THE FIRST TIME I VISITED NANCY Nicholson at her Georgian Revival mansion on Summit Avenue, she escorted me into her sitting room and summoned her housekeeper with a buzzer.
The Nicholsons have an intercom system, you see, because their home, commissioned by Louis Hill, James J. Hill's second son before his marriage to Maud Van Courtland Taylor in 1901, is 25,000 square feet and has 14 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, a ballroom and ... well, a whole lot of other rooms.
That's why Nancy laughed when I knocked softly on her front door, instead of using the buzzer myself. Luckily, she had been nearby, she said, or she never would have heard me.
The housekeeper came quickly, bringing me tea, served on a silver tray. I was getting the Queen Elizabeth treatment. That's how Nancy makes every guest feel like royalty whether they are Laura Bush (yes, she dined here once), Robert Altman (the late director threw his wrap party here for "A Prairie Home Companion"), Margaret Atwood (the author of "A Handmaid's Tale" who was in town for the Minnesota Opera's production of her book) or just a gardenvariety reporter like me.
That feeling is something Nancy, 54, says anyone can give their guests, even if they don't reside at a place called Dove Hill or have a full-time staff.
Nancy knows this because she's the child of a band director and a homemaker from Mahtomedi, in touch with her middle-class Minnesota roots. Now, however, she is the Queen of Summit Avenue with a business card that says "Nancy Nicholson, Executive Curator and Queen, 260 Summit Avenue."
The Nicholsons do a lot of entertaining at Dove Hill every year they host events for 30 to 40 organizations ranging from historical to the arts to the library to political groups. This year, Nancy and Dick, a portfolio manager, are gearing up for more entertaining when the Republican National Convention comes to St. Paul at the end of September.
So I went back to Dove Hill to chat with Nancy about her preparations.
Once again, I received the royal treatment. Nancy ushered me down the 90-foot first-floor corridor to her living room, where she sat me down in a plush chair, pulled over an ottoman and insisted I put my feet up since I was nine months pregnant.
I did so, wincing in embarrassment, as I rested my red Crocs on the plush fabric. As I settled in, the housekeeper brought me water with lemon in a beautiful glass.
Then Nancy inquired after my health and soon put me at ease. That's Nancy's gift as a hostess. Here are some of her insights:
Q: How many events will you host at Dove Hill during the RNC?
Possibly four. The primary one so far is the Big Tent Event with Sally Pillsbury (a
Q Will there be a tent?
No, because my house is so large. The speakers will give their addresses in the ballroom on the second floor, and we have plenty of room on the first floor for any overflow. We may put video screens down here. The event itself has its own media person, and I've been told the TV channels will be here, including CNN, which is a first. But listen, just to be clear, Dick and Nancy are not hosting the RNC. This is more about Dove Hill being open for the RNC.
Q Why is this worth the hassle?
I exude so much energy when I do something like this. I love it. I love the interaction with people. The joy of sharing my home is pretty unique.
Q What did the event's organizers think of your house?
We were at the University Club, and the guy from D.C. said, "Can you describe your house?" and I said, "No, I really can't." He was blown away when he saw it, running up and down the stairs, considering all the possibilities while still wanting to respect the beauty of the home.
Q How many people are you expecting for the event on Sept. 2?
I think it's 400 guests. We're not the only event that evening, but I don't think anyone will want to go anywhere else!
Q Does the guest list include President Bush or John McCain?
Not that I know of. But I've been told the guests do include the California governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Rudy Giuliani.
Q What will you serve?
The event starts at 5:30 p.m.; we'll serve hors d'oeuvres and cocktails.
Q Will it be catered?
We're using the St. Paul Hotel as caterers throughout the whole week.
Q Will you use your own linens, glasses and china?
The hotel will provide it all. I don't need to have anything more than the flowers and potpourri.
Q But do you have a lot of other things to do, like extra cleaning?
No, the house is always pretty spic-and-span.
Q It sounds like you're so not stressing.
Usually, I see it as my responsibility to create the energy for a party. But in this case, the RNC already has an energy all its own.
Q What other events will you host here at Dove Hill during the RNC?
We're hosting a welcome-to-the-convention cocktail party through Norm Coleman for the Republican Jewish Coalition. The other two events are tentative, a luncheon for the senators' wives and a breakfast for the Reagan Club.
Q Do you have any advice for throwing a party that the rest of us could use?
One of the things I focus on is the first five people who arrive. That's when it's really quiet. It's almost like a death silence. So, you should have some type of music going on. It's part of entertaining the five senses. It's important that all the five senses are happy. That's why it's important to have fresh flowers or potpourri that people smell when they step through the front door. I like lilies. Lighting is also important. I make sure it looks good, I make sure the bar is set up, I taste the specialty drink.
Q You sound so good at this. Not everyone is I've been known to serve my dinner party guests food out of my children's Hello Kitty serving bowls.
That's what my friends tell me, too. But everyone has this ability.
Q What about your husband? Does he help you get ready for parties?
No, I hold the calendar. I just tell him what night it is. But he's very good at parties. He throws on a blazer, comes down the stairs and he's very charming.
Q How do you know if a party is a success?
My biggest compliment is when people don't leave.
Q Tell me about your last party.
It was last week, for the Ordway, for new subscribers and friends of the board. We had 130 people here. The Mouldy Figs were playing ragtime music outside. We served the Ordway drink, a pear martini, and then we went up to the ballroom, where people sang snippets of songs from their next season, like "White Christmas."
Q What was your worst party?
It was my first dinner party, for my mother-inlaw. I was a new bride. I cooked something that was brand new to me, duck. It was a fiasco it tasted like liver. I could barely keep the tears from coming. I apologized, but she said, "There's nothing to be sorry about." But I did set the table very nicely.
Q What did you learn from that experience?
I just don't cook duck.
Molly Millett is a Pioneer Press reporter and frequent contributor to Spaces.