Of Hearth & Heritage

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Matt Garner

“I came out old; I can’t help it,” Steve Bengel acknowledged, his wry smile wreathed in familial pride. As the “youngest grandchild in an old family,” the intuitive designer has a deep regard for the past. Nowhere is that more evident than in “the barn on Court Street,” as Bengel’s inviting home is widely known in West Point, Miss. And no season encompasses its warm ambiance moreso than Christmastime.

Rescued five years ago by Bengel, the Dutch Colonial built in 1960 on the footprint of an old barn blossomed under the Memphis native’s experienced eye. (Bengel was brought to West Point by George Bryan to become part of the Old Waverly Golf Club family in its earliest days.) After adding three fireplaces, upstairs windows, doors, mantels and other architectural features to his new house, the designer filled it with family possessions passed down through generations, complemented by primarily American antiques he’s collected throughout a lifetime.

“I like to use what is indigenous to your life, to what you’re about,” said Bengel, revealing the core of his design philosophy.

Each piece, it seems, has a story, from a pre-Civil War brick hearth to pillows made from his dad’s old shirts. From his great-grandmother’s rice bottom chair to an antique steeple clock, which years ago gave up its calico-wrapped secret — an IOU Bengel’s father discovered in the clock’s case, a Confederate militia captain’s pledge to repay a landowner after the war for cotton burned to keep it from falling into the hands of Federal troops.

Bengel carries that prevading sense of yesteryear into the holidays, decking his halls with natural garlands of magnolia and bowls of fresh, red apples. A flocked live spruce tree stands sentinel in the dining room, adorned with candles, antique greeting cards and postcards, dried autumn leaves, sweet gum balls and tree bark.

“I like for things to be relevant,” said the homeowner. “It’s about using what you’ve got, rather than going out and buying things for the sake of buying them. It sounds simplistic, but it’s what I’m about.”

Whatever else a house is or isn’t, Bengel feels three things are most important: a sense of the past (“People walk in my house and think I’ve lived there 50 years, when I’ve only been there five,”), a sense of comfort, and a true sense of the people living there and who they are.

It all comes down to giving a home soul, at Christmas and year-round.

“Be who you are,” urged Bengel, “and what your heritage is.”