Amid the rolling hills of rural Missouri, where cattle roam and soybeans grow, sits a tiny hidden estate with a handful of eccentricities and an abundance of Old World charm.
John Rufenacht and Richard Lara, owners of that estate just outside Clinton and known as Evening Place North, have developed the one-acre plot of land to look like a miniaturized version of a royal medieval estate. It’s magical, beautiful and jaw-dropping in its authenticity.
Or as Zim Loy, former editor of Spaces KC and a regular weekend guest at Evening Place, put it: “It is a little piece of southern France in the middle of Missouri.
“He had (stone masons) install the stones rough side out which is what masons don’t usually do,” she added. “His attention to detail … I can’t even think of the right superlative for it.”
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Rufenacht is a Kansas City interior designer with well-heeled clients in Pebble Beach, Houston and Aspen. One of his most famous local projects is Lantz Welch’s Camelot castle at Weatherby Lake, which he helped develop the concept for 20 years ago.
“I have tried very hard not to have a specific style, though it is a little theatrical,” he says. “I studied set design and think it has influenced my work. … I like color a lot.”
Rufenacht, who lives during the week in a condo overlooking The Plaza, bought the rural property 13 years ago when it was covered with blackberry briars and brush.
Having grown up on a farm 20 miles away, near Lowry City, he was familiar with Clinton as a place to get groceries and see the family doctor. That family doctor was going to develop a plot of land as a subdivision of old European-style homes.
“They asked me to design the concept,” Rufenacht says, “And I asked for this little corner. Then I decided I would go ahead and get started, and they decided not do anything with the concept.”
Rufenacht never had blueprints drawn up for the buildings, just scraps of paper with sketches that he and the builders worked off of. He’d draw a little, they’d build a little, he’d draw some more and they’d build that. And on it went until the collection of solid stone buildings was complete.
The centerpiece of Evening Place North is the main house, which measures a modest 24 feet by 24 feet at its base but is three stories tall, lending it a tower-like feel.
“Then I got into tiny spaces so that’s where all the little buildings came from,” Rufenacht said, referring to a garden library, gypsy caravan and the chapel dotting the landscape.
He gave a tour one afternoon with Lamar, his miniature schnauzer, in tow. The first stop: a tiny chapel measuring just over 100 square feet. It has an altar, stone floor, iron candelabras and six gothic-shaped stained glass windows hand-crafted by Kathy Barnard, an artist in the Crossroads District.
“The nicest place to be is in the chapel,” says Loy. “I’m not a particularly religious person, but when you walk into that small space it feels so pure and quiet and comfortable and meditative. It’s beautifully designed.”
Across the yard is the garden library, another small stone building with a cupola and two French doors open wide on this day so classical music could waft through the country air. Inside a deep plush daybed is pushed against floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with gardening books.
A collection of vintage birdcages hang overhead and the space is heated, creating a cozy place to read or nap all year long.
Next, Rufenacht heads to a stone garage with huge double wood doors. Along the way, he passes a mint condition 1953 MG TD convertible, two-seat sports car in British green with vanity plates that say E-Place.
The second floor of the garage harbors a guest suite with a wood-burning stove, full bathroom and a 9-foot-tall antique armoire that Rufenacht bought for the main house, only to find it wouldn’t fit in there.
Attached to the garage is a greenhouse for overwintering tropical potted plants like his grapefruit and orange trees.
One of the more whimsical highlights of the estate is Effie’s caravan, a bright red, yellow and black gypsy caravan named after a cousin of Rufenacht’s dad, who lived a Bohemian lifestyle on a farm with pheasants, peacocks, llamas and a menagerie of other animals.
She was the delight of his boyhood, he says. Her photo and obituary hang in the caravan’s tiny bathroom.
Yes, the tiny caravan has a tiny bathroom, as well as bunk beds and a kitchen with a sink, coffee maker, mini-fridge and microwave oven. It’s also heated. Rufenacht found two guys in Arkansas who build old-fashioned wagons and approached them about building one that looked like it had rolled onto the estate with a roving band of gypsies.
“I find that if you find someone who has done something similar and give them a challenge of building on it, they usually do a really good job, because they really get into it,” he says.
If the caravan wasn’t hooked up to the plumbing, he says, you could hook horses to it and roll it away.
The entry to the main house was designed around an antique wrought-iron gate from Germany. Two regal stone lions with crowns on their heads sit on either side.
The first floor, just inside the doors, comprises a combination kitchen, dining room and sitting area with a cozy, cottage feel. The centerpiece of the space is a kitchen island topped by a stunning blue granite countertop.
Calhoun Cabinets built the cabinets covered with a blue paint, patinated to look old. They surround a small high-end Aga gas range and stove.
“I adore that kitchen,” says Merrily Jackson, another regular weekend guest at North Evening Place and entertainment columnist for SpacesKC. “We’ve done some spectacular cooking in that kitchen.”
Loy describes how she, Jackson and a couple of other friends bring a big charcuterie lunch for the first day.
“It’s very elaborate,” she says. “We spend a lot of time planning menus. Then in the evening, the girls cook. We plan the menu and there’s dessert. It’s a big deal. The next morning we make breakfast.”
The decor on the other side of the space, in the dining and sitting room, is eclectic yet elegant. A wood dining table is surrounded by glossy red dining chairs, floor-to-ceiling toile drapes frame a window, and an antique tapestry and carved wood altar piece hang above a deep sofa full of plush pillows.
An elevator and a powder room with an eye-catching Kohler double farm sink round out the first floor.
The second floor is a luxurious master suite. A king-sized Ralph Lauren sleigh bed floats in the middle of the bedroom, facing a fireplace with a flat-screen TV above it. A large, standalone copper tub sits in a corner of the bedroom near a window.
“On a perfect winter day, I can soak in it and watch the snow fall, I can watch the TV and I can watch the fire,” Rufenacht says.
The real wow factor comes after a climb to the third floor — a deep red elegant den of curiosities, split into an office area with an 18th century partner desk and a seating area with plush chairs and ottomans around a fireplace. A nearby armoire opens to reveal a small wet bar with a refrigerator.
Features include a bronze statue of Atlas and a 7-foot-tall chair made of elk antlers.
There’s also a 6-foot tall chandelier, orange and red heavy silk drapes with feather passementerie along the hem, hundreds of books lining custom-built shelves, stacked on tables and ottomans and perched on antique book displays.
A red 1980s Trimline phone, a relic from Rufenacht’s younger years, sits on the desk.
“Well like I said, I like stuff,” Rufenacht says.
Standing in front of the antler chair, he admitted that “it doesn’t fit anything, because it’s weird. But if you have enough weird stuff, it fits. You can’t have just one weird thing.”
He’s also not a fan of perfection, he says, because it’s boring.
“Things that are imperfect usually have a story,” he says. “I think the world is getting short of characters. Everyone is getting homogenized.”
“He is so used to designing for the rich and famous these enormous homes that when it came time to designing this for himself he wanted cozy and intimate and that’s what he got,” says Jackson.
Jackson describes Rufenacht as thoughtful, intellectual and even spiritual. He once arranged for guided meditations inside his tiny stone chapel for her and other guests.
But the childhood farmboy can be found in the lush gardens and patios surrounding the buildings.
“I have planted everything that is here and take care of it myself,” says Rufenacht, noting that he also mows the sizable lawn with a push mower.
A courtyard between the greenhouse and the main house is a destination unto itself, with a half dozen seating areas, one more enticing than the next.
It can comfortably seat 40 people on groupings of cushioned benches and outdoor sofas tucked inside colorful cabanas, hidden behind lush potted greenery and buffeted by elegant wall fountains. Each one, no doubt, has been the site of hushed conversations and all together, raucous parties.
“That terrace is just the most wonderful place to have dinner,” Jackson says. “You almost levitate it’s so great. He has donated dinners to a lot of different galas for a lot of different causes, for the Symphony and DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS), probably the Opera and Ballet, too.”
At some point, Rufenacht plans to spend the majority of his time at Evening Place. He’ll have to, he says, when he finishes his next project: a chicken house for Polish chickens, a strikingly colorful breed with fanned crests resembling the hats that the Polish military used to wear.
And one day, the estate will serve as an eternal resting place for Rufenacht, Lara and their pets.
“There are three crypts in the floor,” he said, referring to the tiny chapel. “So when Richard and our dogs and I are all dead, you can pick up the (chapel) floor and throw us in.” He’s already storing the ashes of four of those five dogs in urns for the interment, he notes.
In the meantime, he’ll continue sharing his space on weekends with friends.
“John is really brilliant, and he thinks a really long time about the things he does,” Jackson says. “And he’s also a great listener. And so a lot of our visits are spent in really good conversations. We’ve had so many great conversations in so many of those spaces at North Evening Place.”
Adds Loy: “We’ve been going down there for at least 10 years now and it’s this blur of a happy time.”