A New Albany, Ind., home was built by a Smith family, and restored by another Smith.
By Robyn Davis Sekula
Victorian Homes | December 2008
There are some houses that are just particularly well-suited to Christmas. The home of Don Smith and Sid Spear in New Albany, Ind., is one of those.
The brick house is blessed with a large collection of religious-themed paintings and statuary that seem particularly at home during the Yuletide season. The double-parlor’s rich, deep green walls reflect the Christmas tree’s lights, flickering candles and warm fire from the hearth. The home’s generous mantles give plenty of room for garland. Every room receives at least a touch of the holiday spirit, and the house wears it well.
This house has belonged to Don since 1979, although he didn’t move in until 1983, when he had five rooms completed. Sid, a native of Louisville, Ky., didn’t move to New Albany until 2000. However, he was a constant co-worker on the restoration from the beginning. Together, they have crafted it from an almost-abandoned wreck into a tidy, early Victorian house that fits in well with its historic Main Street address. Sid joined Don a few years ago, and their various collections have merged happily. Sid is the aficionado of the religious artwork and icons. Smith, a semi-retired interior designer, has a keen eye for how to pair historic-themed wallpaper and carpets for style and comfort. Though the house is filled from basement to rafters with antiques, it is a house that hosts guests well.
Don and Sid’s home was built for and by Isaac P. Smith (no relation), an early architect and master builder of many of New Albany’s most significant, mid-19th century homes, many of which still stand today. Isaac P. Smith started building his own house shortly after he moved to New Albany in 1847, but it was a slow process. Letters indicate that his wife grew weary of the lack of progress in the construction and took their youngest children back to New Jersey, returning only after he had completed two upstairs rooms in which they could live. The house was finished in about the mid-1850s. The house’s balanced proportions and elaborate interior moldings reflect the early Victorian period when it was built. Isaac P. Smith died in 1888, and his descendants continued to own the property until 1965.
The next owner, although she never lived in the home, was Mrs. Carolyn Williams. Don, a native of New Albany, met her, and began helping her with some projects around the house. Don was a mere teenager at the time, but he had already developed a strong interest in historic architecture and a love for his hometown. When Don was graduating from college, Carolyn Williams offered to sell him the house inexpensively, and she really didn’t want to take no for an answer. Don Smith passed up the first few attempts, but eventually decided to buy the house.
Since he purchased in it 1979, it has been a labor of love for both himself and Sid, restoring it room by room. Previous owners had re-wired the house, but had mostly employed wire molding on top of the plaster walls and ceilings, and had hung duct work for the heating system directly on the ceilings. Smith wanted to replace all of that, and replace the plumbing, and return the house to its more proper, formal décor. When it came time to furnish the home, they largely chose early Victorian, particularly Empire, pieces that fit the house. As the house is balanced in proportion, Smith consciously chose pairs of chairs and tables to mirror the sense of symmetry in the house. “We’ve kept the flavor of the era of the house down here,” Smith says of the first floor.
A tour of the home begins with the stair hall. Smith chose wallpaper with a vertical stripe that emphasizes the room’s lean lines. The staircase is original to the home. A leopard-print carpet is a nod to the Victorians’ love of animal skins, often used in décor. An Empire-period pier table in the stair hall is American, and a mirror hangs above it. Chairs on each side of the table are copies of those at Althorp, Lady Diana’s ancestral home in England.
The formal double parlor is the center of the Christmas activity. Don and Sid position a Christmas tree near the pocket doors that divide the first parlor from the second. A harp and a more modern piano for playing are kept in the second of the two parlors. The harp, an auction purchase, is Irish, and probably dates to about 1820.
In the home’s living room, the theme is Old World style. Block pattern wallpaper in shades of gold sets off the religious paintings and statuary in the room. A leather couch is a comfortable spot for reading a book on a winter afternoon.
The dining room is the home’s showcase, with a French Dufour scenic wallpaper. The paper shows a balustrade and scenes from Paris with French architectural monuments. It is a reproduction of an 1812 French paper. Because of the wallpaper, Don and Sid chose to hang little on the walls in the room to let the paper really show. An Empire sideboard along one wall is a nice fit for the space, and it has a perfect spot for a claw-foot cellaret in the center.
The goal all along way to do right by the house – to restore it appropriately, but also to create a comfortable, practical space for everyday living. It’s a home that greets guests graciously and invites Don and Sid to revisit the luxury of a project well-done, every day. “This is a house that really deserved a good restoration,” Don says. “We’ve taken our time with it for practical reasons, but also to make sure we got it right. For us, finding the right materials for the house and the right furnishings has been a fun pursuit, but we’re also glad to have completed it so we can enjoy the house.”
Away in a manger
According to popular legend, crèches, or nativity scenes, have been part of Christmas décor in homes since 1223. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with first popularizing the concept. The figures are often elaborate and richly detailed, making them nicely compatible with Victorian décor.
Sid Spear amassed his crèche collection from various sources over the decades. He’s bought pieces of similar size, colors and style and put them together to create the manger scene he wanted. The scene has become so large that the only spot for it in the home he shares with Don is the back of the square piano in the double parlor.
If you’d like to make a crèche a part of your décor, there are sources available. To find an antique crèche or the pieces of one, consider seeking out pieces on eBay and in antique stores. Other sources for crèches are as follows.
Fontanini, www.fontaninistore.com, or toll-free, 1-877-848-8300. The store sells religious statuary, including pieces to create a nativity scene. You can start with a Holy Family trio, and add on angels, stable animals, and other pieces.
Christmas Night Inc., www.christmasnightinc.com, 1-888- 775-0010. Christmas Night stocks a large array of nativity sets from small, indoor pieces to large, lifestyle pieces for the outdoors.
Nativitysets.com, www.nativitysets.com, 1-866-370-4432. Precious Moments, Thomas Kinkade and more traditional nativity sets are sold through this site.