Neal Thompson and John Wallace love to entertain during the holidays. Each year, the couple hosts a party for more than 100 family and friends. Taking in the festive décor that cheerfully fills their three-story Soulard home, first-time guests would never guess that Neal and John tore the place down to the studs and have spent more than 24 years renovating the home from the ground up.
Built around 1870 by St. Louis architect Nathan D. Allen for stone-quarry owner Henry Brunelle, the home was originally three lots with the home built on an upper corner. The property served as a boarding house from 1910 until the late 1960s when it was damaged by a fire. It was purchased in 1978 for $1,500. A good price considering Henry Brunelle paid $4,000 for it to be built!
Neal and John added their name to the list of owners when they purchased the home in 1994. “It had such good bones,” Neal recalls about what drew them to the property. At the time they moved in, only the first two floors were livable. Neal and John assessed all that needed to be done and started getting their hands dirty. They began with the kitchen and first-floor bathroom and then moved to the mother-in-law suite bath on the second floor. Taking things slower than others might, the couple wanted to ensure they were doing things right. “We learned quickly what we thought we needed to do was not right,” John says. “There were lots of surprises along the way as we opened up walls and began really getting into things.”
With the goal of retaining the character of the original home but bringing it up to modern living, Neal and John transformed the home from its previous 1970s Spanish motif to a comfortable, contemporary mix of old and new, a theme in which they carry over into their holiday décor.
Unique to the area, the grand entrance boasts an expansive 24-foot ceiling. While the couple loved the natural light the extra height brought in, the windows were awkwardly broken into four separate panels. To draw the eye up and play up the height, Neal made two floor-to-ceiling curtains to make the wall appear to be two long windows. The same effect is achieved with the fireplace where brick extends to the ceiling and is framed by white molding to set it off.
Holiday décor in the main living space is kept simple yet elegant. A real tree is trimmed with traditional décor such as shimmering gold ribbon, faux floral leaves and classic red and silver ornaments. On the coffee table, an ornament arrangement plays off the tree. “On the main floor, we like more traditional holiday décor,” Neal explains.
Included in the main living area, the dining room continues the subtle approach to the seasonal décor. The table is exquisitely set for two with fine china topped with a single red star, which is a nod to the Soulard star found on the exterior of all the buildings in the area. On the piano, botanical balls set in clear glass vases are positioned next to shimmering trees. The display brings a modern approach to the otherwise traditional décor, which is a prime example of how the homeowners mix old with new.
Other juxtapositions of styles in the main living space include the old: antique prints of family and St. Louis, the dining room hutch and china which belonged to Neal’s grandmother, hurricane lamps from both of the men’s families and an antique crystal chandelier all which honor the age of the house paired with the new: modern cable lighting that virtually disappears and contemporary furnishings. By mixing the two styles, the couple respects the history of the home while keeping the space liveable. “We always want to make sure our home is comfortable for people visiting,” John says. “We want people to sit and not be afraid they will ruin something.”
A fun contrast to the traditional décor on the first floor, the second-level loft, which overlooks the main-floor living room, is modern and playful. A white tree is swagged in sparkling blue ribbon and dotted with blue, silver and white ornaments. The colorful tree brings a whimsical feeling to the space.
Neal and John transformed the third floor into their own private, master retreat. With no running water and horse hair-and-lath plaster walls, the space was quite the challenge. Previously three rooms, the couple turned the space into a master bedroom, walk-in closet and bath. Using experience in the travel industry, the inspiration behind the design of the master suite is modeled after a luxury hotel suite.
Soft-gray tones, plush fabrics and prints of iconic architectural buildings combine for a contemporary calm space. Understated holiday decorations add just the right amount of jolly to the master suite. A metal train set filled with silver and green ornaments chugs across a console table, while in the sitting area a white tree decked in feathers, masks and glitz and glam pays homage to the holiday Soulard is best known for… Mardi Gras.
An equally as daunting task as the master renovations, repair and restoration of the underground grotto one level below the basement proved to be a hefty undertaking. “The back wall of the grotto had caved in and only part of the basement was accessible,” John explains. “We tuckpointed the brick, added electrical and stamp-dyed the concrete floor. We also had to add the staircase to access the grotto from the basement.”
Used in the 1900s to store ice, today the grotto serves as a bonus entertainment space that is always a conversation starter. The intimate gathering place is a quaint spot for small dinner or cocktail parties. The architectural interest of the curved brick ceiling provides enough interest that holiday décor in the space didn’t need to be over the top. In the back left corner, a snowy setting with friendly-lighted penguins and trees represents the ice that used to be stored in the space.
While Neal and John take ownership of most of the renovation and design decisions, they called in reinforcements to help take their holiday décor to the next level. Four of John’s aunts and one of his cousins came down over three separate weekends to plan and execute their vision. And what a spectacular job they did. Last year the couple's home was featured on the Soulard Parlour Tour, which Neal and John serve on the committee.
Looking back over the past 20 years, Neal and John are proud of the time and attention to detail that went into transforming their home to its present day condition, but they don’t take all of the credit. “We have found good people to do the work, and we stick with them,” Neal says. “The consistency is key.”