Photography by Andrea Zucker
Milton T. Schaeffer is a man clearly in love with his family, his home, and life in general. He brims with exuberance and good humor, and for the purposes of this article at least, much of his enthusiasm is reserved for the talents of Lynda Shea, his interior designer.
Schaeffer and his wife first moved into their home on Forest Hill-Irene Road in Germantown back in 1967; now a widower, Schaeffer felt some updating of the house was in order. As he likes to tell it, one day on a whim he walked into French Country Imports on Old Poplar Pike, met Lynda, and to coin a phrase, “It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Theirs is clearly a mutual admiration society, because Shea calls Schaeffer “a dream client,” and jokes that “if I could clone him, I would.” Happily, it so happens they share a love of France and all things French; Shea tells us his accommodating response to most of her design suggestions has been: “Just do it, Lynda!”
Milton’s family is widely known around town for its many automotive enterprises; he himself is the retired owner of Bluff City Buick. Additionally, he is a generous patron of the arts and currently serves on the boards of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, and IRIS Orchestra.
Schaeffer modestly suggested at the outset of this project, however, that Lynda Shea and her stellar decorative talents be the focus of our story, although he did insist that we mention his loyal staff members — Fred Gilmore (with Schaeffer since 1964) and Wanthani — without whom his house could not function.
The first impression of the Schaeffer home is that it seems a world apart from the nearby bustling Poplar corridor. Dating from the early 1930s, this graceful, Colonial-style house seems to float in the distance, beneath a sheltering canopy of trees, as the visitor approaches. Its white pillars, dark-green shutters, and welcoming boxwoods stand out against a soft, cream-colored exterior.
The 10-acre property includes a large guest house and swimming pool and in the distance, an old barn stands as a symbol of the area’s once-rural past. (Ben Page, the well-known landscape architect based in Nashville, helped out with some of the landscaping.) The plantings are spectacular, and Schaeffer is particularly proud of his vast numbers and varieties of daffodils and tulips, not to mention the raised beds that burst with 18 different vegetable varieties. He says he often drives his golf cart down to his fig trees to breakfast on their bounty — a bucolic image indeed.
This home has lovely bones, and light streams through every window. Shea tells me her initial approach was to rearrange many of the superb antiques that Schaeffer already owned. Other pieces were handpicked or commissioned, allowing her to complete the design scheme. In particular, her client had some wonderful works of art, including French art-nouveau posters and a colorful Paul Penczner painting that she chose to put in an upstairs bedroom, not to mention countless oriental rugs that she has shuffled around or in some cases de-accessioned. For the most part, Shea kept to Schaeffer’s favorite color palette of rusts, corals, and burnt oranges. Throughout the house, the existing fine hardwood oak floors added considerable dramatic effect; they just needed a good polishing.
Shea characterizes her design style as “underdoing rather than overdoing.” While she has built her business around importing traditional French-country antique furniture and accessories, she loves contemporary furnishings, and now gravitates towards a transitional mixture of styles. She has a special talent for selecting the perfect detail, such as a sophisticated ruched banding on linen draperies, or a special piece of sculpture to punctuate a space.
In the entrance hall, Shea used what has come to be her favorite wallpaper, a print selection that looks for all the world exactly like limestone. Called Lokta-paper, it is handcrafted from the bark of the daphne bush that grows in the Himalayas, at altitudes up to 10,000 feet. If this sounds expensive, it probably is, but what a fabulous effect!
To go with the tall-case clock in the entry, Lynda chose a table lamp with the look of an Etruscan fragment, along with a nineteenth-century Louis Philippe period mirror. The only structural change made was to arch the entrance off the hall into the dining room, so as to mirror the living room archway.
In a niche below the elegant circular staircase, Shea provided a modern twisted-metal sculpture from her shop, and then found just the right vintage pedestal upon which to mount it. Ascending the stairs along the wall are six period English garden design prints. In the living room, among other things, she found a wonderful sculpture of a discus thrower along with an Etruscan-style coffee table to complement the antique tapestry and needlepoint chairs and other furnishings that Milton Schaeffer already had acquired. A modern touch is the large, bold calla lily painting by Jochen Labriola over the mantel.
The dining room features a lovely round table that to Shea’s mind “takes the edges off a square room.” The distinctive black and gilt chairs with golden leather upholstery are from Amy Howard, as are the two handsome large china cabinets. In the family room, one finds a sophisticated mix of furniture and accessories; these include an eighteenth-century Swedish clock and a huge Mazel and Jalix bronze apple sculpture, which, as the sculptors say, “stands solid but not lifeless.”
Shea is particularly fond of the Louis XV walnut enfilade (which she translates as being a long, low buffet) and the large black wall-lanterns that frame it. The adjacent kitchen is pure French-country style, with hanging copper pots and faience backsplash tiles. Long ago, one counter was specially cut to fit around an impressively large, solid-wood chopping block. A little walled garden off the kitchen is very European and more than a little charming.
The romantic morning room with pale blue walls and white furniture and upholstery seems right out of a Swedish summer home in an Ingmar Bergman film. This is affectionately called “the Lynda room,” and it is pure Shea magic and sensibility.
For the paneled library, Shea owned four early nineteenth-century Aubusson cartoons that were “looking for a happy home,” and she was delighted to be able to use them on the walls in this handsome room. An antique English walnut card table and Minton-Spidell premium reproduction chairs were a perfect fit here as well.
The large solarium at the back of the house offers sunny, panoramic views of the grounds. This was added in 2001 by John Millard of the Memphis architectural firm, Millard and Stevens, which designs outstanding custom homes throughout the country.
The master bedroom and bath are on the first floor. Three bedrooms and a sitting room are upstairs, which Shea says she refreshed with new draperies, bed linens, bedside tables, and wrought-iron chandeliers.
The truly amazing and extensive wine cellar consists of three connecting rooms packed to capacity with bottles. It has the weathered look and feel of something you might find underneath a magnificent Loire Valley chateau. As our Memphis magazine team was taking photographs, in fact, several cases of champagne were in the process of being delivered.
Upon our departure, Milton Schaeffer, the most genial of hosts, asked us if we would like to join him for a glass of bubbly. No arm-twisting necessary; the champagne provided the perfect end to a perfect day in a well-nigh perfect home.
Native Memphian Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts and style editor of Memphis magazine.