Jean Dunbar '73 aims to build community — one historically correct house at a time.
Story by Rebecca R. Miller '93
Call her "historic-design specialist."
The line may not have the same ring to it as "Call me Ishmael," but naming her unusual occupation is an act of self-definition for Jean Dunbar '73, just as naming himself is for the narrator of "Moby Dick." Fully capturing what Dunbar does for a living is nearly as difficult as describing the whiteness of the whale.
"I'm a building advocate," Dunbar says. "I defend old buildings by teaching people to work in harmony with the building's original design.
"But I'm also partly an interior designer in a time machine, a writer, and a salesperson. Sometimes I'm a lecturer, discussing my own projects and more general topics of design aesthetics."
Dunbar and her husband, Peter Sils, run their business, Sils Construction, from their imposing home in Lexington, Virginia. Dunbar consults with their clients to renovate old buildings in ways that will adapt them to the needs of the late twentieth-century and beyond, yet remain true to the design principles that were applied when the structures were built. Historic? Yes. Anachronistic? No.
"People say, 'I don't want to do a period interior,' as if it were a brontosaurus," says Dunbar. "I ask them, 'What's a period interior?' and they think it's a museum. I want people to understand that historically renovated interiors and exteriors aren't museums. The people who built your 1860 house or lived in a 1910 home didn't think of it as a museum!
"It's not as if we're taking ideas from the fine arts and imposing them on the homes of ordinary people," emphasizes Dunbar.
This is clearly a pitch she has made many times to her clients, persuasively. "These ideas about how one's home should look and function were once held very fondly by large numbers of people. Just because they fell out of public knowledge doesn't make them inaccessible or expensive.
"Historic restoration is cost-effective. That's a big surprise for most people," says Dunbar. "It's an approach that looks at the historic presumptions about a building to work with it instead of against it. Being more sensitive to a building can often be less expensive."
An example of such an economy is one of Dunbar's recent projects, the renovation of Kenyon's Crozier Center for Women. Using a $25,000 grant from the LC. and Margaret Walker Foundation that was originally intended for construction of an addition to the historic building, Dunbar found other ways to achieve the large interior space that the addition was meant to create. The money saved was then used to redecorate, making the Crozier Center both more beautiful and more functional.
The unusual approach to the project also attracted additional donations. "Whenever possible," Dunbar says, "it's less expensive to work within the footprint of a building."
Dunbar volunteered her expertise to the Crozier Center project. A long-time alumni-admissions representative for the College in Virginia, Dunbar says, "When I read about the proposed changes for the Crozier Center, I thought perhaps I could offer to Kenyon what I really know, skills for which I'd be paid very well on the open market."
Building a career of her own has been a more complicated process for Dunbar than even her most intricate renovation projects. Despite her academic background, Dunbar is in many respects self-taught in her chosen field. Her credentials as a historic-design specialist come from no formal architecture or design program but from a lifetime of interdisciplinary inquiry.
After graduating summa cum laude from Kenyon as the College's first woman to win a Danforth Scholarship, Dunbar went on to earn her doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. Already, she knew that her interests extended beyond the usual realms of literary study. Although she focused her graduate work on "the history of acculturated ideas and literature," Dunbar began to feel confined and frustrated within her academic discipline.
"I left Kenyon wanting to broaden my studies," she recalls, "but graduate school made me a specialist."
In a yearly poll, Virginia students rated Dunbar the university's best graduate instructor in English. But she found a very different reception on the job market, particularly as a woman in what was still a field dominated by men.
"There were years when I was 'professionally' on the job market," she recalls. "So was everyone else. But it was truly unnerving. I'd find myself number two in a field of 435 candidates — or number one of 350 — and the school wouldn't create the position. I lost all illusions of the connection between job performance and gaining employment.
"Kenyon was so good about rewarding one's best work," says Dunbar. "My experience there was empowering; there was no suggestion that I couldn't do something because I was a woman. Although I came to discover that this was not objectively true, it is important to feel that positively about yourself. So, given the conditions in the job market, I began to ask myself what I really wanted to do."
Leaving teaching was difficult for Dunbar. "It is an irresistible and fatal combination," she says, "when you don't know what you want but you do know you want to get into something you do well."
Dunbar changed the direction of her life. After she stopped teaching at Virginia, she spent a period of time trying her hand at activities from fiction writing to restaurant management. But her newly quixotic life began to take more shape when she and her husband decided to move to Lexington, Virginia.
"We moved here specifically for the location and also partly for the house," says Dunbar. "What it gave me was a strong sense of place and eventually a way to establish my direction. The feeling of strength that I derive from Lexington is very much like how I felt about Gambier. The Kenyon campus is very close to my ideal place."
Washington and Lee University in Lexington offered Dunbar a teaching position at the same time as she and her husband made their move. Her years on the faculty there turned out to be "a mixed experience," since she was eventually denied tenure. "What I gained from that time was the chance to sharpen my research in the relationships between American fiction in the late nineteenth century and popular aesthetics and taste.
"My reaction was, 'A-ha!' I felt at home," Dunbar says, emphasizing the connections between aesthetics, buildings, and culture, an idea that would change her life. "I was convinced that design history was the key to understanding the origins of modernism in the last half of the nineteenth century, and I pursued that idea by acquiring a detailed knowledge of interior design.
"Peter and I had already been buying buildings together and selling them after some restoration," Dunbar recalls, describing how she became the design half of the partnership called Sils Construction. "I realized that I was a marketable commodity. When we looked for work, we had Peter's long career in restoration, but we also had something that other companies didn't have — namely, me."
Discovering her direction has not meant complete specialization for Dunbar, despite her title. In addition to her design projects themselves, she publishes prolifically and lectures on topics relating to aesthetics and design history. And the Crozier Center project suggested even more possibilities for the public side of Dunbar's career.
"My work at the Crozier Center showed me that restoration projects have educational possibilities beyond what I previously imagined," she says. "I now hope to work on more college buildings. There's a chance of doing more lectures at Kenyon and working with students on interdisciplinary projects.
"I'd also like to make historic restoration a more accessible, publicized service," adds Dunbar, "working with people who are in the mainstream of home ownership." She already works the other end of the spectrum of homeownership as a Habitat for Humanity activist. She also serves on the Lexington Architectural Board.
"I was brought up to be an activist," says Dunbar. "I was taught that you should put back something into a community in order to enjoy the pleasures of that community."
Becki Miller '93, the newest member of the Contributing Writers Group of the Bulletin, says she finds herself unwittingly reliving Jean Dunbar's life. Not only are the two from neighboring Ohio counties, but Miller is also pursuing graduate work in English at the University of Virginia while living on the same street Dunbar did.
What began recently as a room addition to an existing campus building quickly turned into much more: a kind of cultural awakening and celebration — and, along the way, an "adaptive reuse design" of the space. The result is a renovated Doris B. Crozier Center for Women that not only better suits the needs of students but more accurately reflects the building's architectural and decorative heritage.
Much of the credit goes to Jean Dunbar '73, an historic-design specialist from Lexington, Virginia, who donated her time in overseeing the renovation. In researching the building, she was drawn to its many artistic details: art tiles on the fireplaces, decorative hinges throughout, doorknobs and trim work with incised designs. The more she studied the building, the more confident she was in her conclusion. "All clues pointed incontrovertibly to a particular style of design — Anglo-Japanese," says Dunbar.
"Anglo-Japanese design had its birth at the U.S. Centennial Exhibition of 1876," she explains. "It was a time in which Americans were queasy about the industrial movement." Too much was happening too fast. Uncertainty was rampant. Through their art and design, Americans were "memorializing the spiritual and imaginative way of Japan," says Dunbar. Actually, "they were encapsulating a nostalgic, inventive style" that had more to do with "what the West thought it saw in Japan," she says, than what was really happening there. Japanese motifs such as pinwheels and floral patterns, as well as characteristic uses of black, were widely adopted traits of the Anglo-Japanese style.
Built about 1890, the Crozier Center was constructed during the initial period of the Anglo-) apanese movement; not surprisingly, subsequent owners modified the house to suit their needs. But a resurgence of the Anglo-Japanese movement occurred in the early 1900s, with traces still evident in the house when Dunbar began her investigation.
Having identified the Anglo-Japanese influence, she discouraged College officials from adding a large meeting room to the building, as was planned, and proposed instead an "adaptive-reuse redesign" for the center-a concept that retains the building's historic features while making the space functional for present-day needs. Everyone agreed, and work began.
Renovations, in addition to redoing the decor, include relocating a bathroom, removing a wall to create a larger living room and meeting space, adding beams to preserve structural integrity, replacing plumbing and fixtures, and installing a new heating system.
"The center, while generally well maintained, was very, very bland," says Dunbar. "There was lots of white paint and a stark, unrelieved interior — a hodgepodge of fabrics and furniture and generally out-of-proportion spaces."
Newly installed wallpapers, carpeting, and paint — some of which are the first reproductions of their type in this century — now feature motifs and colors of Anglo-Japanese origin. The furnishings, too, including sofas, chairs, and floor lamps, were donated or purchased with an eye toward design as wells as function. And the center's three fireplaces were either restored to their original appearances, which included a black faux marble, or were given specialized painted finishes to complement the renovation, by decorative artist Nancy Johnson, who also assisted with the renovation of the Church of the Holy Spirit.
A subtle but effective color scheme links the rooms. By using black and tertiary colors from the color wheel, and juxtaposing a bright color, "you get a fusion of color" says Dunbar. "Color choice, color placement, and perception — these are principles that link Anglo-Japanese style with the Crozier Center.
"I thought what Kenyon wanted [in the renovation] was what the building was about originally — cross-culturalism and interdisciplinary ideas," she explains. "As a result of the 'Japan craze,' women began to contribute aesthetic and artistic works. They began to make names for themselves ... and gain real professional stature in significant numbers." The movement changed the look of homes and the role of women in America, says Dunbar, and that underscores the importance of this renovation in a year in which the presence of women at Kenyon is being celebrated.
The house's name honors the memory and contributions of Doris B. Crozier, dean of the Coordinate College for Women, who was among the first women to hod professional positions at Kenyon in the era of coeducation.
A gift of $25,000 from the L.C. and Margaret Walker Foundation of North Muskegon, Michigan, made the renovation possible. Stuart S. Walker '90, who arranged for the College to receive the funds from his family's trust, said that the "importance of place in supporting the identity of women at Kenyon" motivated the gift.
— Thomas L. Bigelow, managing editor of the Bulletin