HOME & GARDEN

At home for the holidays


Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2005 at 11:40 a.m.

You’d be hard pressed to find a place more full of holiday spirit than the Perry home, where dozens of Christmas trees twinkle, holiday music plays night and day, and hundreds of guests gather for parties in the lavishly decorated rooms. This year, however, the joy of the season is tinged with the family’s grief at the loss of its patriarch, builder and philanthropist Chuck Perry, who died of a heart attack while on vacation in Germany in May.

Enlarge

FAMILY PORTRAIT The Perry children and grandchildren will gather in Gainesville once again for the holidays. Pictured with Nancy are Bailey Stephens (left) and Wendy Stephens (right) along with the Perrys’ dog, Lily.

Nancy Perry, his wife of 13 years, is facing the first holiday without her husband, navigating their family traditions without Chuck for the first time. Some traditions will bring comfort. Some will be too painful to keep, at least for this year. But Nancy does plan to maintain the epic scale of their entertaining and decorating: Once again, the white brick home near Jonesville will host the usual spate of holiday gatherings, including parties for employees of Chuck’s companies, Charles Perry Construction and PPI Construction Management.

“All of his co-workers are such a family. After Mr. P died, we had a meeting where I told them things weren’t going to change. They still had their jobs. They’ll still get their Christmas bonuses. And we’ll still have the great big party and take the kids for rides in the London taxi.”

A Christmas gift that Nancy gave Chuck several years ago, the London taxi is one of many touches that make the home seem like a fantasy land to the children who visit. The terraced yard, which slopes down to a pasture behind the home, is studded with lily ponds and brooks that burble under flagstone bridges. For holiday parties, the ponds are decked out with floating lights, and poinsettias bloom all around. But as much as the home is suited for large gatherings, it’s also the headquarters of the Perry family’s intimate holiday traditions.

Nancy enjoys a close relationship with Chuck’s three adult daughters—Wendy Stephens of Gainesville, Colleen McCall of Jacksonville and Sheelah Bolick of Greenville, S.C. —and their six children, ranging in age from 8 to 20. Each year, when everyone arrives, Nancy takes a family portrait. Then each of the grandchildren opens their first gift, a nutcracker to add to their collections.

More than 300 nutcrackers stand guard in the family room, where garland drapes the sweeping bank of leaded glass windows overlooking the terrace. Candles burn on the mantel, reflected in the glass Radko ornaments on the towering Christmas tree. Hidden in the Radko tree are six pickle ornaments, which come into play after the family reads the Christmas story and they all sit down to a meal. Well-behaved children are allowed to hunt for a pickle ornament, which (when found) entitles them to open their “pickle present,” a gift that signals the offi- cial start of the holiday season.

The family then plays a game they look forward to all year long—guessing the destination for the next family trip. With props from clothing to food from that part of the world, the children help the adults guess that year’s itinerary. Last year, the long-awaited family trip fell just two weeks after Chuck’s death. They decided to go, and to keep the tradition going this year.

“We all feel strongly that’s what he’d want, for us to have that time together,” she says.

A HOME FULL OF MEMORIES

Chuck’s legacy is everywhere in the Perry home. In the foyer, where the soaring ceiling is painted with fanciful birds and ribbon, a lifesize cutout of Chuck smiles at all who enter. While Nancy admits that some people find it “creepy,” she says she gets tremendous comfort from seeing him there.

The cutout stands next to the door to the library, for which Chuck designed a cut-glass window and door inspired by a pub he and Nancy visited in England.

Chuck didn’t build the home—it was built in 1965, and he bought it nearly 16 years ago— but he fell in love with the land, a 4-acre parcel surrounded by horse pastures. As soon as he moved in, he started renovating, a hobby that continued unabated, Nancy says.

“His touch is everywhere. He designed the moldings in the library and the family room. He remodeled every inch of it to accommodate our lifestyle. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by it,” she says. “I’ll never leave this house.” Nancy describes the home as “comfortable, unpretentious, livable.”

“In a house this size, you might see a lot of statuary or marble floors — that’s just not me. I want little kids to be at home when they come here. I tell them, ‘Go look! You can go anywhere in the house.’ When they leave, I find things rearranged. Once I found all of my earrings clipped on a mirror. It’s like a little treat at the end of the night to see the surprises they’ve left for me.”

Likewise, no part of the home is off-limits to adults — Nancy is famous for seating dinner guests in the master bedroom and bath, which have become coveted spots at any Perry dinner party.

While she enjoys parties of any scale, Nancy also loves preparing for an overnight guest.

“I just love to make a bed for company. I want to make sure it’s fluffy, that it smells good. And I love doing the laundry after they leave — it just washes over me, what we did, what we talked about.”

COMFORT IS KEY

Comfortable furniture is central to the 5,100- square-foot home’s interior design. Before she met Chuck, Nancy loved the clean lines of contemporary Scandinavian furniture.

“Then I married the Queen Anne leg,” she jokes. Her style now is all about comfort. In the Perry home, you’ll find leather chairs, floral couches, even two chairs made of antlers, but you won’t find anything uncomfortable.

The Perrys personalized their home with family photographs and artwork, much of which reflects their love of the North Florida environment. Chuck moved to Gainesville in 1954 and fell in love with the Suwannee River, where the Perrys have a vacation home. Nancy grew up in Higgins Lake, Michigan, an idyllic small town where she learned to love sports and the outdoors. She went on to shoot bows competitively, which took her around the world before landing her in Gainesville in 1979, where she worked for Bear Archery.

Nancy later worked in the retirement housing industry, where she served as marketing director for seven properties, including the Atrium.

While Nancy still loves Michigan, and travels back to her family home as often as she can, she adopted Gainesville as her hometown; her mother, Ginny Albosta, lives here as well.

The Perrys’ devotion to Florida is evident in their artwork, most notably a life-sized Florida panther carved from Honduran mahogany by local sculptor Martin Gates. It took five men to lift the panther, called Ketchum, onto his perch atop the wall units in the family room. Soon he’ll be at the center of the annual holiday whirl, when Nancy’s friends from the garden club come to help set up her many trees, from the two Mardi-Gras-themed trees in the dining room to the Victorian tree in the guest room. Friends have been her key to sanity in the dif- ficult months since Chuck’s death, she says, and they’ll be even more important during the first Christmas without him.

Months ago, Nancy offered Chuck’s children and grandchildren, whom Nancy says she loves as her own, the option to change their family traditions.

“I told them, ‘If you want to do something different for the holidays, this would be the time to do it. It’s okay. And they all said, ‘No, we’re going to be with you.’ I was so touched by that.”

There will be difficult moments, but together, they’ll celebrate Chuck’s life and legacy by honoring their old traditions. Nancy also wants to introduce a new one, where each daughter and grandchild chooses a special keepsake to remind them of Chuck. For Nancy, one of those things is his eyeglasses — he had at least a dozen pairs stashed around the house, and she continues to find long-lost pairs in unlikely places. Another is his Corvette.

“Chuck used to tell me, ‘Take that Corvette for a ride along the Suwannee River. I’ll be with you.”

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top