Hilltop Retreat

The Hilltop Retreat | Photo by Bruce McCamish

Country and suburban styles blend together to create a family sanctuary, nestled in the hills of East Tennessee

Up on the patio of Benny and Carol’s bright hilltop home, surrounded by a plush couch and warmed by a stone fireplace, you’ll find a slice from a very unusual tree. It’s been milled flat, preserved and polished, and mounted on a metal frame as a table, but still you can see how magnificent the tree was. 

When I first sit down with Benny and Carol at the table, I am in awe at its size. The slice is 52 inches wide. And as Benny tells me the history of its four separate hearts, the half-century old bullet still lodged in its side glimmering in the sunlight, and its eventual journey into a focal point of the patio, you could call me stunned. The tree, says Benny, was well over 100 years old when it was felled (it stood right in the middle of where the garage is now). And those four hearts? They indicate that the tree had actually been harvested once before and had regrown from four different sprouts afterward. This tree’s history predates the lifetimes of every one of us on the porch, and Benny and Carol wanted to preserve that legacy—bullet and all—in the home that sprouted up around that stump.

Of course, in terms of the actual design, the home was centered around a different tree, a Christmas tree, in fact, standing behind a 12-foot-tall secret door built into a bookcase. But we’ll get to that.

The Perfect Blend

The story of this hilltop retreat begins with Benny and Carol’s marriage. “We were looking from day one,” says Benny. Back then, Benny lived out by Hardin Valley in a small craftsman-style home. He’d grown up in the country in northeastern Tennessee, and home to him meant trees, barns, and game; Benny is a lifelong uplands bird hunter, with the hunting dogs to prove it. Carol, meanwhile, grew up in western North Carolina, a small-town girl, and lived most of her life in the suburbs, teaching at a local elementary school. The difference between the two was night and day; Carol used to say she felt like she’d driven to East Nashville every time she’d come out to see him. 

When the two married, Benny wound up moving into Carol’s home, because it was better for keeping up with their blended family (between the two of them, they brought four kids to the table), but he missed the open country. He remembers telling her, “I can live here for a little while but I’m not dying here unless I die soon.”

So the hunt was on to find the right person to design the perfect home that would blend Benny’s country living with Carol’s suburban lifestyle, a dream home for the family to enjoy together for years (and generations) to come. When they finally found it, a hilltop lot covering several acres of woodland, so dense with trees that you could barely see the sun, he knew it was the place, and he knew exactly which designer to call to make it happen.

The Man with a Plan

Stephen Davis is something of a Renaissance man around Knoxville — musician, painter, and avid fisherman are just a few ways he describes himself. But most importantly for Benny and Carol, he’d been in the home design business for more than 30 years. “Quite frequently when we’re doing the calculations to be able to go stake a home, we find problems in the plans,” Benny says, reflecting on his experience as a land surveyor. “And we have to call the designer and say, ‘Hey, we got a problem here.’” 

Not so with Stephen. Stephen’s work was always precise, and every design had something special. “Didn’t matter what kind of house he was designing, something caught your eye,” Benny says.

Stephen told Benny and Carol to bring him a list of needs for the house, and when he read it, one of the requests stood out. “[My request],” says Carol, “was a Christmas tree closet.” And when she says Christmas tree closet, “I mean to roll it in and roll it out decorated.”

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years, and I thought I’d seen just about everything,” Stephen says, “but every time I think that, somebody comes up with something new and fun.”

Carol’s Christmas tree is 10 feet tall and meticulously decorated with, among other things, dozens of pheasant tail feathers (the fruits of Benny’s long bird-hunting career) and a towering tree-topper. The whole tree would require 12 feet of clearance to be moved upright, and as Stephen told the couple, 12-foot-tall interior doors just aren’t made. “I’ve got that covered,” was Benny’s reply. “I want it to be right off the great room, and I want to do a bookcase.”

So Stephen got to work. The Christmas tree closet became the center of the design for the house, and he worked outwards from there. “I like it when people know what they want,” he says, “and they knew what they wanted, they knew what they were after.”

Envisioning the Layout

Carol had a vision for the interior of her home — everything from the big round dining room table to the canine painting in Benny’s second-floor office, a work by local artist Ron Williams. Her kitchen, outfitted with appliances from Friedman’s, provides the high-end utility she needs while fitting seamlessly among the custom Tamco cabinets and elegant countertops from Smoky Mountain Tops. She has a sunny crafts room on the first floor — her own office of sorts, with floor-to-ceiling Windsor casement windows from Homechoice — and upstairs a room for the future grandkids, with bunk beds lining the walls. “I wanted someplace they would come and love to be,” she says.

But the exterior, that was all Benny; an outdoor living space with a fireplace overlooking the natural landscape, the hunting dog weather vane leaping across the rooftop, and of course ‘the barn’, his own private retreat found partway down the driveway. The outdoor living space was Stephen’s favorite part of the design, a comfortable place bridging Carol and Benny’s different aesthetics into a cohesive whole.

Crafting the couple’s home meant designing into and around the hilltop dominating the property, which presented unique challenges of its own. The driveway would have to snake its way through the treeline as it made its way up to the house. In Benny’s ‘barn’, some walls would lose an entire story from one end to the other. But unique challenges also create unique opportunities, and Stephen is proud of the features that emerged.

“I consider the best compliment that I’ve ever been paid is that I listen to my clients,” he says. “It’s not my job necessarily to be the interior designer, but to provide a perfect template for great interior design.”

From Paper to Property

Bringing Benny and Carol’s dream home from Stephen’s mind into reality was a job for Keith DeLong. Keith’s been in construction for more than two decades, doing both renovations and ground-up work for custom homes, and like Stephen, he has a long working history with Benny; he’s worked with Benny’s surveying company for much of those last two decades.

“One of the attributes I needed in a homebuilder was to be able to trust him,” Benny says, and Keith is the “most trustful, honest guy I’ve ever known.”

Keith considers Benny and Carol’s home one of the greatest challenges of his career, but also one of his great successes. “Benny knew exactly what he wanted to do with the property and where he wanted to situate the main house and the guest house and how he wanted to split the driveways,” Keith recalls. “He had a tremendous vision for that.”

Like Stephen, Keith considered the elevation to be the greatest physical obstacle. “It was really hard to stage materials,” he says. A lot of time had to be committed to excavating and moving dirt around to level out the foundation for the house, as well as laying out long sections of pipe and wiring beneath the hill.

This was only made more difficult by the time; Keith had only just broken ground on the project when the pandemic hit. “We were lucky enough to get the timber,” Carol says, or construction on the frame for the house might have stalled for months.

Despite these obstacles, Keith kept the project on track, finishing the house in mid-2021 after about a year and a half of work. The results, he says, were worth it: “When you get to the end of it, you can go, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this place, it’s awesome.’” The stonework on the house’s exterior and fireplaces, done by Tennessee Stone, is perhaps his favorite feature. He describes the property as a “mountain retreat,” one that emphasizes the beauty of the East Tennessee wilderness around it.

Living the Dream

Heading down the custom troughed driveway, Benny shows me his domain  — the ‘barn.’ Looking at first like a cross between an external garage and a guesthouse, you’d never suspect that the interior belonged to another world, one of handmade country log cabins, complete with a pack of hunting dogs out back and an outhouse door on the bathroom.

“The amount of work that Keith’s team put into building this room was unbelievable, and they just took so much pride in it,” Benny says. He is especially fond of the woodwork in the ‘barn,’ which appears at a glance to be rough unprocessed timber, despite being of a quality on par with the sleek polished floors in the main house — the handiwork of Henson’s Greater Tennessee Flooring.

All of the elements in the house come together to create a cohesive space that gives homage to the family’s blended traditions. Together, they’ve made the house a home.

Benny and Carol have lived in their home for two years now, but they’re already thinking about the future. While some of their kids still call the property home for the time being, in time the couple wants to use what they have to give back to the community.

“My mom had cancer in 2017,” explains Carol, “and she came and stayed with me for a year for treatment at Proton Therapy. And I had just met the most wonderful people there, and the biggest concern was they did not have a place to stay.” So the couple intends to rent out their guesthouse to cancer patients at low rates for the duration of their treatment, so they can focus on their recovery, and not worry about their living situation.

That table on the patio — that relic of a century-old tree — in many ways embodies the heart of the house and the people who call it home. Even though it sprouted into different branches, the roots all come back together as one. This is a family home, meant not just for Benny and Carol, but for all of their kids and the generations that come after.   

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