Visiting Carolyn Neher’s Vendome residence is like taking a trip back in time—in the best possible sense. From the very start, you are greeted by the extraordinary. A hammered bronze doorbell announces your arrival. The door opens, and there she is, in all her glamour. She sports Veronica Lake hair and 4-inch heels and utters a gracious, Southern “hello” that makes all who enter feel welcome. French music plays softly in the background, and a combination of French Porthault and Isabelle candles gently scent the air. The music, hostess, and soft smell of rose and frangipani suggest a much more aristocratic time.
When the recently widowed Neher decided to move from Baton Rouge to Dallas, she quickly chose the Vendome and requested advice from leasing agent Judy Pittman about hiring a decorator. “Neal Stewart has the talent for reading people and creating special places just for them,” Pittman says. “I knew that he could adapt to any style and would embrace and create Carolyn’s vision.” Without ever seeing any of Stewart’s previous work, Neher hired him, and he promptly set off for Louisiana to photograph all her furnishings and document how she lived. His analysis? “We found incredible priceless antiques that we were able to reuse and re-cover and even restyle, including some drapery, but the upholstery was totally out of scale,” he says. So it was out with the old and in with furniture maker Jim Couch, whom Stewart brought in to create the perfect (and perfectly scaled) pieces.
The living room was the first to get a makeover. “My inspiration for this room came from a photograph of a 17th-century Paris salon that was planned around this kind of circular ottoman,” Neher says. “It is quite decadent, with its velvet and trim, but creates such a wonderful ambience for visits and conversation.” So, Couch fabricated a confidente ottoman as the central part of the room, with a curved love seat facing it. Neher bought exquisite silks and cut velvets from Old World Weavers in a dizzying array of colors and patterns, and Stewart found innovative ways to incorporate most of them on the project—at least four different fabrics went to the ottoman alone. Custom fringes and trimmings by Ellen Holt and Kenneth Meyer pulled it all together to create a luscious place to sit. A custom curved sofa made for the corner of the room is covered in silk damask with trimmed pillows using some of the same fabrics and trims.
Stewart didn’t stop at the living room. He managed to create a world that fit Neher’s lifestyle—he really understood her and the kind of living areas that would make her happy. He knocked out walls and opened spaces and designed them with touches to specifically fit her needs. The living room and dining room open to the bedroom so views of all rooms can be enjoyed from any location. The same “tobacco” wall color keeps them cohesive, fine black chinoiserie antiques anchor each room, and classic black and gold moldings around the entries keep the spaces from running together. A mirrored hallway serves as both her dressing table and passage to her bathroom and closet.
Neher also needed storage for all the accoutrements one might expect to find in an 18th-century English country mansion: heavily starched linens, antique silver pieces, and several sets of Herend china. So Stewart turned the original bedroom doorway into a finely fitted linen closet.
Although the lady of the house doesn’t actually cook, her galley kitchen was far from neglected. A tapestry hangs over an antique French walnut dining table, and the center island is a counter-height white Carrara marble table inlaid with multicolored marble flowers. So, could someone cook in there without damaging the tapestry? Yes, Neher says. “My son and son-in-law are both excellent cooks and love to come over and entertain us.”
The real star (aside from Ms. Neher, of course) is the view. One can see downtown and Turtle Creek from all the windows, and those views are one of the main reasons she chose the Vendome. “Every day—especially in the evening, when the lights go on—I pinch myself. I live in such a magical wonderland,” Neher marvels.
This could be a precious, touch-me-not place full of formality. But it’s a testament to this elegant Southern lady that it’s not. Instead, Édith Piaf’s voice and the smell of sweet roses relax you, and make you slow down and long for a tad more elegance in everyday life. The stately surroundings might even cause you to vow to dress nicer—but not because Neher demands it. Instead, her presence makes you feel comfortable and right at home. Her favorite guests are her family, especially her granddaughters, 1-year-old Margaret and 4-year-old Virginia, with whom she spends as much time as possible. “We have slumber parties, and Virginia is ‘the princess and the pea’ in a bed piled high with silk comforters on the chaise. Then we make popcorn and have the perfect evening watching movies in bed,” she says. It’s the perfect balance of civilized and fun—just like Neher.