Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Shortly after college, and already overextended at the age of 23, I visited my fraternity brother Jimmy in a remarkable Greenwich Village penthouse. "Making money is easy," Jimmy observed, languidly. "Maybe for you," I thought, dispiritedly. It was evidently easy for 16-year-old C.A. Stockstrom, a German-Swedish immigrant who, in 1868, arrived at New York harbor with all of $50 in cash to start a new life in America. By 1908 Stockstrom was a millionaire, able to built this showy German Renaissance palazzo on the south side of St. Louis, MO.
Stockstrom bounced around the country, doing this and that, until 1881, when brother-in-law George Kahle convinced him and his brother Louis to go partners with a St. Louis tinsmith named John Ringen. The new firm, called the Quick Meal Stove Company, boomed throughout the 1880s and '90s, devouring and absorbing competitors from Cleveland to Chicago. In 1901 it renamed itself the American Stove Company and, in 1929, introduced the famous brand name "Magic Chef."
I'm told that early Palm Beachers referred to one another - efficiently and with a refreshing lack of pretense - as "Mr. Bromo-Seltzer," "Mrs. Castoria," etc., etc. The Stockstrom house is now called the Magic Chef Mansion, an example of the same mind set. It remains a single family house, although nowadays it can be rented for functions and tours.
Magic Chef's architect was a prominent St. Louis practitioner named Ernst C. Janssen (1854-1946). Like Stockstrom, he was a German-Swede immigrant with a Germanic aesthetic. Janssen, an 1877 medalist at Karlsruhe University's School of Architecture, subscribed to German architectural periodicals, and embellished his residential commissions with designs from the "Architektonische Rundschau." He did a lot of commercial buildings, particularly breweries, but also produced a weighty (in every sense of the word) portfolio of residential commissions. Of the latter, the Stockstrom house is by far the grandest.
Magic Chef stands on Russell Blvd, adjacent to, but not part of, a late 19th century subdivision called Compton Heights. St. Louis has an unexpected abundance of these private enclaves, entered through sometimes ducal-looking gates and filled with winding lanes, towering trees and handsome - sometimes sumptuous - old houses. Janssen designed fourteen of them in Compton Heights alone. Stockstrom couldn't find a big enough site in Compton Heights, however, so instead, he bought five lots on Russell Blvd. Magic Chef's intact two-acre parcel is today surrounded about equally by other (not quite as) big old houses and newer out-of-scale construction.
I have space for only a few images of the carriage house, which could be a post of its own. That contraption on the laundry room ceiling is a combination fan/light fixture.
A few hyperventilating sources describe Magic Chef as either a "copy" or "influenced by" the castle at Schwerin, Germany. A quick google of Schloss Schwerin reveals no parallels that I could see. Magic Chef is a competent pastiche, if I may risk the oxymoron, of Renaissance ornamentation and 19th century haute bourgeois scale. Despite its European airs, to my eye it's a very American looking house.
Michael Daft and owner Shelley Donoho showed me around. Here's Michael at the front door. Two things became immediately clear as soon as I walked inside. The first was that this is a private house, with wandering dog, owner in shorts, and nary a velvet rope or a gift shop anywhere in sight.
The second thing is Magic Chef's magnificent condition. What a restoration; I mean...wow. Most of the chandeliers and wall sconces either survived "in situ" or were located, purchased, restored and reinstalled by the present owner. The floors and woodwork have all been refinished. Original wall stencils, hidden under layers of paint, have been painstakingly reproduced. A great deal of auctioned-off furniture, like the missing light fixtures, was tracked down, fixed up, and put back where it used to be. There are no desolate corners in this house, even on the 3rd floor. All 30 rooms are in excellent shape. The views below of the drawing room, or parlor as they call it, illustrate Magic Chef's various states over the years.
Adjacent to the drawing room is a music room, whose name appears to derive solely from the presence of an original Victrola. Both Victrola and chandelier are rescue items from the diaspora of Stockstrom furnishings.
As you can see from the below views of the reception room, they might not have got everything back, but they sure got a lot of it.
The image below looks east across the main hall to the dining room. We're detouring left for a look at the library.
Are those original light fixtures, table and chairs? That would be a yes. And the caribou on the wall? Him too.
We'll take a side door into the dining room which, as you can see, required some pretty serious upgrading.
The dining room connects to the breakfast room, which connects to the serving pantry (those are table leaves in the vertical cabinet), which winds up at my favorite room in the house, the kitchen.
Words escape me, other than to say, what else would you expect from the president of Magic Chef? The green neon sign is from the 1930s; the stainless steel sink is a clever replacement of a ruined porcelain original; the vintage Magic Chef stove and two 1930 refrigerators are in daily use.
The conservatory is light on plants and heavy on wildlife.
A back hall paralleling the serving pantry leads to a basement stair, at the foot of which is a bowling alley. We have a bowling alley at Millbrook, although crazed hippies half a century ago demolished our return lane for firewood.
Before going upstairs, we've got a few more stops on the main floor. Underneath the main stair is the quaintly titled "retiring room," a hifalutin term for a combination coat room/closet, probably for female party-goers.
Another hall, starting opposite the foot of the main stairs, leads to the drive outside the carriage house. It passes the curiously labeled play room en route to the only vintage unisex bathroom I've ever seen. The signs look like humorous additions, however, the fixtures appear original. The house has never been anything other than a private residence, so this room is a mystery. Also a mystery is the identity of whoever designed that nutty squeeze flush on the urinal.
Upstairs is a proliferation of period furnished bedrooms.
One connects to a sunporch overlooking the carriage house.
One is a study; another has a shaving sink.
There are fabulous bathrooms, but not an overabundance of them. In that respect, Janssen's second floor plan was behind the times.
Unlike many 3rd floors we've visited, this one has no flakes of peeling paint, no panes of cracked glass, and no piles of fallen plaster.
What it does have, in addition to oddly shaped rooms and an almost eerie immaculateness, is one of those odd third floor ballrooms. Now, call me an east coast provincial if you will, but the notion of clambering up what my late mother would have called a "pootsie" back stair to an architecturally undistinguished room under the eaves - surrounded by servants' rooms, no less - hardly seems appropriate for a ball. It is an arrangement I've seen before, although it continues to mystify me.
Time to head downstairs.
The Stockstroms had 3 children, the last one, a widowed daughter named Ada, died here in 1990. It is remarkable the place wasn't immediately demolished and replaced by some modern horror. Instead, it's been lovingly - not to mention skillfully - restored, inside and out, top to bottom. If ever there was an inspiration for old house restorers, this is it. The link is www.magicchefmansion.com.