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Head in the Clouds

Nicholas County resident enjoys his oasis atop a cliff

Slideshow Multimedia CLICK HERE to take a tour through Roy's cliff house.
Take a tour through Roy’s cliff house.

The life of
Roy E. Russell:

Born in Richwood, W.Va. on Dec. 31, 1926.

He and his five living siblings all have three-letter names: Joy, Doy, Eva, Ina and Ola.

Graduated from Richwood High School in 1943.

Enrolled at West Virginia University Institute of Technology in Montgomery, W. Va.

Drafted into the Army and spent 11 months in Japan.

Finished and obtained his degree in biology and physical science from WVU Institute of Technology.

Worked in Charleston as a lab technician at the West Virginia Department of Health for eight years.

Found a new hobby and passion when he enrolled in an evening adult education painting class in Charleston.

Promoted and relocated to Alexandria, Va., where he lived for 21 years.

Never received his driver’s license and instead used public transportation all of his life.

Began pouring the foundation in 1974 and lived with his mother during construction.

Retired in 1978 and moved back to Fenwick with his family.

Completed his home in 1983.

Published a book in 1987 entitled “Life, Mind, and Laughter: A Theory of Laughter.”



By Elaine McMillion and Kendal Montgomery

When Roy E. Russell was a child, two rock cliffs on Fenwick Mountain served as his playground. As a young adult, Russell left the mountain. However, in his 40s, he began to crave the solitude of his childhood home.

In 1974, he purchased the familiar piece of land from his Aunt Stella, and after surveying the six-and-a-half acres of property, he chose the cliffs as the location for his home.

“It’s up out of the way,” 82-year-old Russell said as he stood outside on the snow-covered clifftop patio. “You just see this expansive nothing here. You’re not crowded in.”

With no architectural experience, Russell made many models and blueprints before deciding on a two-story layout, featuring the cliff patio, a library, a darkroom, two living rooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms and a cellar.

“Finally I just had to put something together,” Russell said. “You just look at something and you know what has to be done and you do it. I tell everybody I learned more about math building a house than I ever did in school.”

Until his retirement in 1978, Russell used weekends and vacations to work on his house. Building on the cliff was a challenge.

The property was not easily accessible. He had to bring in bulldozers to clear trees and large rocks in order to build a road leading to the site, which he said was his biggest feat.

“I don’t think I ever got to the point where I said ‘This is a bad idea, I’m just going to stop.’ You get discouraged maybe for a little while. It was slow,” Russell said.

After nine years, Russell’s creation was completed.

But he still doesn’t know how much it cost to build his unique dwelling.

“I put all the receipts in a shoebox,” Russell said. “I never did bother to add it up. But I did it as cheap as I could.”

Russell said living on the cliff is peaceful, except for the occasional wildlife.


“One day a little bear came pushing on the door there,” Roy said pointing at his front door located near the kitchen. “I yelled at him. I figured he would come on through if he pushed hard enough.”

Although Russell lives alone, he entertains family and friends twice a year for the Fourth of July and an “Octoberfest” that celebrates his home’s view of the fall foliage. To brave cold winters, Russell heats his house entirely with firewood.

A hidden door connects his cellar woodpile to the stove in the living room.

He spends winters downstairs, keeping the doors leading to the upstairs closed, while the fire crackles on the first floor.

In case of water shortages or emergencies, Russell keeps jugs of water in reserve in his cellar.

“The water tower is almost at the same height as the house,” Russell said. “So when the pump quits working, I quit getting water. It all just goes back down the hill. In the faucet you can hear it sucking in.”

Living on a cliff may appear precarious, but Roy has faith in his foundation.

“The rock has been here a long time, a lot longer than I have,” Russell said. “And I figure it will be here after I’m gone.“

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