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Turning the Osborne House Into the Roberts ResidenceLock Icon

7 min read
New Owners of Osbourne House 130495
Mike and Judy Roberts are bringing new residential life to the house made famous by the Jennings Osborne family and the Christmas lights extravaganza the Osbornes staged. ( Karen E. Segrave)

The sprawling white brick house inside the white-walled compound was once a Little Rock landmark of glowing renown. New ownership is restoring the luster of the former million-dollar residence made famous by Jennings, Mitzi and Breezy Osborne.

Jennings Osborne, who died in 2011, made a fortune in the medical testing business, and spent lavishly on personal pleasures and philanthropy. To many, the former site of traffic-snarling Christmas light displays on Cantrell Road will always be the Osborne home, but the estimated 12,000-SF abode now belongs to Mike and Judy Roberts.

The couple is still on task updating, remodeling and refurbishing the house with an eye on maintaining its original character and retaining some personal flourishes of past owners.

“I’ve always loved the property but never dreamed I’d be living here,” said Judy Roberts, owner of Country Club Flea Market in Sherwood. “We’ve been working on it for two years, and we’re not through yet.”

The chores encompassed substantial electrical and plumbing work, window replacement and installation of a new roof and heating-cooling system. A guest room has replaced the sauna and hot tub in the spacious pool house.

The interior layout is largely a do-over, with eight-foot ceilings giving way to 10- to 15-foot configurations and several walls giving way to a more open floor plan. The pink decor of Breezy Osborne’s childhood playroom has been transformed into a nearly completed showroom for Mike Roberts’ “hot wheels,” his collection of exotic automobiles.

“Now, it’s just a big boy’s playroom,” the retired industrial contractor said.

On current display are Lola, an orange 1974 DeTomaso Pantera crouching in the bow window, and Zsa Zsa, a white 2005 Ford GT trimmed in blue. A red and black 1946 Dodge pickup, dubbed Pappy, is a few feet away with room to spare in the six-car garage. A half-dozen additional collectible autos await relocation.

“We’re car collectors, and where we lived in North Little Rock, we ran out of room for our cars,” said Judy Roberts, bestower of vehicle names. “This gives my husband more room to buy more cars.”

New hobby space is planned to replace the tennis court in the southwest corner of the backyard. The shop garage will be connected by a future extension of the driveway on the east side of the house.

The renovation process has allowed the Roberts family to peel back the years and learn more about the house and how it grew from east to the west and south with new additions. A piece of drywall autographed by a construction worker that was uncovered by remodeling work indicates the oldest part of the house may date to 1956.

“The most enjoyable is discovering the history of the home and how it was built and added onto,” Mike Roberts said.

The former toolshed in the southeast corner of the yard is now remodeled for use as a bee house. The apiary-in-waiting is tied to the gardening opportunities presented by the big backyard.

“I’m excited to get over here and get my hands dirty again,” said Judy Roberts.

The front wall along Cantrell Road has lost its white coating in favor of gibraltar gray. That doesn’t portend a new paint scheme for the home though.

“It will still remain a white house,” said Mike Roberts.

Of late, Roberts has shopped unsuccessfully for windmill palm trees to plant. He hasn’t found any large enough to suit him yet.

New Owners of Osbourne House 130495
Mike and Judy Roberts are a year away from finishing their blend of renovation updates and touches of past owners. ( Karen E. Segrave)
New Owners of Osbourne House 130495
Mike and Judy Roberts are bringing new residential life to the house made famous by the Jennings Osborne family and the Christmas lights extravaganza the Osbornes staged. ( Karen E. Segrave)
New Owners of Osbourne House 130495
Judy Roberts stands next to the east wing’s decorative bathroom bay window. ( Karen E. Segrave)

The Rumor Mill

Community interest in the landmark’s future has been palpable. A few impolite neighbors visiting have offered unsolicited critiques of what the couple is doing with the place.

The most common: You should’ve left the house the way it was when the Osbornes lived here. You shouldn’t have cut down the pine trees in the front yard.

“You should’ve bought the property,” is Mike Roberts’ response.

Misinformed Robinwood residents raised a ruckus on social media with claims the couple was turning the house into a foreign student hostel. That prompted an online rallying cry to retain a lawyer to stop the project.

Judy Roberts was stunned to learn of that rumor. She recounts the ensuing exchange with a ringleader fueling the controversy:

“We are not developing a hostel for foreign students.”

“That’s what the sign in front of your property says.”

“There is no sign out front.”

“Are you sure?”

“I just left the property. There is no such sign. If you want to know what’s going on with my property, just bring me an apple pie. Come on over, knock on my front door and I’ll show you what we’re doing.”

The house bears a 4 Robinwood Drive address despite its location on Cantrell Road.

That poses a confusing challenge for automotive navigation systems.

Judy Roberts has lost count of the deliverymen who have shown up thinking they had arrived at 4 Cantrell Road.

Bringing the point home, a misguided delivery van bearing an 82-inch TV rolls into the driveway while the couple is giving a tour of the property. Best Buy’s Geek Squad is redirected to search for their destination 3.7 miles to the east.

“It sure makes it hard for a pizza delivery,” John Johnson said of the address he once called home.

New Owners of Osbourne House 130495
Room for their growing collection of cars was a big draw for Mike and Judy Roberts to take on their ambitious makeover project in west Little Rock. ( Karen E. Segrave)
New Owners of Osbourne House 130495
The saltwater swimming pool is back in action. ( Karen E. Segrave)
New Owners of Osbourne House 130495
The tennis court is marked as the future home of the car collecting couple’s shop garage. ( Karen E. Segrave)

The House’s History

Mike and Judy Roberts are carrying through what Johnson began when he acquired the property in 2015 through a $240,000 lease-purchase agreement. The petrochemical engineer brought stability to the vacant property after three years of absentee ownership neglect. The residence was valued at $1.5 million on the Pulaski County tax rolls when the Osbornes owned it.

Johnson took possession of a house ravaged by thieves pillaging copper wiring and pipes and vandals breaking their way through rooms and spray-painting graffiti. The disarray continued outside, where the once well-kept 1.8-acre property was allowed to go feral.

“Initially, it was just an investment property for me,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t sure whether to fix it up and sell [it] or live there. It was going to be a substantial job to make it into a modern home.”

During his ownership, Johnson renovated the 2,100-SF space above the garage into his living quarters. He used it as a base camp to begin untangling problems on the property.

Before Johnson arrived, yards and yards of premium carpet had gone bad through months of unchecked humidity while utilities were turned off.

He removed the tainted carpet and ironed out utility issues on a property geared to support the Osbornes’ massive Christmas light show.

“An Entergy crew was on hand to help sort out the electrical system,” Johnson said. “They were all scared of it when they flipped the switch.”

Despite concerns, the power grid held up with no blackouts, brownouts or blown transformers.

A security-savvy friend helped set up a system that allowed Johnson to monitor the property remotely when he was out of town. His job required frequent business travel that bogged down progress on turning the property around.

“I needed to be there for anything to get accomplished,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t able to devote enough time to it because of work.”

When he met Mike and Judy Roberts through a shared relationship at Bank OZK, Johnson found someone like-minded to take up the torch.

“That’s why I sold it to them,” Johnson said of a $339,900 deal that closed in December 2017. “I wanted to find someone who shared the same ideals with me. I think they are good people and respectful people. That was important to me.”

He wanted someone who appreciated the Osbornes’ 35-year history with the property, the longest tenure of any residents who made their home there.

“I was pretty close to Mitzi and Breezy,” Johnson said. “They still had a lot of emotion tied up in the property. It meant a lot to them and a lot to me. I didn’t want to do anything that would offend them. I almost felt like I was living in their home. I have a ton of respect for them and what they went through.”

Jennings and Mitzi Osborne sold Arkansas Research Medical Testing in 2004 for $20.3 million to a company owned by Little Rock financier Warren Stephens. When new leadership mismanaged the company into closing, Osborne sued to recover deferred compensation from the sale, winning a $3 million judgment in 2009 that was reversed by the state Supreme Court in April 2011.

Jennings Osborne died three months later, forcing his widow and daughter to sell off assets, including the house, which was sold for $292,000 in August 2012.

Mike Roberts said work on the home should be completed during the first quarter of 2021. When the job is done will there be a celebration?

“Probably so,” he said with a laugh. “There definitely will be some rejoicing.”

New Owners of Osbourne House 130495 Christmas Lights coffee mug
( Karen E. Segrave)
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