Christmas in the Clouds
article by Maré Brennan
photography by Martin G Meyers
Melody Olson is tour de force of energy, commitment and ideas. Downtown Monroe has this little lady with a big heart to thank for spurring its growth and helping create an unprecedented vitality in the heart of Monroe that’s been unseen since the 1960s. A definitive downtown study, contracted by CenturyLink and presented by Duany Plater Zyberk Co. in 2013, confirmed what Olson knew to be true. To be truly alive and well, downtown Monroe has to have a healthy balance of both residential property and businesses. Other Louisiana cities, like Shreveport and New Orleans, have been working on this same concept as Millennials around the country have expressed a desire to live in downtown urban areas. But as young people migrate back to city centers, restaurants and shopping are essential to raising the quality of life in those hubs. Explains Olson, “I wanted our city to be able to compete with other larger cities, so that we can keep our children around after graduation.”
To get to Christmas 2016 perched high above the Ouachita River, first we must explore the history of the historic Penn Hotel. Built in 1928 for a sum of $250,000, the Penn Hotel once boasted 232 hotel rooms and a banquet hall that was frequented by the movers and shakers of the day, politicians, planters, oilmen and the like. But the building’s real claim to fame was its pink stucco cottage penthouse on the 9th floor of the building. The penthouse has an illustrious history, as it was once owned by the late Louisiana State Representative, banker and all-around character Shady Wall of West Monroe. After years of falling into disrepair and several changes of ownership, Olson purchased the building in 2004, intent on bringing the structure back to life as luxury condominiums. Single-minded in her vision, Olson had done her homework and knew downtown Monroe was ripe for a renaissance. Says Olson, “Real estate recycles itself about every 100 years. According to many, many articles, a city can be judged by its downtown area. It is the heart of your city. One hundred years ago, people lived in the buildings in downtown and had shops and businesses in the lower portions, before the urban spread to outside areas.”
Fast forward to over $2 million in improvements to the structure, and Riverscape Condominiums is the success that Olson had dreamed and is a catalyst for the resurgence in downtown Monroe, leading the way for others to create their own downtown lifestory. All the units of Riverscape Condominiums have been sold, a testament to the vision that Olson had for downtown. Olson, herself, lives in the 9th floor penthouse, the external pink walls now painted a warm beige.
“There were lots of hurdles to redo a 9 story building as residential condominiums,” Olson explains. “We had to put in a new stairwell that would connect all of the floors internally. I hired Jerry Madden, a structural engineer with S. E. Huey, to help figure out where we could put it. Then the original hotel had two elevators. We configured one of the old elevator shafts to hold new electrical and plumbing.” To be up to code, new sprinkler, plumbing and electrical systems, as well as an enlarged elevator, were installed. “You couldn’t afford to build a building today that is as solid as this one. The walls are 14 inches thick and built with concrete,” says Olson, who appreciates the craftsmanship of the bygone era. “This building is like an old home with great details and good bones.”
Original plans for the building showed the penthouse only had 1,400 heated square feet and 2 bedrooms and 1 bath. Olson increased the home’s footprint by 1,000 square feet, seamlessly adding an en suite bedroom and luxurious bath to the structure. Throughout the penthouse, care was taken to keep the building materials and accents as close to what you would find in a 1928 building as possible. Olson used cove moldings and transoms on top of doors to allow as much light as possible to pour through windows and doors.
To bring the balcony railings up to regulation, Olson added custom hand wrought iron railings. Strings of white lights festoon the balcony railings to signal the approaching holidays.
One might call Melody Olson a rescuer of sorts, of buildings and antiques especially. Throughout her penthouse and her first floor office, you find the heavily carved pieces that speak to her eclectic sensibility and her collection of antique door knobs and hardware. Her office holds an original display case from The Palace department store, which is filled with an array of crystal knobs and elaborate hinges.
As you step off the elevator and into the penthouse, Olson creates a warm and inviting space. An antique hall tree from the late 1700s was too large to fit in the elevator and was lifted by crane to the balcony. Overhead a large Edison bulb light fixture illuminates the foyer. Olson is ready for the holidays with a grouping of trees, including living cedar in pots, frasier firs and what she calls “stick trees” covered in tiny white LED lights. “I love decorating for Christmas,” she says. “I love seeing DeSiard Street lit up for the holidays.” After five years of living high above downtown Monroe and overlooking the Ouachita River, Olson says she never tires of watching sunrises or sunsets. “My favorite is the private outside spaces. I can watch the sun rise over St. Francis and the sun set over the Ouachita. This is first house I’ve been able to open doors and windows and never worry about someone coming in.”
The master bathroom features a large, marble walk in steam shower with a long bench seat. An aquarium is inserted into a wall between the shower and an enclosed water closet. A decorative tile inset is featured on the wall of the shower and the floor. A Kohler Infinity soaking tub is the centerpiece of this bathroom and is filled from an extraordinary ceiling mounted tub filler. With a push of a button, water flows from the ceiling to fill the tub. “At one point during a Christmas party, we wondered where all the guys were,” laughs Olson, “It turns out all the guys were in the back, playing with the tub!” The antique vanity and dresser were won at an auction in Atlanta.
The master bedroom is painted Sherwin Williams Foggy Day. “I like blue. It’s very peaceful,” says Olson of her retreat shared with her rescue puppies, Sassy and Pepper. “They are the neighborhood watchdogs,” she says as the fluffy pets keep a watchful eye on the over progress of the Vantage Health Plan’s renovations to the Virginia Hotel next door, barking occasionally from the penthouse’s back balcony as workmen go about their day.
The guest bedroom features a hand carved Rococo Revival bed that could be attributed to John Henry Belter and was sourced from an antique auction in Vicksburg. A unique oval shape required a custom mattress. Custom built-ins in the room provide ample closet space, and the room has its own en suite bathroom.
A half bath features a mirrored vanity with a swan fixture in brushed nickel. A baroque six tier chandelier with six concentric bands of prisms was brought from Olson’s previous home at Cheniere Drew. The ceiling is painted a metallic pewter while the walls are painted a rich red.
The public spaces of the home and the central hall are painted a unifying Berkshire Beige, and the hand scraped wood flooring throughout creates continuity.
In the kitchen, Olson chose white Shaker-style cabinets and added Swarovski crystal embellished pulls for cabinet doors and drawers. Glass front doors on tall upper cabinets reveal Olson’s love for ruby crystal glassware, which are estate sale finds. Honed marble was chosen for countertops because Olson “loves to see the character of the material and honed marble shows the passage of time.”
“I love the mix of contemporary and antique, especially early American pieces,” says Olson. And nowhere is this more apparent than the breakfast area where a round glass topped carved clawfoot table is surrounded by modern red leather chairs from Pier One, providing comfortable and ample seating. The breakfast room table is ready for Santa. A grouping of column candles, votives, reindeer and ruby crystals interspersed with greenery sets the festive tone.
The dining room is resplendent with a centerpiece of luscious red roses, Olson’s collection of ruby crystal and Christmas china. “And a plate full of diamonds! Isn’t that what every girl wants for Christmas?” interjects the homeowner, whose playful touches invoke the whimsey of the season. The dining table is a turn of the century Horner partners desk topped with a glass table top that Olson had made to fit from ACME Glass. The drawers of the desk act as storage for essentials like napkins and table accessories. The carved bookcase in the dining room was bought from the McGuire family was repurposed as the perfect china cabinet for the space.
A merrier space could not be found than Olson’s deck overlooking the Ouachita. And the words of actress Zsa Zsa Gabor seem appropriate for Olson’s Riverscape, “I just adore a penthouse view.” Holiday fireworks and bird’s eye views of parades make for joyous celebrations. Generous seating invites guests to linger longer beneath the stars and just a little bit closer to heaven.