O Nutcracker! O Nutcracker! Modern Christmas comfort in a historic house

by Brenda McClain

In a world full of opposites attracting, there’s comfort in modern and vintage living happily ever after. And, when a newly single guy and his two kids were starting out on their own, comfort was the exact thing at the top of the wish list.


“I was immediately attracted to the house because it seemed to represent the personality of our family unit — something with a lot of character and a bit of formality, but still comfortable and laid back at the same time,” said Darren Irby, the homeowner for the past five years. “When I was considering buying the house, my priority thoughts were always around my 6- and 4-year-old kids. Some friends said they thought the house would be perfect because it looked like something straight out of a kids’ storybook, but when my son said that his potential room felt like he was in a tree house with the seven second-story windows, I knew we had found the one.”

Nestled on a busy street in the Old Conway neighborhood, the house was built in 1927 and was in the same family for generations. Don’t let the historic charm of the exterior fool you. This home has been remodeled with modern amenities and details that represent the quality craftsmanship of the past, but livable for a family of today.

“We moved into the house in April, and I thought, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make this presentable if I am hosting my extended family for Christmas,” Irby said. “Budgets were tight, so the three of us were living in the house and I was trying to do work by myself, but dust and bloody ACE bandages finally got the best of me and I let the professionals handle the big stuff.”

While the house was in decent shape and had been updated with new windows and a unique cement shingle roof, almost everything inside the house seemed to be stuck in a time machine from the past. Irby first went to work on the kitchen and kept the original glass front cabinets and built-in hutch, but put in stainless steel appliances and a Kohler Farm Sink and made an eating bar from ultra-shiny Caesar stone countertops.

“The more I got to work, the more I really loved the juxtaposition of historic and modern styles coming together,” Irby said. “I think sometimes people look at the outside of our house and think it’s full of stuffy antiques, and that couldn’t be further from the way we live.”

After the kitchen, a remodel came to all threebathrooms, the closets, walk-in pantry, fresh coats of paint and some outside updates. “I can’t say that it was all done in time for that first Christmas at the house, but we were well on our way.”

It was that first, new-house Christmas that a melancholy Irby pulled out a beaten up box of nutcrackers that had been in storage for years. “A few of the bigger ones had been given to me in passing, but the ones that I loved most were a gift from a Washington, D. C., colleague who had been on a special assignment in the most remote land in Russia,” Irby said.

It was about this time that his daughter was falling more and more in love with dance, and he thought that should be celebrated by displaying some nutcrackers in honor of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

Live mini Evergreens and modern nutcrackers complement stockings waiting for Santa on the holiday fireplace mantel. 

“We hung the Russian-made nutcrackers on the tree, and I took some of the old cheap standing nutcrackers and thought it would be cool to try and DIY modernize them for the fireplace mantle,” Irby said. “I’m a guy and drawn more toward darker, manlier colors and plaids, but with kids it was all about celebrating in bright colors, so we just went with it. The nutcrackers seemed to be a good balance between being a bit proper with their militaristic posture and weapons, but with lots of uniqueness and color. They seem to be like us, we can sit down and act right during a family meal, but we’re just one breaking point away from someone blowing bubbles from a straw into a drink and everyone laughing. Everything just sort of grew from that beginning.”

Always impressed with grand Christmas decorations in more urban areas, Irby began to think about what he could do outside that could co-exist with that original storybook makeup of the house.

“In Germany, historically, nutcrackers are a symbol of good luck,” Irby said. “I liked that they represented strength and protection, along with the magical elements that take place in ‘The Nutcracker’ story. I thought it would be neat for my family and everyone else who entered our house to symbolically end the year and begin a new one with a little luck and strength. Christmas is supposed to be an over-the-top, exaggerated time of year with a little magic.”

So with that, the work began on outside nutcrackers.

Irby knew that he wanted three-dimensional nutcrackers and thought they should match the size of his outside red brick columns.

“All of the ones that I could buy were either flat, not big enough or freakishly scary,” said Irby. “It took several weekends, many trips to Lowe’s and a lot of patience to make. I lived in Washington, D. C., for about a decade, and I remember loving the huge nutcrackers around Christmas outside the famous Old Ebbitt Grill, a block or so east of the White House. I thought I should use those as inspiration.” The result turned out to be two 9-foot modern nutcrackers that took several weekends and a lot of patience to make.

“My dad and I began building them, and then my son got in on the action,” Irby said. “They weren’t as easy to make as you would think. The best surprise was that this turned into an intergenerational project that brought us all closer together. And, isn’t that what Christmas and for that matter, houses, are all about? Creating something where a family can come together, feel safe and mix different styles to live happy?”