Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Magic Chef"....(really)

"In the American Stove Company, Mr. C.A. Stockstrom ...has erected an enduring monument to his name. What he wrought in the development of gas cooking appliances will live long after stone monuments have crumbled." Such were the May, 1935, words of the "Lorain-O-Graph," a not disinterested publication of the American Stove Company. Seen above with wife Hedwig is American Stove's first president, Charles A. Stockstrom (1852-1935).

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.

21 comments:

  1. Wonderful job done! I really admire people who restore places to this degree, and make it feel like a home as well.

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  2. Really, really remarkable. I love the wicker furniture in that vintage photo of the drawing room -- big American houses, no matter how formal, were so often full of "middle class" touches.

    Those third floor ballrooms are a bit of a puzzle but were not uncommon even on the East Coast. Scarlett O'Hara had one in the big house that Rhett built for her in post-war Atlanta. It makes sense, space-wise. Why build an entire wing to accommodate a room that got used perhaps once or twice a year when you could just locate it in the attic?

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  3. I've wondered about the attic ballrooms as well. Who has the breath to dance after climbing all those stairs. Perhaps it was a Victorian euphemism for rumpus or "rec" room. Beautiful house that represents a lot of hard work.

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    1. On the subject of ballrooms, I've received number of emails, the most credible of which is from reader Peter Adams:

      Third floor ballrooms - at least in the Midwest - served an entirely different purpose than their far grander first floor cousins. They weren't status symbols or part of a grand social life, but rather were aspirational.

      Generally speaking they were carved out of attic space as an afterthought to serve as a training ground for young adults who were expected to attend an Ivy League college, at which point a knowledge of ballroom etiquette was essential to making acquaintances that might change the course of their lives, particularly through marriage.

      Parents or other adults seldom if ever traipsed up to these ballrooms except to serve as chaperones or provide refreshments. As for the "pootsie" back stairs, I can't imagine the young dancers ever gave them a second thought - at least not until they had been to a ballroom worthy of the name.

      Think of them as the 19th century equivalent of a 1950s rumpus room - a little more highfalutin, perhaps, but not by much.

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    2. I'd say that's right; and it's also true that the decorations would be set up for each individual event--you know, rented potted palms, garlands of flowers, draperies, maybe even some trellis-work. Theme parties. And, yes, this is a monumental restoration. Exemplary!

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  4. What an excellent restoration! Many kudos to the owners. It looks fantastic.

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  5. Can we be serious? The more I saw of this magnificent mansion, the more I realized that this home is a delicious monument to only one thing:

    A nice hot roast beef sandwich. Bring it on.....



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  6. John, such a lovely entry with the grand St Louis baronial manor. Ironically I happen to be in STL staying on Longfellow Blvd this weekend - which runs behind this home. The Magic Chef property has always been fascinating to gaze at from the street and had it not been for the timely feature we'd never know tours are available. It looks like this will be my architectural drink for the weekend!

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  7. Fabulous kitchen and I love that it's lived it.

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  8. Dear John,

    I think you would find this blog entry to be interesting. There once was a grand home in Knoxville that had what was supposed to be an immaculate third floor ballroom with a breathtaking view of the Smoky mountains. I am familiar with this area, as I went to the U. of Tennessee. My dad now lives in the condominium complex that sits where this home once stood. It's heartbreaking that it's no longer there.

    http://knoxvillelostandfound.blogspot.com/2012/05/5709-lyons-view-pike-westcliff.html

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  9. Wicker in the Music Room? Oh dear. Wicker usually appeared when the funds ran out... As for the lozenge shaped window above the entrance, is it convex or a trick of the eye?

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    Replies
    1. Looks convex to me...maybe John knows.

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  10. Uh..the Starbucks decal? Oh well.

    The ladies must like the bathroom arrangement, as the toilet seat is always down.

    I DO hope you will make a post about the carriage house. I'm very curious about all that paraphernalia. I love carriage houses, attics and basements, and any other out of the way spots.

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  11. What a great post and what an admirable restoration job. Wish there were more such people around willing to undertake such devotion and a sense of historic pride to ensure places like this survive into the future. magnificent.

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  13. WHAT A SPECTACULAR RESTORATION! and WOW for the effort to track down so many original things. I noted the MEEKS sofa in one room that was especially beautiful...I will look forward to seeing this house on my next visit to St. Louis.... George T

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  14. Excellent story! Shelley deserves a medal for her restoration work on this wonderful home and carriage house.

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