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Middlebrook: A Timeless Legacy

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Story by Megan Venable | Photography by Thelen Wright

Middlebrook is a labor of love. It can boast that it is one of the longest continuously lived-in houses in Tennessee, having been occupied in various iterations since 1795. Its current occupants, Rick Fox and Ralph Cianelli continue to steward the house and nine other buildings on their property, including maintaining many collections displayed prominently throughout the historic structure.

The house was built by the middle of three Brookes, and by 1800, the home and property were known as Middle Brooke. The dirt road leading from Knoxville followed suit, and today Middlebrook Pike is one of the most traveled roads in Knoxville. The home itself was entrusted to Rick by his great-aunt, Faye Howard Ballew, upon her death in 1987. One rainy day, he noticed a white painted fireplace mantle and idly began scraping away to find what was underneath. Rickwas astonished to discover the vivid reds and blues of a Pompeii Revival-style piece, and thus, he was hooked. His restoration of Middlebrook began. “I’m going out of here feet first,” Rick laughs.

One point of particular pride is their dedication to replicating period-appropriate décor for the house. Upon removal of a chair rail in the parlor, a piece of wallpaper was found. After tracking it down, the paper was duplicated, and what lines the walls is paper that hung there during the Civil War. In the dining room, the wallpaper is made from the original blocks of a handscreened, full-color reproduction of a scene of a Paris panorama called “The Monuments of Paris.” The paper also hangs in the Richmond Room of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Rick and Ralph met in Acapulco, a city the globe-trotting couple visit often. In appreciation of their city of origin, the two collect a new piece of Talavera Mexican pottery each time they make the trip down south. The works adorn the walls of their glass lanai that overlooks Third Creek on the property.

The Summerhouse on their property boasts the majority of their collection of Eleanor McAdoo Wiley paintings. The pieces mostly feature images of other well-known homes in Knoxville, including Middlebrook. Unlike Middlebrook though, most of the buildings she represented in her works are no longer standing. Wiley depicted more than just houses, as one of her most beloved hangings is a bouquet of her own arrangement of Middlebrook’s famous peonies which now hangs in the music room. The peony gardens still bloom brilliantly each spring, with the blossoms dating before the Civil War.

The two enjoy entertaining tremendously and spend quite a bit of time on hospitality in their home to recognize the hard-working volunteers on civic engagement in support of their community. Ralph famously enjoys inviting guests to select their favorite movie star glass from his collection he had made to use when dining at Middlebrook.

In the kitchen, the refrigerator is a work of art in itself. Hanging on its doors is a remarkable magnet assemblage from around the world, representing places that Rick and Ralph have visited during their time together. The couple makes sure to point out that the magnets are indeed placed correctly in geographical order.

One other collection the two make note of is a respectful nod to the afterlife. The house served
as a hospital for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the grounds are a final resting place for hundreds of soldiers, so the campus is sufficiently situated for haunts. Rick and Ralph made sure to point out a specter of note, Miss Sanna, who prefers to visit with guests in one of the front bedrooms in the home. If you meet her approval, she won’t make her presence known. Those who don’t make the cut will certainly feel her ire.

Ralph, with a past career in the antiques business jokes, “I grew up in the antiques business, and now I just live in one!” Rick and Ralph intend for Middlebrook to live on after they are gone as a cultural center. They plan on a scholarship and foundation in the future to support the perpetuity of the home and intend to continue making the house and grounds a cross between Cheekwood in Nashville and Biltmore in Asheville. For now, they intend to keep travelling the world together, and making their home a warm and welcoming haven for themselves and their guests at Middlebrook.

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