.” The journal helped her create a genealogy. A woman named Madeline became Barbara’s favorite Matthews family member; photos of her on display span from her youth to middle age. 

During the 1895 renovation, walls between rooms were opened up and supporting columns added. The wicker furniture is antique Loomis.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

Judging from the pictures, everyone was having a wonderful time at Do Nothing Farm, and well they should have: amenities included a stable of riding horses and a golf course, installed in 1902. “Every picture is of them loving life,” Barbara says.

Jayme has a different take. “I think they called it Dunix because it was constantly being worked on,” he says—never done.

The dining room used by the Kuhns is furnished with antiques, including an unusually large pie safe. The narrow door at left leads to the Oak Room, the spectacular banquet hall.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

George Matthews, one of the patriarch’s two sons, purchased the house. His sister Marianne married a German artist and designer named Karl Müller, who worked for the Matthews firm, the American Soda Fountain Company, as well as an offshoot, Union Porcelain Works. Müller taught the two Matthews sons to sculpt and paint. The three created a replica of the Bohemian dining hall that was in the family’s Georgian-style NYC home, Arch-Brook, which occupied an entire block along the East River. (Arch-Brook was razed for a power station around 1900.)

 A peek into the kitchen is from the Kuhns’ dining room, once the servants’ staging area for meals.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

Dunix remained in the Matthews family until 1929, when it was lost or sold after the Wall Street crash. The house sat vacant for 14 years. Then Ruth Passe and her parents moved in, adding electricity. By the time Jayme first worked on projects for Ruth, more than two decades ago, she was living there alone. For years, he stopped by nearly every day to check on her and do minor chores. Ruth Passe first tried to give Jayme the house in 2004, but he talked her out of it. Jayme learned she’d left him the house after all, at her death in 2011. “Her family had been here since the 1940s;  Dunix meant everything to her.”

The property was a proverbial gift horse, but the Kuhns have done right by it. Now they are ready to move on.
“It took eight people to run this place,” says Jayme. “Now it’s just the two of us.” They’ve found a smaller house in need of renovation, not far away. 

Read: A Compatible Kitchen Design

The main staircase features floor-to-ceiling square spindles.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley


Thoughtful restoration was required in parts of the house. For instance, the living room, in the oldest part of the house, had had a dropped ceiling. After removing it, Jayme Kuhn knew he wanted to cover the exposed joists with dressed beams, but he kept postponing the work, apparently waiting for the right inspiration. 

“One morning he said, ‘I’ve got it’,” Barbara recalls. “Then he went off to mill the pieces in his shop.” Barbara says her husband has great vision and does work by eye, but “he’s very humble.” 

Wherever renovation took place, millwork was carefully matched to trim in the house. Special features, including flashed-glass windows, carefully have been preserved. 

 The Matthews family had re-created the Old World fantasy of a dining room that was in their now-lost NYC home.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

Ceiling and frieze are lavished with decorative painting, and mottos urging guests to enjoy life: “Drink night and day,” reads one.

Heraldic figures and Rococo florals grace the ceiling.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

​Entered through a low, narrow door from the servants’ staging area (now the dining room), the banquet hall is
like a fairytale’s gingerbread house. Walls are clad with beveled, quarter-sawn oak paneling embellished with carved gryphons. Curved benches flanking the tile and brick fireplace end in arms with heart-shaped cutouts, thought to be a Bohemian (Czech) motif. ​Although the original heart-motif table and chairs are long gone, the Kuhns found a vintage quarter-sawn oak table and chairs online, which were deemed suitable. 

An elaborate cabinet has carved gryphon-head drawer pulls and rondels made from soda-water bottles.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley

Remarkably, this room, earlier called the Oak Room, is in near-pristine condition. All of the hinged casement windows are operable. Jayme Kuhn even discovered an extra corbel in the buffet, “just in case one were ever needed.”

Outbuildings are whimsical; the outhouse has colored flash glass at the top.

Steve Gross & Susan Daley


Tags: OHJ October 2021

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