Saving Grace: Restoring a Lavish Indy Manor

A preservation-minded couple, David and Alice Berger, accepts the challenge.

Alice Berger’s maiden name, Stewart, comes from the English word “steward.” It may be, then, that Alice was by birthright drawn to the preservation of an old home and its historic elements.

Alice and David Berger’s stewardship led to the impressive restoration of an English manor–style home, originally the Lacy mansion, on Indianapolis’s northwest side. Built by industrialist Howard J. Lacy in 1933, it was the house Alice had dreamed of owning for decades. As a young wife and mother, she could see its imposing limestone-clad walls and leaded-glass windows from her relatively modest Tudor Revival down the street. Over the years, the Bergers had asked if the owners were interested in selling. The answer was always “no.”

By 2008, the 20,000-square-foot house had begun to lose its luster. The roof was leaking, the grounds were full of dying trees and completely devoid of landscaping, the windows didn’t work, and the beautiful woodwork had dulled. Still, it remained Alice’s fantasy home. So David wasn’t surprised when she told him one day that she had a dream in which she was walking around in “her house.” She suggested, once again, that he ask if the owner was interested in selling.

David made the call a week later. And this time, perhaps weary of the upkeep, the owner said “yes.”

The Bergers leaped. In a walkthrough, they saw that the previous residents had kept the house’s important historic features: the foyer’s marble floor, the conservatory’s Rookwood tile, many original light fixtures, four fireplaces, and stained-glass images of a scholar, birds, flowers, and a knight on a white steed. They bought it without an inspection. “I knew I wanted it, no matter what,” Alice says.

“No matter what” turned out to mean an investment in repairs, restoration, and renovation that has amounted to more than the purchase price. During their first year of ownership, the couple had nine people working on the house six days a week.

The first order of business was to stop damage that was continuing to occur from leaks. In order to do that, workmen had to remove multiple rows of ancient slate from every dip in the many-gabled and multiple-valley roofline. All those valleys were lined with new copper, and the slate was reset.

Nine months after they bought the house, the couple finally moved in, and Alice began to manage the renovation onsite. Workers sanded and stained 7,000 square feet of hardwood floors. Independent contractor Matt Graber restored every leaded-glass casement window in the home—263 in all—and the original brass hardware to working order. Graber also happened to have a deft hand at faux painting, which he put to use in places where Rookwood tiles were damaged in the bathrooms, reproducing a variety of finishes and decorations invisible to the eye unless Alice points them out.

Elaborate woodwork was painstakingly cleaned and oiled, including handcarved linen-folds (creases that mimic fabric) on the library doors, a detail Alice says can also be seen on the doors at Highclere Castle, the English manor on Downton Abbey. Down came layers of old wallpaper, dating back at least to the 1950s in some rooms, and a fresh coat of paint went up on all the walls.

When they had to rebuild all the stone patios, they put the original limestone back in place. Alice located ceiling fixtures from the Lacy era in the attic and reinstalled them. When she couldn’t find the home’s relics, she bought antiques or found new ones appropriate for the house’s style. Workers power-washed the entire exterior and re-mortared the sandstone on all the chimneys and turrets. Even the showers—each of the six bedrooms has a full bath—were polished and restored. Alice spent a year looking for a replacement handle for one shower, and when she couldn’t find a match, a handy friend made it.

Whenever possible, “preservation” was the Bergers’ guiding principle. But in this fairytale house, the kitchen was a frog waiting to become a handsome prince. Here, big changes were needed to make the old, dingy space into a great one that still fit the ambience. And for a style-appropriate remodel, Alice knew she needed help.

Chris Beehler of Beehler’s Kitchens came aboard to turn Alice’s ideas into a modern kitchen that looks like it could have been original to the house. Three small rooms were converted into one light, open workspace. Beehler spent most of two years working with the Bergers on the kitchen design and build-out. One of her ideas was the marble floor’s diamond pattern, which Alice thinks is a perfect fit with the original parquet in the adjoining breakfast room. David found two antique library tables that now serve as islands.

With most of the restoration complete, the couple likes to share their home with the community. They host five events a year for charitable organizations such as Indiana Landmarks and the Indianapolis Opera. Now Alice has only one part-time handyman working on the house. There is no staff, no permanent cleaning lady. The servants’ quarters have been turned into an apartment for the Bergers’ son. Alice jokes that in the house’s heyday, there would have been a maid greeting visitors at the door and taking their coats. “I’d have to put on a French maid’s outfit myself,” she says, for that experience to be repeated these days.

Hard work, a substantial investment, and a dream have paid off in a gorgeous home—one that might be even more glorious than ever after the smart, selective remodel. Good stewards, indeed.