Marie Antoinette never slept in Kristi Oman's bedroom, as far as anyone knows, but the French queen would have felt right at home there.
"It's a treat to wake up in that room -- you feel like a princess," Oman said.
With its whitewashed wood paneling, gold-leaf detailing and inset floral paintings, the Oman boudoir definitely has a regal Rococo air.
Which makes sense, given that it was once part of an 18th-century Parisian chateau. The ornate Louis XVI bedroom and its Gallic-style sister, a delicately carved living room with Regency white-oak paneling, were both built in France in the early 1700s, then imported to the United States -- walls, woodwork, fireplaces and all -- about 200 years later by a French banking heiress. She apparently had so many fancy French rooms she couldn't use them all. The two rooms languished in storage in New York for a few decades before somehow ending up in Wayzata.
Bringing entire rooms over from Europe was popular (among those who could afford such luxury) during the Gilded Age but unusual by the early 1950s when Oman's house was built. "It's fairly rare around here," said Donna Haberman, senior objects conservator for the Midwest Art Conservation Center. "There are a few more examples on the East Coast."
An early teardown
The original owner was Allan J. Hill (of the Janney, Semple, Hill hardware dynasty) and his wife, Harriett, according to longtime Wayzata resident and historian Irene Stemmer. The Hills tore down a summer house, built by Prairie School architects Purcell & Elmslie, and hired architect Guy Crawford to design a new house on the 5-acre wooded site. Crawford was the go-to guy among local Francophiles in the '50s, according to Stemmer. "He did a lot of Frenchy things." For the Hills, he designed a pink brick, Normandy-style house that incorporated the original carriage house, also by Purcell & Elmslie, and the two French period rooms.
Those rooms were a big draw when Oman and her husband, Zev, bought the 6,600-square-foot house in 2004. "We've always loved old architecture," she said. "And we like things that are unique. You couldn't reproduce them [the French rooms] today."
There were no power tools in the 1700s, so all the intricate boiserie woodcarving was done by hand. The inset paintings, still vibrant after nearly 300 years, appear not to have been touched up, according to an art expert. (After surveying the living-room paintings, which depict scenes from mythology, the expert noted that the figures showed slight "cleavage," Kristi recalled. "I said, 'Well, yeah, they're nude.' She meant 'cleavage' as in where the paint was starting to come off.")
The Omans, whose business is renovating old commercial buildings, are experienced at restoration. Yet the French period rooms were so unusual that they hired Haberman to advise them on restoration.
"We treat this room [the living room] like a museum," said Kristi Oman. Mirrors that lean against the wall have thick pads on their backs to protect the woodwork from scratches. "Anywhere there's a picture, there was an existing hole," she said.
That's not to say that her family, which includes two children, doesn't use the room. But some activities are definitely off-limits. "If the kids try to skateboard in here, they know they're in big trouble," she said. "This room has lasted 300 years. I feel like it's my job to keep it in good condition."
The rooms were a little worse for wear when the Omans moved in. There were water stains on the plaster cornice work, and pet-related damage to a wooden door, which they had Haberman repair. "We didn't want it to look new, so we restored the old look," Kristi said. "There's a difference between neglected and old," she added with a laugh.
But beyond those restorations, the Omans have tried to do as little as possible to the period rooms. A consultant cautioned them against using modern household products on the woodwork. "She said, 'Don't ever clean it. You could use the wrong chemical. Just dust it. The worst thing you could do is take Pledge and start spraying the wood,'" Kristi recalled.
Like many owners of older homes, the Omans wanted a bigger, better kitchen, but they also wanted it to match the character of the home. "That was the biggest challenge," Kristi said. "The original house was modeled after a French chateau, and we tried to stay within that theme."
Using space occupied by the former laundry room and a den, they created a new kitchen, using European-inspired walnut cabinets and different types of marble on counter and island surfaces, the way they might have been mixed and matched in an old manor.
Trying to be timeless
The home's Parisian pedigree also influenced the layout of the kitchen. "We wanted to open it up," Kristi said. But the open floor plans that are popular in modern homes, with kitchen and family room blurring into one big space, are a long way from the traditional European floor plan, where individual rooms are separated by doors. The Omans compromised, adding a door casing but not a full door. They also retained many of the original architecture elements, such as keeping the den's original fireplace in what is now the informal eating area, and re-using the room's original door as a pantry door.
"We re-used everything we could," she said. "I was so worried about being true to the architecture. I don't want someone to come in in 20 years and say, 'This is a 2008 kitchen.' "
Decorating the period rooms also posed a unique challenge. At first the Omans filled the living room with antiques, and Kristi spent a year making elaborate Austrian shade window treatments out of red silk. "The room was so formal; I felt I had to live up to it," she said. But, after consulting with a designer, she decided to replace some of the antiques with newer, more comfortable, yet still traditional pieces. "Now the room is more livable, less like a museum," she said. "It's nice to have coffee here, with the sun coming in. And now the kids do their homework in here. They didn't before."
Keeping such a big room cozy in the winter hasn't been an issue, she said. The marble fireplace was designed back in the day when hearths were the main source of heat. "That's why they were always in the middle of the room. It really heats up in here. We have fires almost every day."
The Omans have loved living in the home, Kristi said. The period living room is a fun conversation piece when they entertain. "People come in and say, 'Wow! I've never seen anything like this.' "
But the family has decided, after much discussion, to bid their home adieu. Their two children, now 11 and 12, want to live closer to their school in St. Louis Park. "They're at the age where they want a social life. And all their activities and friends are over there," Kristi said.
So they've put the house on the market. (It's listed with email@example.com for $3.795 million.)
"It's a very emotional move," Kristi said. "We're really attached to this house."
She hopes the next owner will be someone who values the home itself, not just its wooded acreage as a building site. "Whoever buys it will have to be someone who appreciates history and old architecture," she said, someone who falls in love with the home's one-of-a-kind character. "It won't be between this and something else."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784