By Jim Winnerman Special for post-shipment
The white limestone block exterior of the two-story house gives a clue to its age. The same goes for the metal rings embedded in the stone wall outside the house. The rings, used to secure the reins of a horse, remain ready if someone comes on horseback.
Anyone curious about the real age of the home shared by Duncan Charters and his wife, Cecily Lee, need only step into the front sitting room, where the polished gray stone floor displays the year 1857 etched into the one of the large blocks of stone. On a wall above ground, a metal plaque indicates that the house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior.
“The origin of the stone and the house is attributed to General James Semple, who had purchased all the land in the valley in what was to become the village of Elsah in the mid-1800s. He offered free plots of property if the owner built a house using stone from the nearby Semple quarry. German immigrant Peter Reintges accepted his offer and began construction in 1853.
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“A number of people were building in the village in the 1850s,” says Charters, originally from Scotland. He and his first wife, Patricia, who died in 2008, bought the property in 1998 partly because the charm of the residence reminded him of the stone cottages of Scotland.
City records reveal that after being built as a house, the house was converted into a hotel and saloon, and also served as a post office.
After a succession of owners, it was purchased in 1997 by St. Louis developer and entrepreneur Russell Schwarz from a descendant of the Reintges family. “He basically gutted it down to the original 18-inch-thick stone walls and rebuilt the interior between 1984 and 1986,” says Charters. “When it was reassembled, it had all new appliances, as well as electrical and plumbing systems.”
Charters says the stone walls are so thick and tight that the house retains hot and cold air so well that only the ground floor needs to be heated in the winter and the top floor air-conditioned in the summer.
When Charters first purchased the residence, his original plan was to add bookcases to three walls at one end of the living room. The bookcases were constructed from walnut to match the wood used in an antique secretary purchased earlier from Alton.
“The bookcases were custom built by Jamie Becker who had just returned to Elsah after studying furniture making in the Carolinas,” says Charters. “He also designed the cherry wood dining table and made the matching rattan chairs.”
Furniture was Becker’s first major commercial order. Soon after, he was recognized as one of America’s Top 200 Craftsmen by Early American Life Magazine. Subsequently, one of his pieces was selected for inclusion in the permanent collection of Old American Art at the White House.
“I wish he’d signed off on what he did for us,” Charters laments.
Duncan also hired Maria DeGange to decorate the interior. She had been employed by Frank Patton Interiors in St. Louis and used the colors of a large oriental rug that had been left in the living room as a color guide she used when choosing furniture and wall color.
“For other rooms, she chose wallpaper that I would never have thought of, but after installing it, it matched the character of the house perfectly,” says Charters. “She chose a tartan check pattern for my office based on my Scottish heritage.”
Charters’ office is on the first floor at the front of the house, with the dining room between it and the kitchen. The living room occupies the rest of the first floor. Four bedrooms are on the upper level. Behind the house, a finished apartment is perched above a three-door stone garage built with the same stone as the house, although the year it was built is unknown.
If Peter Reintges were to return, he would be delighted to see how close the footprint and floor plan of the house remains to what it was when he finished it in 1857.
However, a surprise that would amaze Reintges is hidden in the living room ceiling and an 8-foot-tall walnut cabinet also designed and built by Jamie Becker. Behind the cabinet doors is an eclectic mix of up-to-date electronic gadgets that power a variety of modern communications. Push a button and a 5ft x 6ft movie screen silently descends from the ceiling and becomes a giant TV screen.