Photo by Chris Thelen
Start with a Colonial cottage, dress it up for Christmas, add in a holiday wedding and the scene
is set for something a little extra special.
Merry & Bright
For Fred and Susan Thielke, the wedding of their daughter Abbie was the perfect reason to make their West Lake home even more memorable at Christmastime.
Abbie, who is the youngest of the three Thielke daughters by eight years, had requested a “Father of the Bride” type feel for her special day. Even though the wedding itself didn’t take place at home, the Thielke house was the setting for a round of entertaining throughout the months of November and December, including a chili supper for the wedding party, before Abbie became Mrs. Joseph Sherard on December 10.
Warm and welcoming are good descriptors for the Thielkes’ Southern home, and Christmas has always been Susan’s favorite holiday. In her attic she houses a treasure trove of Christmas décor, including crafts made by her daughters as children, other family heirlooms and more recent collectibles. All of those treasures were on full display this year as she and designer Lisa Taylor lovingly decorated a home reflective of all those years of holiday memories.
The House That Was Meant To Be
Abbie was only three years old when the Thielkes decided to put their former home on the market, and it unexpectedly sold in 21 days.
They’d already purchased an empty lot in West Lake with plans to build—but no house plans. “So the first thing we did was found another place to live,” remembered Susan with a laugh.
While they were renting, they happened to flip through an old Southern Living house plan book that they’d had for over a decade and found one plan that Susan had dog-eared years ago, well before they’d even had children. The Colonial cottage happened to be perfect for the West Lake lot—with just a bit a tweaking to add a little more square footage for the bedrooms, bathrooms and the back of the home. And with Susan’s family background in residential and commercial development and Fred’s training as a civil engineer, they decided to take the project a step further: “We felt like we could do it ourselves—and we did.”
Building a house together might seem like a challenging proposition for a husband and wife with three young daughters, but the Thielkes took it in stride. “It was interesting because we were very much yin and yang,” said Susan. “There were the things that he knew well that I just deferred to him and the things that I knew well he deferred to me. So together we had a really good time building it—and we were fortunate to have a lot of good subcontractors!”
The home took a year to build, and the Thielkes moved in the following March. The first celebration there took place just a month later; fittingly it was a party for Abbie’s fourth birthday.
Both Fred and Susan are collectors, a trait they’ve passed on to their daughters. So the holidays are a perfect backdrop for displaying items they’ve curated throughout their marriage. “We’re both very sentimental about where things come from and what they mean to us,” said Susan. “So just about everything has a story.”
With the extra pressure of planning a holiday wedding, Susan enlisted Lisa’s help to ensure the family home looked extra special. About 20 crates of memorabilia came down from the attic on Halloween—an early, but necessary start. “We turned the air down and we put the Christmas music on,” said Lisa with a laugh.
“It’s been fun having Lisa help me with the décor because she has breathed new life into things and helped me do things I wouldn’t have thought of doing,” added Susan.
With Lisa’s keen eye, favorite ornaments and collectibles were reimagined. In the Thielkes’ den, recently redone in pearly cream, glowy pink and soft blues, the Southern-inspired tree takes its cue from the home’s overall Southern style, with its sprigs of cotton, red berries and nestled birds. “I like a lot of natural elements,” said Susan. But as its topper, Lisa moved the kitchen elf to a new place of honor at the top of the tree. “And I love it,” said Susan.
Just off an adjoining porch, the family’s oldest and most precious ornament has a new home. A mainstay of the Thielke family Christmas tree for decades, an angel (whose name is Stella) sits perched on the front of a more modern, slim Christmas tree. “I always called her Stella, because my family angel growing up was named Stella and we had a dear family friend [named Stella] who was like a surrogate grandmother to us growing up,” said Susan. “So this was my Stella angel.”
An array of felt stockings for each family member—several of which were made and embellished by Susan and her mother—line the stairwell. And just beyond in the formal dining room, the first of several Christmas villages collected by the family charmingly recreate Christmas in a long-ago New York on a sideboard—a city that the family has visited frequently during the holidays. Nearby on the dining room table, another collection is Susan’s Spode china, in the classic Christmas Tree pattern, which she uses to serve Christmas brunch. “I’ve been collecting this for eons, and I love this pattern,” said Susan. “My favorite entertaining is for my family, and my style is normally a more casual kind of entertaining. But for holidays and special dinners, I love to do a placecard and really set a pretty table.”
For the kitchen, Lisa and Susan went for a more whimsical look. The trademark checkerboard pattern of classic MacKenzie-Childs hand-painted ornaments and other ceramic pieces mirror the floor’s own checkerboard pattern, while a flock of vintage Christpher Radko gilded ornaments from the song “Twelve Days of Christmas” deck out a chandelier. Mark Roberts elves (another collectible) with their merry little faces peek out from various corners, and gingerbread houses as well as a kitchen tree show off Susan’s love of holiday baking.
Around the corner, tucked in the hallway just before the back staircase, is a tiny tree honoring all the Thielkes’ pets, past and present, all the way back to their first pet, Ari, a silver Persian cat.
The upstairs game room is home to the family’s most personal ornaments and handmade items. Stockings that Susan made for herself and her husband when she and Fred were first married—“it took me until the very wee hours of the morning to finish them and embroider our names on them,” she remembered—add color to white cabinets. Just across from them, a tinsel tree is the perfect choice for a colorful mishmash of felt, paper, macaroni and other ornaments made by daughters Becca, Katie and Abbie throughout the years. Lisa also nestled some of their childhood toys nestled among the silvery branches. “This is my favorite tree. When Lisa finished decorating this…I actually cried when I saw it,” said Susan. “These are my most precious things.”
“Becca cried too,” added Lisa. “And it was so cute because Milly [one of Susan’s granddaughters] wanted to take the toys off the tree!”
Some will also remember that once upon a time, Susan owned Via Mizner, a Lilly Pulitzer store, in Surrey Center, so the designer’s signature pops of color can be found throughout the home. Nowhere is that more evident than in Abbie’s childhood bedroom, with its calming blue and white décor accented with pops of pink, including Lilly window valances. But the item that most draws the eye is sitting atop a rustic, white bench at the foot of her bed: a white Christmas tree, aglow with lights and those Lilly colors of bright green, pink, turquoise and blue.
Although 20 crates came down from the attic, not all of the Thielkes decorations made it out this year. “No, there’s still more in the attic,” said Susan with a laugh. But the week spent with Lisa making the house beautiful not just for the holidays but for a major event in the life of their family made the time even more precious. This Christmas, “there was a lot of putting out [decorations] and remembering the things of days gone by,” said Susan. “But still looking forward and enjoying where we are now and how the landscape has changed”—with sons-in-law and grandchildren and even more memories to come.
“It really is a happy house,” she added. “All of our girls love this house. This is the forever home.”
Article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.