Section: Features

Locke’s 161-year-old home strikes a classical note

Locke’s 161-year-old home strikes a classical note

By Karlin Wong


Just down the block from the Gambier Grill, or “Cove,” lies the home of Ben Locke, the Robert A. Oden, Jr. professor of music. The off-white house on East Brooklyn Street is distinguished by the single music note painted above its front door — a clear indicator of Locke’s musical calling. Locke has called this house home for the past 28 years.

“The house has an interesting, rather convoluted history,” Locke said. “Before the Nelsons took ownership of it in the 1930s, this house was owned by the Putnam family. Norman Putnam was actually the secretary to Philander Chase, and the Nelsons were somehow related to the Putnams.”

Since its construction in 1853, the house has undergone various renovations to suit its residents’ needs. Locke rented the house from 1986 to 2005 before he decided to purchase the home. “Things started to go wrong with the [construction of] the house, so our landlady finally asked whether we’d consider buying it,” Locke said. “We knew we wanted the house; we understood the house’s strengths and weaknesses. It all went smoothly. … [Our landlady] didn’t need to go through a realtor or go to great lengths to prepare the house for us, and we were already on a first-name basis with the termites.”

One of Locke’s first renovation projects after becoming a homeowner was refinishing the floors, an arduous but ultimately rewarding task. “It was like moving three times without the truck,” Locke said. “You move everything out of one part of the house and then cram it in another end. Then you clean up the floor and you have to move all the furniture back in. It was absolutely the worst, but we ended up with nice results.”

Locke has had tumultuous relationships with the seemingly ordinary floors and walls of his home. “[Having the house insulated] made such a difference,” Locke said regarding the most significant changes to the house he has overseen. “That opened up a lot more usable space in our home. … We used to shut down a third of the house to keep the [utility] bills from getting out of line [during the winter].” Life at home for Locke changed for the better after the insulation process was completed. Afterwards, Locke and his wife were able to use more of their home for living space, such as a porch on the first floor that was expanded in the early 20th century to include an extra story with storage space and a bathroom.

“[The previous owners] built the bathroom in 1942, but it was never insulated,” Locke said. “So, they never actually used the bathroom because it kept freezing in the winter time; it was just an extra closet.”Locke had the bathroom insulated, as well as other untreated spaces, once he became the homeowner.

Since 2005, Locke has had a new staircase, deck and garage added to the house. The galley-style kitchen has also seen some significant improvements, with new pine floors, more counter space and larger windows. “I’d say we’re done with renovations now,” Locke said.

Locke prefers to keep things simple when it comes to interior design. “[The house] offers a conservative, off-white experience,” Locke said. “[My wife and I] like the house to be flexible since we have an eclectic collection of furniture that we’ve moved around during our married life together. Rather than try to come up with color schemes [that work with the furniture], we’d prefer to just use a bone white or antique white [on the walls] and deal with color that way.”

While overseeing renovations following the home’s purchase, Locke left many aesthetic decisions up to his contractor and painters. “We didn’t really think about design at all,” Locke said. “We took [our contractor’s] lead, and he was able to offer suggestions when we were unsure about what to do. He had good ideas about how to handle layout and design.” Locke and his wife hired Tom Gensemer, son of Professor Emeritus of Economics Bruce Gensemer, as their contractor.

Locke also gave creative control of the house’s exterior to his painters. “[The paint company] had the idea to do a gold trim with a little maroon edging,” Locke said. The hired painter also came up with the idea to put a music note above the front door. “The painter knew that I worked in the music department at Kenyon, so he said, ‘Why not put a music note there?’ I thought it was cute, so I said sure,” Locke said.

Although living down the street from the Cove can get noisy, Locke enjoys living close to campus. “You feel more involved in the community that way,” Locke said. “I can also walk or drive to work, depending on how I feel. … A few years ago, I was reading in bed with the lights on. Some students were walking by on Acland Street — to this day, I’m not sure who they were — and someone shouted, ‘Hi, Doc Locke!’ I didn’t answer because [my wife] was asleep, but it was kind of nice.”

Members of the Chamber Singers choir, which Locke conducts, often come over to his house for meals. “Chamber Singers always has Sunday night dinners at his house,” Chamber Singers member Ellie Jourling ’17 said. “It feels like you’re at home and you’re eating a home-cooked meal. It makes Gambier feel a lot homier.”

Locke may have had to make a number of changes to his house’s construction, but he says that doesn’t make it feel any less like home. “We’ve always loved the house, though we’ve definitely made improvements that have added to its attractiveness and longevity,” Locke said. “But really, this is just a wonderful place to live; we’ve really enjoyed being here.”



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