|Michael Skop, in front of his house on Hawthorne Ave./Provided|
by Kara Gebhart Uhl
They say everyone, every place and every thing has a story. It’s an idea that is, at times, loudly represented in the historic Storybook House, at 70 Hawthorne Ave. (If you’ve driven down the street you know the house—it’s the one with the large sculpture out front.) And yet, at times the story is rather quite quietly told—characters, plot twists and scenes becoming more apparent the more you look.
While the home’s architectural features would fit nicely in the pages of any illustrated fairytale, the long-ago-given nickname Storybook House also holds true for the story that is carved, built and plastered into the home’s walls.
Built in 1923 by noted Cincinnati sculptor Julian Bechtold as a summer home, the house featured wide open doors and spaces, no insulation and large studio space. Bechtold spent years building the house and if you look closely you can see the artist’s story in the ceilings, and on the interior and exterior walls. Moments in time, icons and objects were incorporated into the house as carvings, mostly—scorpions, flies, bugs, a turtle that once crossed Bechtold’s path, an angel shackled over the fireplace. Bechtold took the wide wooden frame above the front stained glass window and carved pictures of the tools he used to build the house. The entrance features a relief that depicts the story of life—birth, falling in love, giving birth, and then those children growing up to have children of their own. The solarium tells the story of the drought of 1962.
In the late 1960s/early 1970s another artist, Michael Skop, was teaching at Southern Connecticut State College. A native of Cleveland, Skop studied sculpture with Ivan Mestrovic (a pupil of Rodin) at Syracuse University. Skop completed his post-graduate work at Notre Dame in 1958, and went on to study sculpture at the Danish Royal Art Academy in Copenhagen. In 1960 he studied at University of Perugia in Italy on a Fulbright Grant, and set up a studio in Florence. His work took him to Austria, Yugoslavia, Germany, France and Greece—he studied Rodin, Bourdell and Despeau, and completed many sculptures commissioned for clients, and purchased by private collectors and institutions in Sweden, Denmark, Florence and Paris. Skop also taught extensively, and it was while he was teaching at Southern Connecticut State College when his friend showed him the newspaper article advertising a free home to an artist.
The home was 70 Hawthorne Ave., in Fort Thomas.
Julian Bechtold’s sister, Laura, was living in the house. Bechtold, who died in 1955, asked Laura that, during her dying days, she give the house to an artist to keep its legacy alive.
Skop applied, interviewed and was accepted. He and his family moved to the Storybook House and took care of Laura, who simply became a member of the family, until she died. Zesha Skop, Michael’s daughter, considered Laura a grandmother.
True to his word Michael Skop, whose son, Damien, calls a renaissance man, immediately began working on the house, expanding it, building cabinets for it, insulating it, creating in it and constructing a large, beautiful studio for students to work. That was the beginning of Studio 70, an art studio with an open-door policy for artists.
Michael, who died in 2009 at the age of 76, and his wife, Kathy Skop, the former fine arts teacher at Highlands High School for 32 years, had four children. Kathy now lives in Florence. Son Damien is a 3D graphic designer who, after living in New York and China, moved back to Fort Thomas. He purchased 70 Hawthorne in 2012 with the intent of bringing it back to its former glory—by this time the house was in such disrepair his inspector, without even beginning the inspection, suggested he not buy it.
Damien and his sister Zesha, who also lives on Hawthorne a couple houses down and works at Saatchi & Saatchi in Cincinnati, took me on a tour of the house. Damien has taken great pains to modernize and repair the home while respecting his father’s and Bechtold’s artistic touches. The old studio features shelving piled with sculptures, rolled lectures, framed artwork and a potter’s wheel with a 500-pound stone. Zesha talks about the artist’s commune that was once their house, with students working every day and the basement filled with a kitchen for the students, and bunks and mats separated by curtains. She talks of the always-available lessons in art and philosophy just by walking downstairs.
Damien walks us to the outdoor terrace where the students used to eat, surrounded by Michael’s rose garden and sculptures. The terrace path contains stones inscribed with quotes from famous artists, such as Picasso. I note the falling-down chicken coop and they tell me to look up at the chimney and there I see a relief of a chicken, completed when the chicken coop was built—everywhere there is a story, and everywhere there is art.
Damien has transformed Bechtold’s former studio into an open living space. The arched ceilings and walls have been painted white. Large wooden beams cross the ceiling and the furniture is new. Damien has added a new roof, is in the middle of retiling the upstairs bathroom and has big plans for the kitchen. Zesha has been working the surrounding land (the property sits on eight acres) creating a community garden. Those who would like to work—and benefit—from the garden can find information on Facebook: Simply search “Studio 70 Garden: Fort Thomas Community Garden Project.” Signs of work and labor are everywhere—Damien calls it a labor of love.
Ultimately, though, Damien hopes to fix up his father’s grand studio, once again creating an open space for students to create, continuing Bechtold’s legacy, his father’s legacy and the legacy of a house that most certainly has more stories waiting to be told.