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Homes for the Holidays

By Michal Strutin
November 11, 2022

Before December arrives, the people who preserve historic homes go into high gear. Lights and more lights, Christmas trees to fit any room, sparkling with decorations. Wreaths and greenery loop from doors, mantels, and bannisters. There’s likely a historic home near you that is decorated and illuminated to make you catch your breath.  

Besides the season’s cheer, most of these historic homes help readers and writers visualize how the wealthy lived in times past: everything from tapestries to knurled newel posts. Pinterest is another good place to see furnishings of the past. Most of the examples below include virtual tours, but if you plan to visit a historic home for the holidays, now’s the time to make your reservations. 

John Ownby’s cabin, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s more difficult to see how humbler folk lived. While researching my book History Hikes of the Smokies, rangers told me that when the park was created and landowners moved out, the park destroyed most of their houses, cabins, barns, and outbuildings. Historians stepped in and said, “These display history. Keep some.” The snowy image of John Ownby’s cabin comes with a historical sketch of How to Get By in Winter: from cabin fever and music to food and quilting. 

To find historic homes, buildings, and scenes within the National Park System, go to Find a Park. There you can narrow your search from dropdowns: state; activity, such as “living history”; and topic, such as American Revolution or Architecture and Building. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also has historic sites of note, such as the African Meeting House, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Touro Synagogue. To find historic sites near you, do a Google search for your state, county, etc. plus “historic site.” You can add to that “virtual tour,” “living history,” or “reenactment.” Try the same search at YouTube. Historic homes often charge fees—small to large—for live tours. 

The most magnificent and largest of U.S. historic homes is Biltmore (see at top), the home of the Vanderbilts in Asheville, North Carolina. A Christmas video tour is available here. When I lived “over the hill” in Johnson City, Tennessee, I visited numerous times. For Gilded Age magnificence and innovation, you can’t beat it. You can see what a modern kitchen, bathroom, and one of the first indoor swimming pools looked like in 1895. The Biltmore Estate also has fine gardens, woods, meadows, inns, and the French Broad River.  

Rocky Mount State Historic Site, Piney Flats, TN

At the other end of the scale, near Johnson City, is one of the best living history sites I’ve seen: Rocky Mount State Historic Site. Re-enactors in historical costumes show you around the late 1700s farm and explain what terms such “sleep tight” and “towhead” mean. Sleep tight: in those days, straw mattresses lay atop a weave of ropes. When the ropes sagged, they needed to be pulled tight for a good night’s sleep. Towhead is someone with a mop of blond hair, the color of the unusable tow fibers discarded when carding flax. 

Orchard House, Concord, MA

The home of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, saw the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and other renowned writers and thinkers of the 19th century. Built in the 17th century, Orchard House is rich with history. The online site includes a brief trailer for the Emmy award-winning documentary of Orchard House, which includes commentators such as Annie Leibovitz and Laura Bush.

 

Connemara, Flat Rock, NC

Carl Sandburg, the “Poet of the People,” lived at Connemara with his wife, Paula Steichen Sandburg, the last two decades of his life. Their home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, is a national historic site, and the online site includes multimedia exhibits, a virtual tour , and Connemara at Christmas.



The White House, Washington, D.C.

The White House at Christmas, 2021: photographs of eleven rooms, an overarching theme, and a brief history of each room. That year, the White House had 41 Christmas trees and more than 10,000 ornaments. Concluding this photo tour is a virtual tour.

 



Lyndhurst Mansion, Tarrytown, NY

Overlooking the Hudson River, Lyndhurst Mansion sits in a 67-acre park in Tarrytown, New York. Built in 1838 in Gothic Revival architecture, it was owned by a New York mayor, a railroad tycoon, and others and has been used as a set for numerous films, including The Gilded Age, The Blacklist, and Winter’s Tale. You can take a virtual tour or a photo tour.

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, Hyde Park, NY

 

The home of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York, is part historic home and part a museum of F.D.R.’s presidency. You can—and I did—spend hours delving into the stories and artifacts of his presidency. You can also tour virtually and examine more than 100 of the home’s items, complete with their histories.

 

Filoli, Woodside, CA

Just south of San Francisco, at the foot of the coastal range, Filoli is a Georgian Revival mansion, an English Renaissance garden, an orchard, and a nature preserve. Built in 1917 as a private home, it is now open to the public and is considered “one of the finest remaining country estates of the 20th century.” Its virtual holiday tour is fine, too.

 

Vaile Mansion, Independence, MO

YouTube offers a wonderful tour of Vaile Mansion, in Independence, Missouri. Your guides reveal all sorts of details about artifacts such as “diamond dust” mirrors. I’ve included Vaile Mansion not so much for its holiday finery as for its fascinating historical facts.

 

Stetson Mansion, Deland, FL

The holiday ornamentation of the Stetson Mansion in Deland, Florida, is described in this video as “glamorous and extravagant” Gilded Age. No doubt about it. Long before Mar-a-a.a.a, this first luxury mansion in Florida was built in 1886 for hat manufacturer John B. Stetson. The mansion had the first electric Christmas lights, installed by Edison himself.  

Davenport House, Savanna, GA

Davenport House, in Savanna, Georgia, tells the stories of those who lived in the house—both free and enslaved—during the early 19th century. The online experience includes a component not seen in many historic homes: the stories of specific enslaved people told through their artifacts and the rooms where they lived. Davenport House also has a photo gallery and a virtual tour.

James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD, painting by William H. Johnson

If historic homes of Black Americans exist—holiday or not—I couldn’t find them. Attribute that to slavery and redlining. Baltimore, one of the largest Black-majority cities in America, has a fine collection of museums that spans a broad swath of African-American history: seven museums devoted to civil rights, Frederick Douglass, paintings and prints by artists such as William H. Johnson, and more.

 

The Tenement Museum, New York City, NY

The Tenement Museum tells the stories of groups whose stories are not represented by elegant homes with holiday trimmings. Since 1863, two historical tenement buildings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side were home to about 15,000 people from more than 20 nations—refugees fleeing antisemitism, poverty, fascism, and other threats. Explore life, digitally, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Or listen to the award-winning podcasts: How to Be American. I’ve visited this inspirational place of American intersection, where “immigrant” is not a bad word, and where some of my relatives lived. You can see how people dwelled, cheek by jowl, in apartments furnished with historical everything.

If you have examples of other historic homes that have that holiday glow, please note them in the comments.

 Happy (upcoming) Holidays.  

Michal Strutin
Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

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