Garland wrapped around sloped railings. Trees strung with lights and ornaments. Poinsettias, wreaths, and brightly colored bows. Warm hues of gold, green, and red. This is what the holidays look like in Rhode Island’s most festive historic homes – but how?
“It’s a house, so we’re representing and interpreting its history,” says Kathy Hartley, President of Friends of Hearthside. In the case of Lincoln’s Hearthside House Museum, which has been featured in Yankee Magazine and Early American Life, the Christmas decoration process is completely volunteer: Individuals or groups adopt a room to decorate appropriately. Appropriately meaning period-appropriate; decorations can span through the eras of the house’s lifetime, from 1810 when it was built to when the last owners moved out in 1997. Each room has its own personality, says Hartley. The attic is rustic, the formal room is glitzy Victorian, the kitchen is colonial, and the library is reminiscent of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In total, it takes two-and-a-half weeks and 15 volunteers to ready all ten rooms for the season’s debut on December 2. Hartley wants visitors to learn just as much as they admire: “How did we come about to hang a Christmas stocking? What is the meaning of holly and mistletoe?”
“We all grumble when we’re working so hard, but then when the public comes in and you watch how they enjoy it, it really does make it all worth it,” she confesses.
Jim Donahue, Curator of Historic Landscapes and Christmas Coordinator at the Newport Mansions, feels similarly. “Decorating goes on while the houses are still open, so we’ll always get people asking ‘Can you come do mine next?’”
Donahue has been in charge of decorating the Mansions for the last ten years, alongside a team of volunteers who dedicate 400 hours of help over the four to five week installation process. For Donahue, however, the planning process for next year starts as soon as this year’s trimmings have come down in January. Like Hearthside, ornamentation is matched to the house: The Elms is French Country, The Breakers is modeled after the Vanderbilt family Christmases, and Marble House is “just over the top.” The crowning jewel on the holiday crown is The Breakers’ massive, 15-foot poinsettia tree, composed of 150 plants arranged on a wooden frame to resemble an evergreen, grown by the Gardens and Grounds Department.
All those involved in decorating agree that planning is the most crucial component. “The undertaking of decorating for Christmas at Linden Place starts with a concise game plan in place,” divulges professional landscape artist and board member Daniel Wallace. Like Donahue, he’s been orchestrating the process for the last ten years. He and his “wonderful and creative group of volunteers” stick to traditional decor, but sometimes add a twist with current trends, colors, and materials. This season’s theme, “The Art of Christmas,” will feature works by contemporary Rhode Island artists. Amazingly, Linden’s installation, due to a strict set of guidelines, takes only two days.
While you may have wandered the halls of these historic homes in their usual state, there is truly something special about seeing their glimmering transformation for the holidays, a product of many, many hours of hard work.
Donahue insists, “Even if you’ve done [a tour] before, it’s well worth another visit.”
Find other historic homes dressed in their holiday best: Blithewold in Bristol, Aldrich Mansion and Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum in Warwick, Lippitt House in Providence, and Sprague Mansion in Cranston.