An Old Treasure, Freshly Fabulous
Written By Joan Lerch
Photographed By Alise O’Brien
After 126 years of formal splendor, it took only one year to recreate this Italian Renaissance beauty as a superb family home for 2019 and beyond. And though it may look imposing, an exquisitely detailed renovation has created interiors as warm and welcoming as the lady of the house. Recalling the first time she walked into the impressive entrance hall, she says the three spectacular windows of curved stained-glass on the staircase landing “closed the deal” for the future homeowner and her husband.
“That was it!” she recalls with a smile. “We walked in the door and we just knew.”
The childhood home of Lady Edwine Peek, a St. Louis debutante who married an English baronet, the house had classic bones and tremendous potential, but it would take a visionary team from St. Louis architecture and design firm Mitchell Wall to transform the 19th century grande dame into a 21st-century haven for an active family who love to entertain. Architect Thomas Wall and interior designer Rachael Dolan recreated the house from the inside out and the ground up. Wall says the comprehensive scope of the project was unique in the neighborhood of palatial homes.
“We’ve worked on a number of these homes,” he says. “And most of the time people do a new kitchen, or perhaps a new master suite. This was an amazing opportunity because we scraped everything.” He explains that the only part of the house that remained untouched was the magnificent main staircase and large upper floor landing, designed for the original owner to make political speeches during his anticipated campaign for governor.
Built to offer guests a gracious welcome, the first-floor is warmed by an inglenook (or “snug room”) with cozy built-in benches on either side of an elaborately carved fireplace. Here, visitors could sit in comfort while they waited to see the gentleman homeowner, whose office was a few steps away behind pocket doors. Today, that office is “her” study, where the new homeowner has a view of two fireplaces from her leather-topped desk. Upstairs, her husband’s corner study features the same southern exposure, as well as access to a sunny balcony.
With entertaining at the top of their wish list, the couple knew this house had the layout and flow they wanted for grand-scale parties, but Wall understood that the house was also a family home, with different parameters. “That was the design intent, to give them a ‘home within a home,’ — a kitchen, hearth room, and master suite with an interconnectivity between them as their primary living area. The goal was to keep that ‘capsule of intimacy’ in one area while developing other spaces for entertaining.”
One of the most extensively reworked spaces is the fabulous new kitchen and adjoining hearth room, fashioned from what was once a hallway and three small rooms. At one end, cherished crystal and china are showcased in custom cabinetry, and gleaming copper cookware becomes art, displayed on the wall built to conceal an old chimney. At the opposite end, a wide-screen TV above the curved fireplace is perfect for enjoying movie night from tufted leather sofas, and a dramatic beamed ceiling visually unites the two spaces.
With parties a priority, a separate, out-of-sight catering kitchen was designed to be closed off from guests. When asked which kitchen her husband (who loves to cook) prefers, the homeowner said, smiling, “Unfortunately, he uses both!”
Both kitchens offer every modern convenience, while maintaining an ambiance perfectly at ease with the historic structure. “This careful balance is critical,” Wall explains. “This house was built for the World’s Fair, and it was important to maintain that history while incorporating the amenities today’s family is used to having.” One way to accomplish this, he says, is by modifying contemporary materials and styles to blend seamlessly with the traditional presentation.
The designer concurs. “It’s all about the pieces of the puzzle coming together that tie back to the character of the home,” she explains. “You have to be respectful of the history, but with a twist that reflects the client.” And in the end? “Seeing the details come to life is a reminder that all the planning is totally worth it!” (And historic details can be reimagined with one-of-a-kind flair, like the walk-in safe now outfitted as a temperature-controlled wine closet behind the original vault door.)
The wine vault is not the only secret tucked away behind an interesting door. Next to the back staircase, a mirrored door opens to the original manual elevator, hand-operated by a large iron wheel in the basement. The elevator was ideal for transporting guests to the third-floor ballroom. (It would have been unthinkable for ladies to trudge up two long flights of stairs in a voluminous ball gown!) Still in working order, it served a modern and practical purpose. During construction, the crew from PK Construction, led by owner Troy Duncan, found it handy for moving materials from basement to ballroom.
The large second floor landing is illuminated by a series of original wall lamps, retrofitted to electric from gas. Charming and romantic, they each have dainty pull chains. While this avoided the need for switch plates, it does present a tiny challenge, Wall explains. “Each one has to be turned on or off separately, which was fine when you had staff to do it!”
The homeowner wanted a place for her parents when they visit from overseas, so Wall reconfigured rooms in the northwest corner to create a luxurious 3-room suite. Describing the area’s original layout and the challenges involved, he says “Back when these homes were built, people did not own the amount of clothes we do today, so very few bedrooms had closets. This one did, but it was small, and there was also a utility closet on the opposite wall. We blew it all out to give them a walk-in closet.”
Describing the discovery process as “forensic architecture,” he says that many spaces had been adapted over the years. “You find where things are modified— for example, a soffit added to original walls for air-conditioning ductwork. You either work that into the overall concept smoothly, or try to eliminate it all together to get back to the original state.” Layout can offer clues to the original purpose, he explains. “The new catering kitchen? That space was probably the house manager’s office originally, because it’s close to the kitchen and the back door was convenient for deliveries.”
Some original details are still functional and even coveted. Throughout the home, carefully constructed shutters are designed to fold back on to themselves, completely disappearing into the window frame. “It’s a brilliant, clever design that some clients have asked for in their own homes,” Wall says. “But it can’t be done. It would be prohibitively expensive to recreate that craftsmanship.”
The second floor also includes a new master suite that transcends superlatives. Centered at the front of the home, it features a separate walk-in closet for each homeowner, as well as separate (and superb) bathrooms. The heart of the suite is the master bedroom, where the homeowners can relax by the fire and enjoy a tree-top view from graceful bowed windows. (And in a thoughtful bit of floor plan design, the husband’s private study is connected to his walk-through closet and bath.)
Up on the third floor (accessed only by a rear staircase or the elevator) the owners’ teenage son has a private suite of his own, with bedroom, bath and a room for entertaining friends. The stunning black-and-white bath, with concealed mirrored cabinets and a walk-in closet, is the jewel of the suite. Like Wall says, “There’s no shortage of really great bathrooms in this house!”
While the first and second floors are a masterpiece of detail and design, it is the third floor ballroom that is truly worthy of the term “jaw-dropping.” The homeowners told Wall they wanted a British pub—a reference to the first time they met in London. (Although they actually met in a museum, but “ended up in a pub,” as the wife explains with a mischievous smile.)
The new British pub spans the width of the house and easily hosts 100 guests (or more) with room left over. The architect says the home’s ballroom is the largest one he’s ever seen, and the pub’s third-floor location sets it apart. “You’ll see rooms styled like this, but they are usually in the basement. You never have a room like this on the third floor, with natural light.”
Several of the roofline windows are set in arched alcoves, complete with upholstered window seats. They’re cozy and inviting, but for the genuine pub experience, it’s impossible to resist the magnificent custom-crafted bar. No detail has been overlooked, including two sets of batwing doors and stained glass lighting. The stunning structure is the work of Wall’s favorite cabinet maker, Derek Centorbi. “He does brilliant work!”
More than just a “pretty face,” the bar has British beer on tap and plenty of leather barstools with good views of the dual televisions. Across the room, an old player piano provides a pub-worthy soundtrack, and even the loo is “flush” with authentic British details.
From the front vestibule to the top-floor billiard table, this grand old dowager is still splendid, but now with a relaxed and modern vibe perfect for a new century. Even the dignified Lady Peek would raise a glass and cheer “Well done!”