Simple yet elegantby by Janis Gibson on Dec 7, 2012 • 10:38 am
Holiday visitors to the Ridgefield home of Mary and Tom McInerney are greeted by some 50 red ornaments of varying sizes hanging from the ceiling of the deep porch across the front of the former carriage house, accented with white lights, green topiaries and assorted characters sitting on the child-size benches. “It’s kind of a fairyland, isn’t it? It was totally inspired by our grandchildren; we now have 12,” said Mary, a jovial woman whose sense of joy infuses the family’s home with aesthetic delights.
In addition to the porch, the living and dining rooms are the focus of her holiday decorating, although every room on the lower level gets attention, including the half-bath, where a wooden toy train rests on a shelf over the interior door and a copy of The Night Before Christmas can be found. Artificial ivy accents the French doors that separate the kitchen from the living and dining rooms, and red jingle bells were added a few years ago, much to the delight of the younger grandchildren. Grandchildren ornaments, using head shots of each new grandchild atop a set of clothes made by Mary, hang from the underside of a kitchen cupboard.
Red, white, gold and green are the colors that dominate. While the look varies from year to year with items collected over nearly a half-century — Mary and Tom have been married for 47 years — she calls her decorating style “very eclectic, combining old stuff and new stuff — and cheap stuff. I don’t want things that intimidate people; our house is people friendly and if something gets broken, it’s only a couple of dollars.”
She loves The Christmas Tree Shop — “It is full of gifts; you just have to find them” — and Costco and uses her finds creatively, yet simply and to beautiful effect. An example is the tree-shaped cutting boards she came across a few years ago. “I bought 20 of them, glued blocks from the grandkids’ toys onto them to stand them up, painted them dark green and scatter them about.”
Some line the windowsill of the dining room, complementing a series of houses and small trees she made from scrap lumber about 30 years ago. Hand-cut moons and stars hang from suction cups on the windows above, creating a village effect. A shelf was added across both the living and dining room windows to hold other decorations, and the dining room features a variety of homemade Santa Clauses.
“After initially having them out for a few years, I thought they were stupid and left them in the attic for about 20 years,” she said. “Then I saw the Christmas tree cutting boards and other wooden decorations and brought them out again for my grandchildren.” Pointing to the varying levels of the Santas, she laughed and said, “Everything looks better on a pedestal,” adding she is currently in a “pedestal phase,” placing ornaments atop candlesticks. “I went to Goodwill and bought every brass candlestick they had,” she said.
Red balls rule the living room; once she started that theme, she said, she kept going. In a corner cupboard, which she made many years ago, two shelves are filled with assorted bottles found on the property when her children were young. Mary and Tom purchased the five-acre site overlooking Lake Mamanasco — at least “in the winter, when the leaves are off the trees” — in 1975.
It had been subdivided from the 36-acre Nydeggen estate, a Tudor-style home built circa 1910 by Henry deB Schenck, in 1950 and comprises what had had been the carriage house, the barn and ice house, and the potting shed and greenhouse. It also has the incinerator from the main house — a large stone structure — which remains were dumped on a lower part of the property and where their children dug. The couple’s grandchildren continue to treasure hunt and occasionally add to the collection.
It’s all in the details
Now small ornaments top the bottles, and she carried the theme into the Nativity scene on the lower shelf, “kind of like gazing balls.” Nearby, a portrait of her mother is surrounded by pieces of her china, each decorated with a hanging red ornament topped by a sprig of green.
Mary is also a big fan of wreaths and decorating lamps. Wreaths are placed around the bases, on top of or in the middle of the shades, and if not topped with a wreath, a cluster of balls will do. A gold table cloth covers the large, rectangular living room coffee table; this year she added a cranberry-colored shawl, which is topped with an inexpensive closet door mirror and a couple of low candles.
Because of its uniqueness, she said, the carriage house is fun to decorate. It retains original 1910 windows, deep set with wavy glass, many salvaged from the collapsed greenhouse that was on the property when they acquired it, five weeks after she had given birth to their fifth child. The oldest was nine. The couple moved from “a beautiful brownstone” in Park Slope, Brooklyn, wanting to raise their children in a country environment.
“When I look back at the pictures of the time, I am horrified at the condition of the place; no wonder my mother fainted when she saw it! It had cement floors, no real kitchen, many windows were broken, and vines, squirrels and bees’ nests could be found on the second floor. We had a vision, however, and with hard work and the assistance of talented friends, including one who spent three months replacing and rebuilding the windows, we had an open house a year later,” she said.
“I’m very handy,” she said. “I sewed all of my children’s clothes, and my husband’s suits, for years, then moved onto woodworking, which is similar in terms of cutting a pattern.” One of her sons, also named Tom, got his mom’s DNA and founded McInerney Building & Remodeling of Ridgefield; he did the millwork in the dining room, designed to fit around the couple’s furniture, and included the opening in the wall through which the grandchildren perform puppet shows from the staircase landing on the other side.
Mary also makes use of concrete statuary, including a rabbit on a pedestal in the dining room. The rabbit’s upturned hand generally holds a menu, created in shape and font to mimic the Ridgefield Historical Society plaques that since 1976 have graced both the carriage house and the former ice house/barn building that now serves as a guesthouse.
A large central tree is not among the decorations; rather five smaller lit artificial trees are scattered about, the largest in the corner of the dining room. An elegant, but simple, centerpiece is created by floating cranberries in a shallow dish accented with sprigs of pachysandra and small floating candles. Much of the greenery throughout is clippings from property trees.
Through the years they restored the carriage house and other buildings, but removed the remains of the greenhouse, creating a loving home to which their children and grandchildren, all of whom live within an hour’s drive, frequently return. Mary and Tom host Christmas for their 24-family-member brood, with dinner served in three different eating areas.
The couple loves to entertain and will also host at least two other holiday parties, with groups they gather with monthly.
Mary enjoys doing seasonal decorating. Next up with be her Grandmother’s Tea, which occurs in February or March. No parents are allowed and the boys wear suits, the girls, gloves and dresses; each year she teaches a new manners lesson, and the older children — the oldest is now 15 — teach previous lessons to the younger.
In the fall, they do an all-day pumpkin festival with their children and extended family, and the property is decorated accordingly.