Like a storybook come to life, Vancouver’s most lavish and legendary mansion gets dressed up for the holidays and opens its doors to raise money for a local children’s charity.
If only the mahogany walls and arched halls of Casa Mia could speak… they’d surely whisper tales of late-night jazz soirees, socialites sipping holiday cocktails and the extravagance of a lifestyle that spared no expense.
“You can just feel the time and the history that happened right here,” says interior designer Bianca Fusco Zanatta, chairperson for the charity event Home for the Holidays. Together with interior designer Danielle Molnar, the design duo dusted the opulent heritage home with holiday magic and added it to the annual parade of decorated homes to benefit Kids Help Phone.
“The details inside Casa Mia are incredible — ceilings soar 30 feet at the entrance, elaborate hand-carved woodwork, enormous arched windows and dramatic chandeliers give the home a castle-like feel,” says Molnar, reminiscing on her first encounter inside the historic Spanish Colonial Revival-style estate, designed by architect Ross Lort. “I just soaked it all in. I could explore the house for hours.”
With its eight bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, and nine fireplaces, the 21,000-square-foot Casa Mia remains one of Vancouver’s grandest mansions eight decades after George Reifel built it on Southwest Marine Drive. This shrewd businessman is described in history books as everything from a brewery baron and entertainment magnate to a philanthropist and conservationist. One thing, however, is for certain — Reifel did things on a grandiose scale.
“Casa Mia even has its own Art Deco-style ballroom, complete with gold-leafed walls and a bouncy dance floor,” says Fusco Zanatta. “Back in the 1940s, jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie performed in the basement.”
Especially whimsical is the third-floor children’s wing, reached by a stunning spiral staircase. Walt Disney artists were commissioned to paint a mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the playroom.
Inspired by this childlike wonder and the view outside the tearoom window, Fusco Zanatta and Molnar “brought the outdoors in.” Natural garlands drape elegantly over mantels, wreaths made of fresh holly and eucalyptus decorate windows, and faux-fur toss cushions add warmth to the sofas. Seven Christmas trees were brought into the home, including a live 12-foot Alberta blue spruce, which Fusco Zanatta festooned with larger-than-life succulents, festive bows, red poinsettias and a thousand white lights.
“We kept our decorating very traditional, keeping with reds, silvers and golds,” says Fusco Zanatta. “The red is the punch, the appetizer that adds that wow-factor.”
The hit of the tour was easily the enchanting front atrium, where glass balls cascade from the ceiling, and festively wrapped presents are stacked sky high!
For the designers, however, it’s Casa Mia’s dining room that’s most compelling. The stately space evokes “an almost regal sophistication,” the culmination of antique sconces, floor-to-ceiling Cuban mahogany panelling — the preferred wood for the finest English furniture — and a hand-carved fireplace. Allowing the architectural elements to speak, the room was embellished simply, with gold dinnerware, elegant silver candelabra and a sprinkling of aromatic Italian sage.
“It’s all about creating a different realm,” says Fusco Zanatta. “This is a room to share joy and to share a very special season with family and friends. It truly is the season for giving.”
Photography by Janis Nicolay