- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Jon Cavendish climbed to the top of the ladder.

He carried a spotlight with him, hopeful it would provide evidence for a theory he’d been forming for years.

He knew the roof was high. From the road, he could see the A-frame roof line jutting above its Kanawha City neighbors, just a few blocks from where Jon lived. Between its height and the cross built into the structure’s back-facing exterior wall, the apartment building showed signs of a former life, the previous home of a church congregation that lost its ownership when it defaulted on its mortgage during the Great Depression.

Jon wanted to see what the inside looked like, curious if it had a high ceiling to match. If it did, he told the owner, he wanted to buy it.

He had a fine house with a big, open living room for hosting guests. That’s where the musician kept his grand piano, where he and other members of a performing choir met to rehearse. But that room only fit 20 to 25 people comfortably. He wanted something bigger. He wanted a performance space.

He climbed the 6-foot ladder. The building’s owner stood below.

In an upstairs apartment that was being rented, the two found a little scuttle hole in a closet ceiling that led to the attic. Jon’s head poked up through the hole. He shined his spotlight.

“It looked like I had just opened the tomb of Gaza,” Jon said.

From above the drop ceiling, he could see old, beige-colored plaster. A sign that said something like “Jesus Saves” still hung on the wall. And space. He could see lots of space. For 59 years, that space, a once high-ceiling second-floor church sanctuary, had been covered up and forgotten about since the church was sold in 1936 and its new owner chose drop ceilings to build out apartments.

Jon stuck his head back down to the owner.

“I’ll take it,” he told him.

For more than 20 years, Jon has lived in the former church-turned-apartment-building-turned-unique-living-space.

After he made the ceiling discovery and bought the building in April of 1995, he spent the next six months gutting it, removing the apartment’s interior walls, starting all over again.

He turned the downstairs classrooms and bathrooms of the former church into bedrooms with connecting baths. He installed new trim, new flooring, new windows, new everything, really.

“And everything you see was new in 1995,” Jon said to a group of people touring his house. The impromptu tour was held during a fundraiser garden party for the West Virginia International Film Festival.

The August gathering wasn’t the first time Jon and his wife Vicki, both musicians, have opened their home for events.

Since Jon discovered the giant second-floor room that stretches the width of the house with its high A-frame ceiling, he’s turned it into a unique concert hall/living space of sorts. He calls it Cavendish Hall.

For family occasions, there’s a long table in the giant hall, one that people might gather around every Thanksgiving. There’s a pool table and some leather recliners facing Jon’s beloved giant TV.

“If you put on ‘Pearl Harbor’ up here, you’re in the middle of a war,” Jon said of the room’s grand acoustics combined with a nice sound system.

For when Cavendish Hall becomes a performance space, there’s a low, built-in stage that runs the back of the room. Two giant pianos sit on the stage. There are stacked chairs in a corner, chairs that only get pulled out when Vicki has a recital for all of her piano students or when a friend of the couple comes to town to play a concert. They even put tiny blurbs in the Charleston Gazette-Mail to let people know when a concert pianist or a classical operatic singer will be in town.

“That’s all I wanted, was a performance space,” Jon said. “The fact that a house came with it - bonus.”

Jon grew up singing in his church’s choir. A baritone, he studied music, earning a degree in voice at West Virginia University. He thought he’d pursue a career of teaching. But after one year teaching music to middle school-age kids in Morgantown, Jon found a different path: real estate. He’s been working in commercial real estate, helping to found Realcorp, based in Charleston, for the past 44 years.

Despite his career shift, Jon’s love for music always remained.

It’s such a critical part of his life that when he was going through a divorce from his first wife in 1998, Jon put a personal ad in The Washington Post saying “Baritone looking for concert pianist” or “looking for professional accompanist,” Vicki recalled.

She read the ad. She called the number. She didn’t get an answer.

“So I thought ‘Eh,’” Vicki said. “But then my curiosity got the best of me.”

On that second try, Jon answered.

“And we talked every day since then,” she said.

At the time, Vicki was a professor of collaborative piano at James Madison University. In addition to her teaching, she toured, both as a solo pianist and as an accompanist, averaging a concert every week.

The first time Jon ever heard her play, he said, she was accompanying him.

It was their first date. Jon had traveled to see her. And he brought some tough music with him - “Love’s Philosophy” by Roger Quilter.

“She started playing, and I started singing. We were clucking along, and I got tickled,” Jon said.

He stopped singing and started to laugh. The music stopped. Vicki looked at him.

“I’ve sung this song 50 times with 15 different pianists,” Jon told her. “No one’s ever played it this well, and you’re sight-reading.”

“This is what I do,” Vicki responded.

Vicki and Jon were married in 2001. She gained an early retirement from JMU and moved to Charleston. Together, they’ve performed in Cavendish Hall. They even put on an opera one time.

But their days of performing together are slowly fading away.

Jon has stopped singing. And Vicki refuses to play a piano duet with him.

“He falls all over the notes. It drives me crazy. It’s like playing with your worst student,” Vicki said.

The closest brush with performing Jon has these days is singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” at the naturalization ceremonies held every few months at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse.

His singing voice is a muscle, he explained. You don’t use the muscle, you’re not going to be able to hit the high notes.

“Do you ever go to a track meet and see a 68-year-old guy doing the high hurdles?” he said.

“…Voice is a wasting asset. I don’t have it anymore,” he said.

But Jon still has his performance space, the 20-year-old project that he turned into a home. He still has his story of finding the innocuous space, of peering up through ceiling and discovering his dream concert hall.

___

Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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