It’s one of Saint Louis’s most magnificent mansions, a grand estate that stops passersby quite literally in their tracks. The 12,000-square-foot terra-cotta masterpiece has quite the history, and an even more amazing comeback story. One woman’s vision and determination have transformed this special place into a treasure the public can explore and enjoy.
In the early 1900s, Charles Stockstrom — the founder of the Quick Meal Stove Company (later renamed Magic Chef), the largest stove maker in the world at the time — commissioned the opulent home for himself and his young family. He worked closely with architect Ernst Janssen, who’d made a name for himself designing German-influenced homes for Saint Louis’s elite. In 1907, once the plans were drawn up, the builders and craftsmen went to work. The home took an entire year to construct and cost $47,500 — quite a sum in today’s money. While they waited for the home to be completed, the Stockstrom family vacationed abroad. On their trip, they purchased exotic items that they would later use to furnish what is now known as the Magic Chef Mansion. The Stockstroms moved in the following year, 1908.
Nearly 80 years later, Stockstrom’s elderly daughter lived in the mansion alone and wasn’t able to handle the maintenance the grand estate required. By the time she passed away in 1990, much of the home had fallen into terrible disrepair. Portions of ceilings had collapsed, and the plaster was crumbling. The gorgeous terra-cotta facade had started to deteriorate. The once-grand estate desperately needed a rescue. What’s more, many of the home’s original fixtures were sold at a public auction.
Enter Saint Louisan Shelley Donaho. She had long admired the home, and when she heard it was for sale, she purchased it, rolled up her sleeves, and went to work. Donaho and her family lived in the home while they renovated it, painstakingly and lovingly restoring it to its former glory room by room. The work — which included floor refinishing, plaster repair, repainting and stenciling, and lots of cleaning and scouring — yielded gorgeous results, and Donaho and her family discovered a few surprises along the way. A refresh of the parlor walls revealed five beautiful hand-painted panels featuring cherubs depicting each of the five senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. The art had long been hidden by coats of paint, which had to be carefully removed to bring the panels back to their former state.
Other unique features of the estate have been restored and are in use today, much to the delight of visitors. These include the basement’s full-size bowling alley, original to the home, and a saloon that was frequented by the Stockstroms and their friends leading up to — and during — Prohibition. And of course, the home’s gleaming oak paneling and magnificent stained glass panels sparkle throughout.
As the work on the Magic Chef Mansion progressed, Donaho set out to redecorate the home with period fixtures and furniture, and in some cases was fortunate enough to track down the originals. She had attended the public auction of the Magic Chef’s fixtures and taken note of the winners. She then reached out to the buyers, explained the project, and offered to buy back the items so that they could be returned to the Magic Chef Mansion. Among the recovered items were several dazzling and original light fixtures that now grace the first floor. Guests can also see several pieces of furniture that belonged to the Stockstroms, including their chairs, chandeliers, sconces, and even taxidermy. A photo gallery on the second floor features letters and items related to the Stockstrom family’s world travels.
As grand as the main rooms of the Magic Chef Mansion are, guests also marvel at the original kitchen and carriage house, where the household work took place. The kitchen features the original glazed white brick — as well as a few nods to the company that helped build this special place. The 1930s appliances are still in use today, and you can almost imagine the household staff — which included seven people during the home’s heyday — gathering here to prepare the Stockstrom family’s meals. The carriage house, now restored and used as an extra reception space, contains the home’s former laundry facilities. It features an original coal-fired clothes dryer (yes, you read that right!) and offers an interesting peek at the time when families had moved beyond the clothesline but had yet to welcome Kenmores or Whirlpools into their homes.
Once they’d restored the home (though maintenance work is completed on an ongoing basis), Donaho and her family enjoyed entertaining their friends in the grand space. However, they’ve since decided to allow the public to experience this Saint Louis treasure. The Magic Chef Mansion is now open for history buffs, old-home connoisseurs, and the simply curious to come visit. Docents open the home’s massive doors throughout the year for public tours (tickets start at $15, and tours take about 90 minutes), private tours, and private events for up to 75 people. The home has become a popular wedding venue, since its gorgeous interior and lushly landscaped gardens make the perfect backdrop for photos.
“We fixed it up to live here,” said Donaho. “But we’re now happy to welcome others inside to check out this terrific piece of Saint Louis history.”
Keep in mind that at the Magic Chef Mansion, high heels are a no-go, since they can damage the wood flooring. Plan to wear flats or other comfortable shoes when you visit.
Planning a trip to Saint Louis? Check out these 12 things to do (and these 11 hidden gems) in the Gateway to the West. If you have extra time, consider one of these days trips from the city.