A Carriage House Holiday + 7 Tips for Holiday Decorating

holiday decor exterior decoration

Above: A pair of decorative deer heads on the double front door are decked with greenery and berries.

If spending the holidays in a horse barn sounds to you like a Hollywood pitch for yet another Home Alone sequel, check out the photos of the barn in question. It’s actually a carriage house, the polite term for such structures built back before cars. The sumptuous Tudor-style residence you see here was built in 1903 as an outbuilding for the Van Dusen family’s summer cottage on Lake Minnetonka. At the time, it housed horses, carriages, stable hands, and hay bales, and spanned 7,800 square feet.

Flour-milling mogul George Van Dusen was a wealthy man. His summer place was minuscule compared to the family’s primary residence in south Minneapolis, the Romanesque castle on LaSalle Avenue made infamous in this century when it was used to give fake luster to a Ponzi scheme.

At least it’s still standing. Van Dusen’s summer place burned to the ground in 2010. By then the carriage house had long been converted into a proper home. Its fourth owners, Carol Ahlstrand and husband Tim Graupman, moved in in 2007. They raised two daughters here: Alaina, a college student, and Lillian, a high school senior.

Exterior mirror detailAbove: The natural materials used outside—red berries, pine cones, deer antlers—continue inside.

When the holidays loom, Ahlstrand, an interior designer (her company is called Advance Design Associates), takes charge. She festoons the place inside and out to welcome out-of-town family guests. Her favorite memory of her many “tricked out” (her phrase) Christmases past: the year she used her prized 4-foot-tall angel, who bears a scroll that reads “Peace On Earth,” as the topper on her 10-foot tree. The tree itself became an angel, she says, clothed in a flowing green skirt.

Previous owners had made the carriage house suitable for human habitation but not much more. Relieved that the square openings of the former horse stalls were still intact (“They’re my favorite architectural feature!”) Ahlstrand undid most of the “improvements,” going so far as to move the entire kitchen from one side of the house to the other.

The house is actually composed of two separate structures linked by a courtyard entryway complete with a European-style motor court. This is where guests park their horseless carriages, and where Ahlstrand’s holiday decorating begins. Every Christmas has its own theme, introduced in the entryway. The textures, colors, and motifs are repeated inside the house, though every room has its own look, she says.

Interior mantle display detailAbove: Candlelight softens the white lights in this celebratory vignette.

When the guests arrived last year, they were swept into a Dickensian wonderland.  The reds were more toward burgundy than usual, and the greens darker and lusher. The natural materials used outside (red berries, pine cones, stone statues, natural deer antlers) came indoors along with the guests and were joined by bird feathers, silver candles, gold ribbon, and hand-blown glass.

The dining table’s runner was as glamorous as the red carpet on Oscar night. Instead of celebs, it was adorned with shimmering red-glass pinecones, greenery, and candles galore.

In the living room, an elegant deer, carved in wood, surveys the room from high above a polished walnut mantelpiece. Heavy pine beams support the ceilings.  Cozy and timeless are what Ahlstrand is after and she succeeds.

Mantle display and living areaAbove: Carol Ahlstrand introduces a new theme every Christmas. For this Dickensian wonderland she used deep burgundy, bird feathers, silver candles, gold ribbon, and hand-blown glass. A deer overlooks the festivities

Tradition is evoked in religious statuary: She collects crèches and loves decorating them. A giant painting of the Madonna and child is ringed in lights. “Christmas is Christmas at our house,” she says.

But as much as she adheres to tradition, she can’t resist adding touches of her favorite color, blue. “It sets off all that warmth and glitz with a wintry chill.” It is, after all, snowing outside.

Tips for Holiday Decorating

  • Try using grapevine balls in arrangements. They lend structure and serve as decorative elements. 
  • Don’t hesitate to cheat with artificial materials. Carol Ahlstrand lays a foundation of faux greenery to help authentic evergreens look more resplendent and keep them in place.
  • Freshen evergreens with daily misting. This restores their fragrance, which to Ahlstrand is just as important as how they look.
  • Repeat motifs as well as colors and textures. Ahlstrand repeats references to wildlife in ornaments and statuary outdoors and in.
  • Contrast rustic and formal touches. Ahlstrand uses plain textures to take the shimmer down a notch: Pewter with sterling silver; plaid and paisleys against satin; and soft candlelight with the sparkling white lights on the tree and garlands.
  • Most ready-made tree skirts are underscaled for large trees. Ahlstrand made one of hers from a brocade bedspread. Any large piece of cloth can be used, as long as it’s thick, durable, and splendiferous.
  • For the tree itself, Ahlstrand insists on a Fraser fir. The foliage is fragrant and long lasting, and the branches won’t droop under the weight of ornaments.

By Bonnie Blodgett

Photos by Laurie Hernandez


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