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Businessman transforms loft into 1930s-era speakeasy

Businessman transforms loft into 1930s-era speakeasy

An aficionado of the 1930s-era American Mafia, Michael Whitehead claims he was born in the wrong era.

And by the look of his two-bedroom loft, located inconspicuously above Overmountain Outdoors on Tipton Street in downtown Johnson City, he is probably right.

Whitehead and the interior design team of Todd Fields and David Mallory recently finished transforming the second-story flat, which previously served as a dental lab, into one of Johnson City's most extraordinary private-living quarters.

The stairwell at 106 Tipton Street is like a time warp, with the large oak door serving as a portal transporting you back to a 1929 "speakeasy" as soon as you turn its enamel doorknob.

Awaiting inside is a space unlike anything in the world, with each minute detail meticulously designed to reflect the opulence and grandeur of the 1930s criminal underworld.

Together, the crystal chandeliers, velvet drapery, wooden columns and hand-carved cabinetry all fuse together a scene that could double as a movie set for Goodfellas or The Godfather.

Almost every square inch of Whitehead's loft has a story behind it. For example, the foot rail attached to the bar actually originated from an old Johnson City salon that operated during the 1930s, Whitehead said.

A large mahogany gaming table, with brass fittings and a leather-wrapped top, was imported from England, while the leather chairs wrapped in crimson red cowhide were specially designed by Mallory-Fields Interior Design.

Hanging on the walls are reprinted mug shots of famous mobsters, like Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde and "Baby Face" Nelson.

However, hanging most prominently above a $30,000, one-of-a-kind leather Chesterfield sofa—which was so heavy a crane had to fit it through a window—is a large print of Capone, the man who's life history motivated the entire project.

Whitehead even hired artist Dan Shepherd to render a print of Capone standing on the corner of Main Street in downtown, not far from where the picture actually hangs. Shepherd also commissioned another print of Whitehead and his son sitting at a poker table beside a gun-drawn Capone.

Speaking of guns, also hanging on the wall are two authentic Thompson submachine guns and pocket pistols, two firearms most often associated with the 1930s American Mafia.

"The history behind the photographs, the pictures, the guns and the shadowboxes, the history behind all that, that's what truly eliminates it from being like anything else. That's probably what really gets me more than anything," Whitehead said.

Whitehead, owner of Whitehead Construction, Inc., said the project has been four years in the making, and Mallory-Fields Interior Design has worked at least a year on the interior.

"I gave them the thought process of what I wanted everything to look like, and the timeframe I wanted it to look like," Whitehead said.

Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the loft isn't even immediately noticeable.

Whitehead grinned as he searched for a small button concealed inside a bookshelf. Once pressed it, the button releases a magnet and the bookshelf hinges open to reveal the master suite bedroom.

Even the master bathroom is fitted with retro black-and-white tiles and authentic 1930s-era light fixtures to replicate the 20th century Americana style.

Since Capone's father, Gabriele, was a barber, the adjacent room even features two polished chrome barber chairs, with shadowboxes of antique barber tools hanging beside them.

While Fields and Mallory wanted the space to feel as authentic as possible, they didn't want it to be a museum. It features your typical modern appliances and flat screen televisions neatly tucked away.

"Obviously, we didn't choose antiques because lots of times, the condition is not good, the scale is not good (or) they're not sturdy. They're just not conducive to modern life, and this is a space that's meant to be used. It's not like a museum," Mallory said. "We tried to find things that were in the flavor of the period that would still function."

Unfortunately, the space is a private residence and not open to the public. Whitehead said he plans to enjoy the space himself, while hosting company parties and out-of-town clients there.

But, he's also has a similar project in the works: A 1930s--themed restaurant at the corner of Spring Street and State of Franklin Road.

Whitehead said he recently obtained a permit to begin demolition at the future restaurant, and he's keeping his fingers crossed for what he might find.