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A River Oaks French Country Christmas

Bright red Christmas bows and big green wreaths at this home’s entrance announce the season.

Biennially at Christmas time, Houstonians are allowed a rare treat: an intimate glimpse into some of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods and most luxurious homes showcasing the best in interior, floral and holiday-inspired design ideas all with a philanthropic twist. A Bayou City tradition since 1941, the Kappa Holiday Pilgrimage includes a tour of four homes in River Oaks and Tanglewood, with proceeds from the tour (more than $2.5 million since 1976) going to a significant number of large and small charities.

The 2010 Pilgrimage raised $270,000 for deserving recipients who have utilized the funds for improving programs, facilities and equipment and helped thousands of Houstonians in need. Beyond the charitable benefits of the tour, visitors to each of the amazing residences glean a plethora of holiday decorating ideas which will no doubt be duplicated this Christmas in homes all over town.

The Moncrief home in River Oaks, riveting in its presentation and inspiring in its holiday decor, immediately transported visitors to the French countryside. Drawing on her 34 years’ experience as a realtor, the homeowner and her late husband refined their ideas and collected treasures for years before actually building their dream home, which is constructed on the same lot where the family’s previous home of 14 years once stood. The new domicile was completed in 2007 and was designed around a courtyard comprised of a spacious outdoor living area and pool, which is the heart of the home and makes living and entertaining easy and enjoyable.

Upon approach, visitors enter the property through a French wrought-iron gate equipped with antique bronze shells and massive limestone columns, also from France. The exterior of the home includes hand-made Old Mississippi bricks, a massive wooden front door copied from an antique, a French limestone entry arch and a window and door surrounds made of Texas limestone. For the Pilgrimage, the arch is garlanded with bright red and green apples and huge red bows adding bright contrast and natural appeal.

Inside the entry, guests encounter an antique trumeau and an 18th century carriage lamp chandelier, both of which offer another layer of authenticity to the holiday effects all around. Additionally gracing the home’s interior are French limestone floors and stair tread, cool plaster walls, soaring 11-foot ceilings, and hand-beveled wide plank walnut and 200-year-old reclaimed oak flooring.

From the gallery of the home, matching chandeliers in the groin vaults (reclaimed from Doris Duke’s New York townhome) are visible, along with a large rock crystal chandelier which hangs in the stairway. Four antique prints each depicting a scheme from a different Shakespearean play hang dramatically at the landing.

Down the wide stairway guests find a subterranean wine cellar. Antique French tile flooring and a pair of antique altar candelabra embellish the tasting room. The focus of the 1,200-bottle wine storage room is Texas artist Kyle Polvin’s painting of the home, set in the Napa vineyard owned by family friends. Ceiling lights in the cellar are from Murano, Italy, and the tasting room table is an antique French wine table. The sideboard and China cabinet were the owner’s grandmother’s, and the antique French grape harvest bucket on the wall validates to the overall aesthetic of this distinctive space.

In the living room where sits the home’s largest Christmas tree, the limestone fireplace from France is beautifully bedecked for the season with angels watching over the scene and creamy whites and pale lime greens amid the traditional garland. A pair of sconces from the Rice Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom and a circa 1800 Secretary are notable pieces.

A look inside the dining room of this extraordinary dwelling reveals a stunning vignette. Bird sconces from Italy illuminate hand-painted, custom designed DeGournay wallpaper. Creamy whites and pale lime greens again echo the softness of the season and underscore the elegance. The use of pale hydrangeas and Christmas lilies blends the traditional with the unexpected. The twinkling chandelier adds glimmer to the gold in the Royal Crown Derby china and while capturing the gleam of the Baccarat Capri crystal.

The kitchen, breakfast room and den flow seamlessly creating a family space, which at this time of year is heavily decorated with holly, mistletoe and Christmas wreaths, not to mention the savory seasonal snacks. Cookies, nuts and fruit become decorous in their decadence, and guests are hard-pressed not to grab a morsel or two. The antique fire plate behind the cooktop beautifully backdrops the scene. The dining table in the breakfast area belonged to the owner’s grandmother, and the homeowner’s late husband designed the magnificent carved wood fireplace that is the focal point of the family room, showcasing the family’s collection of Christmas stockings. Just outside the west window is a French limestone fountain which so fittingly depicts Bacchus, the god of fun and merriment.

Everyone who worked on this holiday home and visitors alike agree: the natural and unique arrangements, interwoven among a select number of traditional collections on display throughout the home, extravagantly complemented the homeowner’s everyday décor, which any designer will tell you is the trick to creating an amazing design scheme for the holidays. Guests walked away with many holiday ideas that will be incorporated into their homes this year.
Planning has already begun on the 2012 Holiday Pilgrimage, traditionally held on the first weekend in December in even-numbered years. Mark your calendars! The 2012 Pilgrimage Home Tour and Preview Party dates are Nov. 30 — Dec. 2, 2012. Cynthia Urquhart and Katie Thompson are 2012 Pilgrimage chairs.

To get involved or find out more information about Holiday Pilgrimage, contact Kappa Alumni Volunteers at 713-871-0734 or pilgrimagevolunteerchair@gmail.com.

Text: Cheryl Alexander
Photography: Petr Poliak
Floral Design: Jerry Mason, Mason’s Flowers
Builder: Andy Abercrombie, Abercrombie Custom Homes
Architect: Bob Wetmore, Cornerstone Architects (Austin)
Decorator: Jane Osborne, A Feathered Nest
Landscape Design: Dennis Wright, Ruckel Dillon Wright & Associates

As Christmas angels declare “Peace on Earth,” a pleasant fusion of spiky pine garland with soft creamy bows and sweet hydrangea blossoms adorns the mantle.

A closer look at the arch above the front door reveals an interesting and festive twist: red and green apple garland.

The expansive 11-foot ceiling in the living room allows ample space for this tall, elegant Christmas tree and its angel topper. Graceful greenery sweeps across the French limestone fireplace, where Christmas angels hold topiary staffs and beautiful creamy bows soften the garland.

A myriad collection of sparkling iconic Christmas ornaments and tiny twinkling lights decorate the main holiday tree in the formal living room.

The holiday hydrangeas throughout the home unite the home’s festive theme and give a pleasant, unique twist on more traditional Christmas décor.

The stair rail is brought simply into the season with Christmas greenery, a frosty ribbon enhanced with tiny white lights and some lime green accents.

The dining room features hand-painted custom DeGournay silk wallpaper from London, Italian glass sconces and a delicate, yet commanding, crystal chandelier.

This regal Christmas table is set for royalty. The China is Asian Rose by Royal Crown Derby; the crystal, Capri by Baccarat and the place cards of pure dark chocolate dusted with powdered sugar: as delectable as it is delightful.

Over-stuffed plaid and striped furniture in the family room offers family and friends a relaxing place to sit and visit over warm cups of holiday wassail. Salvaged pine beams and plaster walls add an even more comfortable feel to the space. In the background, the French limestone fountain just outside depicts Bacchus, the god of fun and merriment.

The fireplace in the family room, designed by the homeowner’s late husband, boasts a plethora of stockings for Santa to fill. In the foreground, the apple topiary adds even more seasonal fun.

Kris Kringle holds the place cards at the breakfast table

The breakfast room, though more simply decorated, maintains its festive flair with bright red plates, a burst of ruby red mistletoe as the centerpiece and the uncomplicated wreath in the window.

The abundance of the holidays can always be found in the kitchen where even the light fixture is heavily ornamented. Aside from the presentation of holiday treats on the island, a tall Christmas tree made of nuts and topped with a big red bow enhances the lavish seasonal décor.

No Christmas party is complete without Christmas cookies!

wp-content/uploads/2012/01/mf-Benson_MG_1586.jpg”>The home has unmistakable curbside appeal with a French influence[/caption]

When Cary and Veronica Benson decided to move from North Carolina, they set their sights on The Woodlands. Relatives lived within close proximity to the community. Cary, former part-owner of American Leather furniture company, was venturing into the next step of his career. And the eldest of their three children was about to start high school.

“It seemed like the right time if we were going to move,” says Cary, now president of Palliser Furniture.

So the couple spent a whirlwind weekend searching for that perfect home. On the second day, they found it, a French-inspired curbside beauty in the gated community of Carlton Woods.

They were drawn to its architectural detail, the groin and barrel vault ceilings and spacious yet cozy feel. And they particularly liked its layout with a private downstairs guest bedroom suite to one side of the house and master suite on the other. “It was perfect for company,” says Veronica. “It just felt right. And we loved the clean lines. It isn’t an overly ornate house. It fit us.”

The family of five has been happily settled into this 7,800-square-foot house for four years. Their eldest child is now a freshman in college. But the love affair with the home continues. “It’s been totally enjoyable living here,” says Veronica who has put her stamp on the décor.

The Bensons bought the home during the early stages of construction. The framing was up, but all the decisions on materials and surfaces were yet to be made. This freed them to make the house truly their own.

A particular space off the entry hall caught Cary’s eye — a circular wine vault. “That was a huge selling point for Cary!” says Veronica. “He loved that and had the chance to finish it out the way he wanted.” Wide-plank, hand-scraped hickory wood floors are underfoot. And the room’s detailing is finished out much like that at Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille in The Woodlands.

“I admired the wine room at Perry’s. So we had the guy who was project manager over construction go over there and check things out!” recalls Cary. “I think it turned out really nice.”

A funny aside to the wine room décor — Veronica ordered a large wine barrel for $65 but shipping costs far exceeded that price. “Not too mention another $100 we paid a carpenter to cut it in half so it would fit in the room! Then he had to put it back together,” she says, laughing. In the end, the wine barrel gives the space a most authentic feel.

Indeed, there are a lot of features to like in this home. It boasts five bedrooms and a seven-car garage. “Cary is a total car buff…. we added another garage,” says Veronica. In doing so, they had the opportunity to put an exercise room above the new garage, as well as an office for Cary.

“We can’t say we don’t have enough rooms, that’s for sure,” says Veronica. The large library across from the master bedroom suite serves as homework central during the school year. The master bedroom suite is lovely with matching silk draperies and bedding made by Windows of Opportunity (all draperies in the home furnished by this company). A sitting area with fireplace makes this space especially cozy.

The main corridor of the abode is particularly striking with a sweep of tumbled marble floors that carry through the home. Enter the front door and the dining room sits to the right with formal living situated toward the back of the home with scenic views of the backyard and pool. And all around are unique architectural details in the form of groin vault ceilings and wooden beams.

“We flipped the front of the house,” Veronica explains. “Originally the living area was in the front and the dining was in the back, but we thought ‘why waste that beautiful view?’ If we’re hanging out in the living room, we want to take advantage of that!”

The dining room is a vision in table and chairs from Baker’s Far East Collection. On the far wall is something dear to Veronica — a traditionally accented chinoiserie furniture piece that Cary gave her. “He knew I loved it! I’d seen it and wanted it so badly!” she recalls. “We’d seen it at an antique shop and he surprised me with it.”

A casual, comfortable decorating style — combining leather and upholstered pieces with tables of rich wood — seem to fit this house. Cary’s lengthy career in the furniture business makes him infinitely qualified to recite the list of furnishings in this home. American Leather furniture is found throughout as well as pieces from Century, Bernhardt, Baker, Lee Industries and Hickory Chair.

Veronica’s keen eye is behind the clean-lined, warm décor. And she sought out artwork that would complement the surroundings. A marsh scene by Houston artist Kirk Mullenax (purchased at the Bayou City Arts Festival) hangs prominently on a large wall in the living room. And she commissioned local artist Lulu Burkett to do a martini painting for the home’s wet bar, an eclectic space with leather tile floors. Olive “wall balls” purchased at the Bayou City Arts Festival hang, appropriately, next to this painting.

Around the corner from the wet bar the house angles toward the kitchen, breakfast room and den. This is no cookie-cutter kitchen. The island bar sits at an angle giving the room new perspective. Beautiful Lagos Azul stone countertops mix with wooden surfaces on the island. Creamy cabinets contrast with this visual scene. A farmhouse sink adds charm with a bank of large windows allowing for views while working. Soft pendant lights were designed by Veronica, then custom-made. She purchased the fabric and sent it off to the fabricator, asking that they craft cylindrical pendants. “I knew I wouldn’t find them any other way,” she says.

The breakfast room in custom red paint is a cheery offshoot here, adorned with beautiful slipcovered chairs by Lee Industries that sit around a beefy table found in High Point, NC. The den is amazingly cozy, tucked into the furthest angle of the house that permits another view of the back yard and pool.

A covered back porch with summer kitchen offers another livable space. A large screen comes down with the click of a remote control, protecting those outside from mosquitoes and the elements. “We are out there a lot,” says Veronica. “It’s like another room to the house.”

In addition to the exercise room and office upstairs, there are three bedrooms with baths, a home theater and a gameroom.

The Bensons had fun putting the touches on this home, though looking back they wonder how they did it all. “We were actually building a vacation home in North Carolina at the same time,” says Veronica. “Who does that? It was insane! A very challenging time!”

But worth it.

“We love both places,” she says. “And this house suits us well.”

The Bensons have the best of both worlds on this back porch with a large screen that can separate them from the elements with the click of a remote. “Great during mosquito season,” says Veronica. Furniture by Lane Venture.

In the living room, handsome leather furniture from American Leather (forefront) mingles nicely with a beautiful Century sofa. Chairs, also from Century, flank a marsh scene painting by artist Kirk Mullenax (purchased at the Bayou City Arts Festival.) A bank of windows gives clear view to a beautiful back yard.

The kitchen is functional as well as beautiful in a variety of materials. Lagos Azul stone countertops contrast nicely with a wood countertop at the island bar. Tumbled marble flooring and creamy linen cabinets complete the look.

The home is warm and open with a casual, yet elegant feel that fits this family of five. Brick detailing meshes well with tumbled marble floors with transition pieces in Lagos Azul stone. Beams overhead add to a rustic, organic feel. The rounded wet bar to the side leads to the back of the house where kitchen and den meet

The dining room and living room sit opposite of each other along this open hallway. The home’s graceful arches and beams are especially handsome at night when recessed rope lighting shines softly from a crevice behind corridor ceiling beams.

The breakfast room delights with walls in a custom-blended red from Sherwin Williams. Chairs from Lee Industries outfitted in washable slipcovers are not only pretty, but also practical. “You can just whip them off and wash!” says Veronica. • The den with crossed-beamed ceiling is tucked away in the back of the house with views of their backyard.

A wine vault with features patterned after those at Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille is a standout feature. The couple ordered the wine barrel for an authentic touch.

The master bath is serene in creamy ivory cabinets and tumbled marble floors.

The Benson’s backyard is a private oasis with a pool and lush backdrop.

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