Ancient craftsmanship underscores French-inspired mansion on Lake Norman
By Jason Gilmer
Photographs by Jay Vaughan
Scott Smith lay on a couch, one that only weeks before belonged to a bank, and looked around his new home. His wife, Denise, and their two daughters still lived in their Charlotte, North Carolina, home, but Smith didn’t want to leave Chateau Lyon, the name of his recently purchased French-inspired mansion on Lake Norman, north of the city, without some sort of security.
The almost-9,000 square foot home took five years to build, and Smith, the owner of Charlotte’s Morris Costumes, bought it in 2012 and is the second homeowner. The couple that paid more than $22 million to build the home lost it to the bank shortly after they moved in.
Smith caught a lucky break. He paid only $4.4 million for the place.
Still, as he lay there and stared at the high ceiling, stone fireplace, and to-die-for lake views, he wondered about the decision.
“I would look up and, for a week, thought, ‘What am I even doing here?’ It made no sense in reality,” he said. “I’m used to living in a modest home in Charlotte, and all of a sudden, I’m here.”
A few years have passed, and Smith now feels more comfortable in the home, which doesn’t fit Smith’s personality. He’s a blue jeans guy. He likes to mow his own lawn. He drives a truck.
This home, which was featured on HGTV’s Extreme Homes, is a showpiece that has subtly mixed old world and modern conveniences.
Not our style
Chateau Lyon has a certain feel to an outsider. The feeling that there should be a sign somewhere that reads, “Please look, don’t touch.”
It’s big and stately and on the inside looks like there should be an entrance fee to visit.
“I think the house is really intimidating,” said Denise, who admits she didn’t want to buy the home. “I’d prefer one where you didn’t have to worry if the dogs walk through. It took a good year to feel like I wasn’t living in a museum.”
About six months into living there, she decided to stop worrying. She wanted her daughters’ friends to feel welcome without concern of someone telling them “Shhhhh.”
Lucky for the couple, they didn’t have to furnish the home. They bought it with everything inside. Rugs, drapes, furniture, a wooden ram and faux horse head (no, he’s never placed it in an unsuspected guest’s bed sheets) were included in the purchase.
French paintings and antiques from the 19th century share space with high-def televisions. There’s a theater upstairs that Smith has only used a few times, though his daughters enjoyed movie nights there.
On the upstairs desk, in an office with a hidden door to a half bath, there is a glass decanter of brandy. The previous homeowners left it there. Smith has smelled it, he said, but never ventured a taste.
There are five bedrooms, all with their own bathrooms, and all the beds were already there. In one bathroom is a pair of mint julep cups engraved with “Kentucky Derby 2004” that were left behind. One now holds a toothbrush.
“It’s like home now to us. People come in and look at it, and they’re amazed by the beauty of it and the architecture and the delicacy of it,” Smith said. “Every day I see it, and I see something new, but it’s just home. I get up and eat and take a shower like everyone else does and throw my clothes on the bed.”
Growing the family business
The footage is grainy, and the camera a bit jumpy. Still, the vision of Bigfoot as it lumbers near a California creek is easy to recognize.
Smith knows plenty about the creature that was shot on 8-millimeter film in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Robert “Bob” Gimlin.
The suit, Smith said, was one that his parents, Philip and Amy Morris, constructed in their basement. It was part of their business, Morris Costumes.
“The claim to fame was that my mom and dad made gorilla suits in the basement,” Smith said. “My mom would sew the suits and my dad would make the rubber mask and hands and feet.”
His dad produced shows and circuses, and he traveled the country to put on his horror shows in between a double bill of scary flicks in theaters. He also worked on WBTV, the Charlotte television station, on a Friday night horror show and was billed Dr. Evil.
Costumes for the shows were made by the family, and eventually Smith’s mom began to rent them to neighbors for Halloween. A store was then opened for rentals, and retail became a small part of the business.
That ballooned to the business that Smith now runs out of a large complex on Harris Boulevard in Charlotte. Morris Costumes is the franchiser of more than 150 Halloween Express stores across the country.
“Over time the business has changed, and a number of costume shops are opening across the country, and we started wholesaling to those costume shops,” Smith said as he sits in an armchair in the conservatory. “At the peak of the season, we’ll ship about 20,000 packages a day. We fulfill for about 200 different e-commerce sites, whether its the mass merchants or HalloweenExpress.com or Joe’s Costumes.”
The business is one reason Smith doesn’t enjoy as much of the home as he probably should.
The conservatory, which is reminiscent, albeit on a much smaller scale, of the space in George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate, is the spot Smith enjoys the most.
It has a grand view of the lake, light floods in from all over, and it’s right off the kitchen.
“I don’t spend a lot of time here,” he said. “I spend a lot of time at work paying all the bills. You know how that is.”
Book of knowledge
It would be easy for Smith to exaggerate what was spent on the home when it was built. He could fudge the numbers without anyone knowing.
He doesn’t have to, though. He knows exactly what was spent. The bank owned the home for more than two years (security was on site 24/7 for the first year and then at night after) and provided him with a book of details.
The binder has photos of what was purchased, along with dates, prices and check numbers of the splurges. There’s the $120,000 French stove in the kitchen, the $80,000 copper tub in an upstairs bathroom, the $14,000 mantle in the master bedroom and the Crestron System (valued at $500,000) that runs the security, 13 air conditioners, sound and lights.
Half-a-million dollars was spent on the clay tiles that adorn the roof. This is where the home gets its name, as the tiles come from Lyon, France.
The home is built from French limestone, and the banisters are made from Mexican pinyon.
Upkeep is always a worry, Smith said.
“Did it make any sense? No. Would I pay that? No,” he said. “I’m a very lucky person. I was at the right place at the right time and had the capital that was needed to do this.
“You would think that someone who lived in a home like this, their lifestyle would be a bit different.”
The home wasn’t what Smith envisioned he’d purchase. He had once owned a home on the lake but had lived in Charlotte for more than 20 years. He woke up one morning and decided he wanted to return to the water.
Now he has views of the lake from every window, and there are 500 feet of waterfront several steps off the back porch.
“I’ve been in Paris once and fell in love with the museums and the architecture,” he said. “I think I just fell in love with the view here, the beauty of the home and the way things were decorated. We haven’t changed anything, and we really don’t plan to. It’s such a unique home that there’s really no other home like this.
“I’m not sure, even if they had the money, anyone would think about doing this again. It makes no sense. I don’t ever see myself moving; that’s for sure. When I first moved in, I still had my house in Charlotte, I thought about renting this house. I just decided I couldn’t rent it and that I had to move in.” E