My husband and I love houses. We love them so much so, in fact, that we’ve purchased ten of them over the years. We buy houses like most people buy shoes, not quite wearing them out before feasting our eye on the next. And whenever we go driving, we always see one or two more we want. But, in spite of this obsession with houses, it’s rare that I get to include one in my calendar.
And that’s too bad. Because St. Louis has some pretty amazing houses. There are the gorgeous Queen Annes of Webster Groves, miles of mid-centuries in Crestwood and U City, the stately Victorians of Lafayette Square, the Arts and Crafts bungalows of south city. Like a box of assorted chocolates, each is more tempting than the last.
Inside, though, every house is a home. And our homes are our castles, safe places to kick off our shoes and forget our troubles. Places where we can zone out, be quiet, find rest.
But what if your home really is a castle? What if the place you live really is that place people are ogling from the outside? Well, if you live at the Magic Chef Mansion, you let them in.
Last weekend, we finally stepped inside the Magic Chef Mansion, a home we’d first learned about in 2019. It was built for the founder of Magic Chef, the world’s largest producer of stoves in the early 1900s. Then in the late 1900s – 1990 to be exact – the mansion was sold to a woman who lived a block or two away. Now people gather at the base of her driveway once a month, and she welcomes them in like friends.
Despite its stunning beauty, the authenticity of its furnishings, and its historical significance, the Magic Chef Mansion feels unpretentious. It is a home, first and foremost, a place with a life and a story that keeps on going. Its owner welcomes you into the foyer herself and chats amiably with you for as long as you care to stay. Docents in every room do the same. You’re simply a guest at your neighbor’s house, and that house just happens to be a castle.
When we lived in Olivette, we were often guests at our neighbors’ houses. One of those neighbors was a man named Frank, an artist I had worked for at the very beginning of my career. I still marvel that I got to work for him – he was a trailblazer among designers – and I still marvel that I got to be his neighbor some years later.
Many a night we stood in Frank’s kitchen, sipping wine as he and his wife made dinner. The kitchen, after all, was the heart of their home. And the Magic Chef range was the heart of their kitchen. You see, Frank had designed ranges for Magic Chef early in his career, which gave him a unique way of approaching graphic art. After his Magic Chef days, he started his own company, employing dozens of young artists (including yours truly) in promotional and dimensional design.
Frank’s home in Olivette was small, but it was definitely his castle, a space to let his creative mind take flight. The house had a bridge that ran over a little brook, and an addition that required its own basement on account of that brook. It was filled with the work of painters, sculptors, and industrial designers. It was once featured in a national magazine.
But for all its quirks and charm, Frank’s house was a home. A place with a life and a story.
I was secretly hoping that my tour of the Magic Chef Mansion might lead me back to Frank. I was hoping to find his prototype range on display with a picture of him as a young artist. But, alas, other than the logo on the kitchen appliances, I found no connection to my old boss. And yet, there was something familiar about stepping into a place so extraordinary and feeling 100% at home. That’s the kind of magic that happens when you’re welcomed into someone else’s castle.
The Magic Chef Mansion is featured in my 2022 A Year in the City calendar. It is also available as a litho and limited-edition archival print. You’ll find all these products at ayearinthecity.com/shop. For more information on the Magic Chef Mansion – or to sign up for a tour – visit magicchefmansion.com. Finally, if you’re interested in Frank’s design, you’ll find a delightful interview with him at https://vimeo.com/23928210.