This Florida Cottage Was Made For Holiday Hosting

Exterior of quaint cottage decorated for Christmas
PHOTO: JAMES RANSOM

When Nicklaus and Sid Williams-Heath moved to Nicklaus’ hometown of Gulf Breeze, Florida, they built their house with holiday hosting in mind. In fact, their first Christmas party, an annual caroling gathering that doubles as Sid’s birthday bash, took place in the studs of the home before it was even finished.

“All we had was the fireplace, so I just set up a Champagne bar and we put out some benches,” Nicklaus recalls. “That, to me, was the first breath of fresh air that gave this house life.”

They worked with architectural designer Robert V. McCown, builder Kevin Russell, and designer Nicholas Pica on the process, which took 16 months from start to finish, but their dream of a “distinctly Southern” home was in the works for far longer than that. Over time, the Williams-Heaths drew inspiration from their travels, including Christmas vacations spent at The Inn at Serenbe in Georgia, Montage Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina, and Alys Beach in Florida, where they were married in 2017.

Christmas tree with gifts underneath in dining room
Gifts are wrapped using materials like a hoop cheese box from Sid’s family business, Williams Brothers General Store, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. JAMES RANSOM

Every element was meticulously selected, and it was no fluke that the first party was held around the fireplace that has become the centerpiece of the couple’s finished home. “Our design was all about porches and entertaining,” says Nicklaus. “The whole house was based around the fireplace.”

Each December, their handiwork is on display, with lights shining through the exterior’s 8-foot-tall windows to showcase every detail. The Lowcountry-style porch is wrapped in a glowing garland and decked with wreaths on every window. Inside, hand- stitched linen stockings hang from the mantel, carols are sung at the Steinway piano in the corner, and an imperfect Christmas tree is adorned with Lenox ornaments in the dining room. These are all things Sid and Nicklaus envisioned from the start.

However, despite drawing plans around their original dreams, the Williams-Heaths are already shaking things up. To their surprise, they’ve become a “taxidermy home,” with deer antlers hung on the walls year-round. Pheasant feathers and magnolia branches spring from arrangements, and their tree has moved locations.

“The house is new; we’re only two Christmases in at this point,” says Nicklaus. “There are certain things that we know will always be there, but even through the month of December, we’re not finished decorating until Christmas Day. It’s always changing.”

Natural Instincts

Neutral dining room with Christmas tree in the back
JAMES RANSOM

Living in New York City and Savannah before moving to the Panhandle, the couple were accustomed to decorating small spaces, so they were forced to focus on the basics. For them, this meant prioritizing the items that brought them the most joy. “The new house was like a blank canvas for us to explore what really comes to life,” Nicklaus says. “For me, it’s all about bringing in natural elements that we already have and expanding upon that, so we’re simplifying Christmas.”

Natural holiday inspired place setting on wood table
Woven place mats and cloth napkins bring texture to the table, where each spot is set with an ornament on its place card. JAMES RANSOM

A Well-Loved Tree

Close up of ornaments on a Christmas tree
JAMES RANSOM

“We’ve had some Christmases when we didn’t use a single ornament,” says Nicklaus. But when the duo moved into this house and had more space for storing decorations, they embraced heirlooms, specifically the collection of Lenox ornaments that Nicklaus’ grandmother has been gifting him since birth. He says that this year, they also borrowed her classic white candles for another “layer of nostalgia” on the tree. “It’s been so special creating our own traditions as a family,” he says.

Main Attraction

Cozy natural living room decorated for Christmas
JAMES RANSOM

The focal point in the home is the living room fireplace. “I want our guests, and even us, to be able to walk in and just see the greenery, white lights, pine cones, and stockings,” Nicklaus says of the mantel’s decor. Although the house is a new build, the couple envisioned a columnar fireplace that appeared as if it had been there for years, so they had a mason throw and break the bricks to make it feel as original as possible.

Grand Gesture

Bright kitchen with white and wood elements and greenery
Nicklaus bakes cookies every Christmas. Much like the home’s aesthetic, the treats are done in neutral colors. “He uses only green and white M&M’s,” says Sid. JAMES RANSOM

The kitchen is the first thing you see upon entering the house, so the couple calls it the greeting point. During the holiday season, the stove is often topped with a fragrant simmer pot, but Sid admits, “Just as many cocktails come out of the kitchen as meals.” Nicklaus’ favorite beverage is an old-fashioned, while Sid prefers something bubbly.

Cocktails Around Every Corner

Table nook with white chairs and natural elements and Christmas decorations
JAMES RANSOM

The couple believes each room deserves a special element, whether it’s a gingerbread house on a table, a massive 5-foot wreath on a porch, or a tiny tree on a desk. They also create serving stations throughout. “We’ll set up bars in outdoor spaces and all over the house,” says Sid. “We’ll put Champagne in the courtyard and sometimes have a bar on the screened porch. People can travel with a sip!”

All-Season Entertaining

Courtyard with table and porch swing with large Christmas wreath
JAMES RANSOM

The home is 2,800 square feet, but that size doubles thanks to the courtyard, screened porch and front overhang. “It’s perfect for us. We entertain all the time, and the vision has always been that each room should have outdoor access to help [with the traffic flow],” Nicklaus explains. Living in Florida, they are able to utilize the exterior space year-round, but when the fire is on, so is the air conditioner. “The AC may be our best decoration,” he jokes.

Musical Memories

Brown piano in the corner of bright room
JAMES RANSOM

Nicklaus is a gifted pianist and is known to lead a chorus of partygoers in celebratory tunes on the Steinway. He even breaks out his old childhood carol book and displays it on the piano for the duration of the season. When he’s not playing, his go-to music to pipe through the house is Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s Once Upon a Christmas.

Signature Gift

Man holding basket of simmer kits
JAMES RANSOM

Every year, the couple makes DIY “simmer kits” to hand out as party favors and neighborhood presents. Each of the bundles includes an orange from Sid’s dad’s store plus cranberries, rosemary, and tree clippings along with a recipe card for friends and family to save. “We started with 10 and now make over 100 every year,” says Sid.

Sentimental Greeting

Four-post bed frame with natural aesthetic and greenery
Nicklaus has an assortment of Byers’ Choice Carolers that he began collecting during his dental residency in New York. “Love them or hate them—they’re going to start a conversation,” he says. JAMES RANSOM

Sid put a four-poster bed in the guest suite specifically so he could drape garland around it this time of year. Visitors are welcomed with a note, a small gift, and what he calls “the full experience of Christmas,” as the greenery is bound to shed during a good night’s sleep. The couple often shares an article about the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City. “Not only does it give our guests a smile, but every time I look at it, it reminds me of where we began,” Nicklaus says of the clipping.

Subtle Points

Primary bedroom with neutral color palette and feathers over the headboard
JAMES RANSOM

“There was not a feather in the house that I didn’t help pick out. But during the grand reveal, I discovered that Nicklaus had gotten a lady to calligraph our wedding vows for art over the nightstands,” says Sid of the primary bedroom.

Guest bathroom with white tongue-and-groove walls and wood floors
JAMES RANSOM

Their bath is the only place in the home with tongue-and-groove walls. “Nicklaus wanted it to feel very old-world, like your great-grandmother’s house,” he notes.