The home’s curvy façade is made of natural Arkansas fieldstone and exemplifies an energetic, 20th-century modernity.
Photography by Chip Pankey
Many readers will likely have, at one time or another, noticed this amazing East Memphis home without realizing exactly what it was they were seeing. Situated in the leafy, upscale Hedgemoor enclave of more traditional homes, the Kistler house looks like no other. One of a kind does not even begin to describe it!
The architecture of the home is Art Moderne, a more streamlined style that emerged in the 1930s from the Art Deco period of the 1920s. Art Moderne architecture exemplifies an energetic modernity, as well as twentieth-century machine-age progress. It’s characterized by horizontal orientation, curvy edges, glass block walls, porthole windows, and chrome hardware. The Kistler home is unique since this architectural style is far more common in public buildings – think of Miami’s famous South Beach hotels — than in residential homes.
While our photographer Chip Pankey’s eyes were “dancing” (his own words) in all the amazing rooms, I sat down with Charlie Kistler, a retired FedEx pilot, and his wife, Nancy, the catering director/manager at River Oaks restaurant, to talk a bit about themselves and their fabulous house. I first learned the home was built in Hedgemoor in 1949 for Walker Wellford Jr., chairman of a major industrial supply company here. It was designed by George Awsumb, a nationally recognized architect who built a number of significant Memphis buildings including two major religious buildings in Midtown — Idlewild Presbyterian Church on Union Avenue and the Baron Hirsch Synagogue on Vollintine. The Kistler home is listed as a historically important Memphis property by Memphis Heritage, bearing a plaque as it does from the American Institute of Architects that explains how the house was among the winners in its national “Design of the Decade” (1940-1949) competition.
The home’s curvy façade is natural Arkansas fieldstone and ornamented with metal balconies. The front door is derived from designs of famous Art Deco buildings along New York City’s 42nd Street, and is composed of a fiberglass cast decorated with gold leaf that covers it. Charlie Kistler says people like to describe their place as “the stone house with the gold door.” Simple — though not really — since there is much more to come once you go inside.
Kistler previously lived in Germantown, and bought this present home in 1988. Renovations and redecorating over time have transformed the home’s interior, making it more consistent with its distinct style of architecture. He is a collector and connoisseur with a special love for the 1920s jazz-age period of decorative arts, though admittedly he is hardwired for beauty in all its forms. The house is filled with furniture, ceramics, and other pieces collected in his travels around the world, from Paris and Sydney to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, and Miami. He especially loves Paris and, by the way, he says it has taken him 28(!) years to walk that entire gorgeous city.
It is often said that Art Deco furniture can be hard to mix with other styles. While perhaps there is some truth in that, this was no problem for Kistler, since his entire house is a temple to this one particular style. The resultant décor is playful, colorful, and whimsical. And this is one collector who never stops collecting; he points out that he recently purchased an original tube radio that is still in working order.
Just inside the front door of the house is a clever little jewel of a drinks bar fashioned from a former closet. Around the corner, the living room carpet was removed and black marble installed. The glass firescreen was found in San Francisco; the couch is from Millington with upholstery from Paris (of course!), and the lounge chair is a Corbusier copy. Opposite is the dining room with its period chairs and table, a sideboard from the Ruhlmann family, whose designs epitomize French Art Deco glamor, and a Murano glass chandelier purchased in Venice.
The original St. Charles kitchen required an update, but the metal cabinets, handles, and stainless countertops were all preserved. Today it is filled with bright purple, red and green Art Deco colors; among other things, the collection of Hall China pitchers adds a perfect retro diner style. In the curvy breakfast room, there are chairs by the "Memphis" design school’s founder Ettore Sottsass (see Memphis magazine, May 2014), and the little sitting room off the kitchen lets Nancy Kistler visit with friends while she cooks.
Upstairs, the master bedroom features mostly period furniture, though the sleigh bed is a copy of a Ruhlmann design. Up on the top floor, doors lead from a well-appointed bar to a beautiful, wraparound, roof garden with lovely, lush plantings. There is a wine cellar in the basement and a pool with poolhouse out back are being planned — the better to entertain five visiting grandchildren.
The Kistlers are both originally from North Carolina and after years of conducting a long-distance relationship, Nancy moved in 2001 to Memphis — a city they have both grown to love deeply. According to her husband, Nancy added life and color to the house, which previously was a bit of a bachelor pad, albeit an elegant one. With her she brought beautiful rugs, including some with Chinese deco designs, and “twelve sets of china.” Glass is another of her passions, including Murano, Lalique, and Chihuly.
The list of artwork the couple has collected is as long as your arm and includes works by well-known artists Dolph Smith, Steve Crump, William Eggleston, Carroll Cloar, Carroll Todd, Walter Anderson, Beth Edwards, and Brian Russell. Many of these were purchased in New York City and at Alice Bingham’s and David Lusk's galleries in Memphis.
Clearly this stylish couple has great fun with their home, which for them is a hobby, a passion, and, to borrow from Noël Coward, “a design for living.” Besides collecting for their home and time spent traveling (they are just back from Venice), the Kistlers are dedicated arts patrons with a love for opera and ballet; they both play the piano.
Charlie admits he misses flying and the camaraderie it engenders; he meets with some of his fellow pilots on a monthly basis. He likes to devilishly say, “The cockpit and the kitchen are acceptable bastions of bad behavior!” As to the latter “bastion,” I should point out that Nancy is also a chef, food stylist, and cookbook collector, and has worked with the Food Network. (She tells me they use Windex on rolls to make them more telegenic — who knew?)
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With all this experience, she is helping to organize the inaugural Memphis Food & Wine Festival taking place at the Memphis Botanic Garden October 15th. The event will feature 28 well-known chefs and will benefit the FedEx Family House at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. One of the originators of the festival is Nancy's great friend and employer, Jose Gutierrez, master chef-owner of River Oaks, who says he is delighted to have this opportunity to show off the fabulous Memphis food scene.
Here’s hoping the festival will be a great success.