The home at 78 Arundel is warm and inviting all year around, but its real beauty is revealed at Christmas time. Listed on Saint Paul's historic registry, it was built by German architect and engineer Max Toltz in the late 1800's as his residence. In 1909 it was divided into the five apartments that exist today. Sarah Kinney, a 20-year real estate veteran, moved into the apartment in 1984 as a renter. Four years later, she purchased the building and began its renovation. " It was a wreck when I bought it," she says. "We've redone almost everything. It's been a several-year process."
Kinney nabbed designer/painter neighbor Neil Hiedeman and Roseville-based interior designer Joan Breen to rework the inside of her home. Warm, sumptuous jewel tones and textures are the rule. The dark, simple woodwork provides a sense of structure, complementing the wine reds and vine greens. Heideman's expert touches grace the walls and ceiling in the form of gold-tinged leaves, berries, and elegant motif work. Brilliant Persian rugs pull color onto the floor and rich silk curtains seem to reflect it back into the air.
"All you have to do with this house is add Christmas," said Kinney. "It's just so much fun."
Kinney and one of her tenants, floral designer Robert Kramer, make decorating for Christmas as much an event as her two annual parties that spur the effort: an intimate gathering party for a handful of girlfriends and a lavish open house for a larger crowd.
The friends gather on a weekend afternoon and bring Kinney's boxes of ornaments up from her basement. Each year her Fraser fir is adorned with hundreds of little treasures, each bearing a story of travel or friendship. " Every year I give each of these women an ornament, and every year each of them gives me an ornament. That's part of the fun of it. I have one friend who, every time a pretty ornament comes out, says, 'Oh, I think I gave that one to you!' " Laughs Kinney. A huge, glorious angel found in one of Saint Paul's antique stores, Nakasian-O'Neil, takes up the place of honor at the top of the tree.
The annual open house is also steeped in tradition. The party is catered by one of Kinney's friends. "She makes roast duck with cranberry sauce and all sorts of other wonderful things," Kinney says. Guests are treated to festive entertainment like carriage rides or pictures with Santa.
"Robert, who is a wonderful floral designer, is totally in charge of all the other decorating," says Kinney. "It is always a surprise. He never tells me what it is going to be."
Kramer never repeats himself, and improvises. "Things come to me," he says, "Ideas just happen."
Kramer has been adding his talent to Kinney's parties since 1992. "Part of the anticipation of coming to Sarah's Christmas party is wondering what the decoration is going to be like, because we change it from year to year," he says. "Last year, we went with a Russian czar kind of theme. My challenge is to get the project done before she gets home. She likes to see a finished product."
Kinney remembers one year when she came home to find an antique goat cart on the dining room table filled with flowers. " That time I thought, now he has really lost his mind!" she says.
"That year, [the theme] was peasantry," says Kramer. "I covered her table with her old quilt, and I set this old goat cart on it at an angle. It went from edge to edge of the table, and it was really too tall. But I didn't want to raise the chandelier, so it sat crooked on it. I put stuff like apples, poinsettias, and buckets of flowers in the cart, then put little crates underneath with holy in them, so it looked like someone was selling at a Christmas market."
This December, Kramer plans "white roses, orchids, and white stock, which has a heavy, musty, cinnamon scent, with white Casablanca lilies," he says.
'Shhh don't tell Sarah.'
Whatever the theme this year, 250 feet of fresh garland will hang outside, adorned with ribbons and lights. The night of the party, an ice sculpture will sit on top of what by summer is a gurgling fountain. And several dozen poinsettias will find their way into the party, tucked into the fireplace or filling the bathtub. Another Christmas tradition Kramer and Kinney keep is donating the 8-inch flowerpots to local care facilities after the parties.
Why all this effort?
"We love Christmas," they both say.