The winter holidays are an ideal time to visit some of our favorite house museums. Many decorate with Christmas trees, Menorahs and holiday greenery, giving visitors design ideas for their own homes while showing how holiday decorations reflected the aesthetics and trends of their time. And, this is a holiday activity everyone can enjoy, that requires no special equipment and that keeps us in out of the cold. Many historic house museums are retrofitted for universal access. Here are just a few of the houses worth a visit during this years’ holiday season:
The White House
This is a good time to remember that the White House is this country’s own house museum. Public tours of the White House are free of charge and can be scheduled through your congressional representative. The annual holiday decorations are eagerly awaited and endlessly discussed, so, to tour the house and view them in person, you need to sign up early. If Washington, D.C. is not on your itinerary, you may take a virtual tour, but it will not include the Christmas decorations. The White House does, however, post pictures of its holiday décor.
A plus for live visitors: the White House has lifted its longstanding camera and photo ban on public tours. Guests are now welcome to take photos throughout the White House tour route and are encouraged to share their photos using the hashtag #WhiteHouseTour. Phones and compact still cameras with a lens no longer than three inches are allowed.
The Eustis Estate
Christmas decorations and celebrations are at their best in Victorian houses. It was during the 19th century Victorian era that Christmas became an American holiday celebration, crossing the pond after Queen Victoria adopted the holiday celebrated by her German husband, Prince Albert. The Victorians did Christmas as they did everything else: in high style.
The Eustis Estate, a grand brick and stone pile built outside Boston in 1878, is widely recognized as a tour de force of Queen Anne design. Thus, it is the kind of over-the-top Victorian house that looks like a Christmas card even before there is any decoration.
Accordingly, the house’s owner, Historic New England, puts on a big holiday display, including a 12-foot Christmas tree, lavishly draped mantels and bannisters, a Christmas tea, a craft fair, musical performances and, for the little ones, one-on-one time with Santa. It’s easier to believe in Santa when surrounded by lush holiday greenery and when carols echo through the rooms.
The French Renaissance-style chateau built by George Vanderbilt in Ashville, North Carolina in 1895 is a great favorite of old-house lovers, especially when it’s decorated for Christmas. For the holidays, floral displays manager Cathy Barnhardt and her staff erect 60 Christmas trees, drape intricate mantels and surrounds with faux garlands, and fill generous containers with seasonal garden clippings. And that’s just for the 250-room house; it doesn’t include the estate’s winery, inn, and grounds. “It may not be a literal interpretation, but visitors are definitely going to get a feel for the Gilded Age,” says Barnhardt.
Filoli is a vibrant landscape of the Bay Area, in Woodside, California. With 654 acres nestled along the slopes of California’s coastal range, it was originally built as a private residence in 1917. The property is considered one of the finest remaining country estates of the 20th century, featuring a 54,000+ square-foot Georgian revival-style mansion, 16 acres of exquisite English Renaissance gardens, a 6.8-acre Gentleman’s Orchard, and hundreds of acres of Natural Lands.
Although the gardens are a big attraction most of the year, the holidays see the estate transformed into a winter wonderland, both inside and out. The house celebrates color and light with a fresh new take on holiday decor in every room, while the gardens feature special holiday touches during the day and are elegantly lit in the evening. And, on Friday and Saturday evenings, carolers roam the rooms and gardens while broadcasting Christmas cheer.