In summers past, Virginia LaMont Naegeli often would enjoy spending several hours down the street in a neighbor’s bucolic backyard, sitting on a picnic blanket and chit-chatting the afternoon away while watching her kids play. They would marvel at the neighbor’s vintage gardens, and Naegeli says they liked to peer at a century-old, red barn that stood in the backyard, as a reminder of the area’s intriguing past.
“She’d invite me over and I’d pack up the kids and a lunch. We’d bring a wagon and roll on over and put a blanket out,” Naegeli recalls. Never did the Birmingham resident think that she’d one day own that property and live in the very home where her amicable neighbor had lived. But that’s exactly what happened.
One day, after she’d been friends with the neighbor for a few years, the woman asked Naegeli if she was interested in buying her home — a charming 1940s two-story on Pleasant Street.
“They sensed that we would take good care of the home. And I think our neighbor wanted us to just try to keep the charm of the street going. She had (such a) beautiful garden in the back,” Naegeli says.
Eventually, Naegeli and her family did move into the woman’s home. Happy times, lots of pets, new gardens and birdhouses, and fresh updates kept the soul of the home and its surrounding property alive. Naegeli’s husband, Christopher, built a pergola (perfect for the couple’s wisteria and grape plants) in the back where the woman’s garden had been — “a fitting spot,” Naegeli says. “Sadly, (the barn) was torn down while we were away, living in Australia temporarily for my husband’s job.”
Today, the couple also owns the home next door to where they live and Naegeli uses the building behind it as her art studio (The home was once inhabited by a renowned area photographer, and, after he died, his wife suggested that the Naegelis purchase it so that it wouldnt’ be torn down like so many. They did indeed buy the house, whose back yard studio space would be a perfect spot for Naegeli, an artist who works in several mediums.)
But back to the Naegeli homestead. These days, it brims with history, intriguing art collections picked up during their various posts in faraway lands (Australia, Brazil, and Germany, to name a few), and lots of love.
“I’ve brought a door with me from home to home,” Naegeli says as she points at the door to her powder room. She painted a beanstalk and markings showing the height of her three kids as they grew over time. “I told my husband, wherever we move, I’m taking the door!”
“This street is a little pocket of good people and good homes. It’s magical.”
— Virginia LaMont Naegeli
In her dining room, historic memorabilia fills little niches and cabinets. Naegeli’s great-great-grandfather was the governor of Illinois, during the time when Abraham Lincoln was president. “We’re pretty sure Lincoln visited the governor’s home and sat in these chairs,” she shares as she eyes a traditional set of wooden dining room chairs.
Her great-grandfather also was a governor of Illinois. “My grandmother lived in the governor’s mansion and she inherited many of the pieces, some of which were eventually passed down to me,” Naegeli says. Her aunt’s tea set, a family Bible, dishes from the 1800s, and more adorn the dining room. “We have a family tree that actually goes back to Joan of Arc. We tease about that, like, how does that happen?”
When the family first moved to the home, after a stint in Germany, the dwelling had several small rooms.
“The house was chopped up, as homes often were in the 1940s. We opened it up,” Naegeli says. A builder friend, Mike Teeple, along with her husband, took down a couple of walls, worked their electrical magic, revamped bathrooms, and added a downstairs beam, all while keeping the home’s original charm intact.
“We think that the previous owners must have added on to the back, because in the bathroom there was a window that looked like it was the outside of the house,” Naegeli says. Last year, the couple had the home painted in a lovely gray-blue shade called Wallstreet (by Sherwin-Williams). In the studio behind the neighboring home that they now rent out, the couple added “plumbing, a sink, and a bathroom,” explains Naegeli, who uses the building as a studio. In addition to her own projects, she teaches students how to paint everything from silk scarves (a tradition she learned in Brazil and the Pacific Northwest) to glassware to quilting (learned in Germany)to jewelry making (learned in Australia). The studio includes a cozy sitting area, replete with a television and fireplace (brought back from Brazil, and now filled with electric candles. She added some French doors, “so I can look out and see the property. There are deer back there. It’s really pretty and makes me think of the barn that was once there.”
Whereas once upon a time Naegeli’s children enjoyed summertime picnics in what is now their parents’ backyard, today she says they’re not too old to come into the studio next door to “dig into the candy jars.” The couple’s youngest child is 17, while another was recently married; the middle child is a college student.
“This street is a little pocket of good people and good homes,” Naegeli says, looking out at the American flags that hang at nearly every home on the street. “It has so much history. It’s magical.”
‘Art Yourself’ Inspires Students To Express Themselves
Artist Virginia LaMont Naegeli, shown at left, teaches a variety of customized art classes at the studio behind her home. Students can learn how to make hand-painted silk scarves, paint on glassware, create a whimsical serving plate, and more. Group classes are available. “We have everyone from groups of girlfriends to members of nonprofits,” Naegeli says. Visit artyourself.net or call 248-918-1376.