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Welcome to 'The Birdhouse'

Missy and Jay Elliott's home on River Hills Circle is a perfect example of taking something that already exists and creating a comfortable, stylish space that feels custom-built. Built in the mid-'70s, the house was a true product of its time when the Elliotts first laid eyes on it, complete with shag carpeting, cedar paneling and individual rooms designated for main lifestyle functions, such as dining and relaxing, which were closed off from one another.

It definitely needed updating, but the idea of getting a 4,200-square-foot home on three acres of land in booming North Chattanooga was too good to pass up.

"It's a lot of land to take care of," says Missy, who does all the yard work herself.

But the natural surroundings are also a big draw. It's not uncommon to see a wild turkey or two in the yard, she says, as the neighborhood is the stomping grounds for a family of turkeys which often wander over from a nearby farm. "I didn't know the neighborhood was here," Missy says of River Hills, a subdivision located off Hixson Pike just as one enters the 37415 ZIP code. "It feels hidden in the woods, yet it's still so close to downtown." Many of the homes, built in the late '60s and '70s, are still occupied by the original owners, though she says a lot of younger people have been moving in since her family joined the neighborhood in 2005.

The Elliotts hired local architect Eric Myers, executive director of the Chattanooga Design Studio, to redo the entire frame of the house, moving the front door and adding a front patio, Hardie board siding and all new windows — purposefully left without curtains — to take advantage of the wealth of natural light and view of the wooded surroundings.

Missy also enlisted help from her talented family for many of the home's updates. Her sister, interior designer Shelley Meredith, helped map the layout. Her father converted the old screened-in porch to a deck, where the family spends a lot of their time and often entertains. Lined with benches, the deck overlooks the wooded backyard, which could be described as an unofficial bird sanctuary. It's typically teeming with chickadees, and is also home to cardinals, hawks and wrens, plus the occasional turkey. A fellow member of the Riverview Garden Club jokingly refers to the home as "The Birdhouse," Missy says. The backyard also features a box turtle habitat, and a treehouse — also built by her father — for her two sons, now ages 13 and 15.

Inside the Elliotts' home, the shag carpeting on the main floor was replaced with all-new hardwoods, and they knocked down the walls between the kitchen, dining room and formal living room to open up the space. "That way my husband can talk while he's cooking," Missy says. "He's always cooking for lots of people."

The home's front door opens into the main living room, where Missy's brother added white custom shelving around the hearth of the fireplace to replace the cedar paneling. The existing built-in bookshelves were updated with white paint to match. A carpenter and owner of custom Chattanooga cabinet maker Against the Grain, he also added custom woodwork including a white lapboard ceiling in the living room and wainscotting in the kitchen to offer texture and a stylish look, and he made updates to the existing kitchen cabinets as well as adding more custom cabinetry.

The pantry was removed to make way for a breakfast nook in the kitchen, and the homeowners chose to incorporate the island from their old house on Dartmouth Street in North Chattanooga.

The previously unfinished basement was converted to 1,200 square feet of finished space. It includes several bunk beds repurposed from Missy's grandparents' lakehouse, and trundle beds built by Missy's father when the boys were younger. The home is the go-to gathering spot for extended family gatherings, and the room serves as the perfect slumber party space for all the cousins, Missy says. The dining table her father built for the couple when she and Jay were married — since replaced with an extendable table to accommodate those big family dinners — was converted into a ping pong table for the lower-level gathering space. There's also storage space and a ceramics room with a wheel and kiln which Missy, who has a degree in ceramics and sculpture, uses as her workspace.

The creative bug runs in Missy's family, with the pottery pieces, pillows and table runner in the dining room serving as examples of her own handiwork. The dining room table, also a hand-me-down from her grandparents' lakehouse, is surrounded by chairs with cushions in which Missy sewed numbers of significance to the family, such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Almost everything in the home has sentimental value, such as the grand piano that belonged to Missy's grandmother, or the sign that previously hung outside the office of Jay's father, an attorney in Cleveland. Missy's father built the cherry armoire which sits in one corner of the living room for the couple when they were married, and the hutch in the dining room was previously used as a display in the Riverview shop Missy co-owned with her sister, Cynthia Howell Stationery. Even the flowers visible from the kitchen windows have sentimental value — the daylilies are transplants from the yard of the couple's first home on Dartmouth — and the table and bench in the breakfast nook belonged to Jay's grandmother. Still, the Elliotts' home has a collected feel. Every item is there as a result of a conscious decision to find the ideal piece for that particular space.

"Our house is not the perfectly decorated, cookie-cutter house. It's a great collection of all the things that have been us for the past 20 years," Missy says.

Jay, an attorney, and Missy, a spin instructor who also volunteers her time running the athletic department at Normal Park, crafted their space with the intention of making use of every square inch — and making sure it isn't the sort of place where you have to worry about what you can touch and where you're allowed to sit. "We literally live in every bit of this house, inside and out," Missy says. "We wanted everything comfortable and casual."