Elaborately hand-painted wall and ceiling decorations, heavily fringed drapery, and highly detailed woodwork are just a few of the elements that make Portland’s Victoria Mansion a prime example of the lavish decor that defines the period. Built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home, the museum—a National Historic Landmark—is especially opulent at Christmastime, when local designers festoon its rooms with holiday displays reflecting a theme. The twelve designers, many of whom participate year after year, have been working in the mansion since November 1, decorating trees, fireplace mantels, and more with their interpretation of this year’s theme: “Christmas in the City by the Sea.” They finished just before Thanksgiving, in time for Christmas at Victoria Mansion to open to the public on Black Friday, November 24. The decorations will stay in place through January 7. “In four weeks, we’re going to see upwards of 10,000 people go through the house—nearly a third of our annual visitation,” says Victoria Mansion executive director Thomas Johnson.
On this late October day, boxes of Christmas decorations—bound for the museum’s gift shop downstairs—already surround the conference table where I’m chatting with Johnson and director of development Sam Heck on the second floor of the museum’s carriage house. “It’s an interesting choice of theme, because the owners of the home didn’t have any direct connection to the nautical trade,” says Heck. “We’re looking for the designers to take a fairly broad interpretation, talking about maritime trade as it relates to the mansion is really talking about Portland and its wealth, and why Portland’s here.” Each designer is responsible for a certain space in the house, and some request the same space every year, while others like to move around. Dan Kennedy of Harmon’s Floral Company has participated in all 34 seasons. “The staff is as interested to see what they’re going to do as our visitors are,” says Johnson. The rooms and spaces are so ornate in themselves it’s a real challenge for them to come up with designs that stand on their own—they don’t overwhelm the rooms, but they enhance them.”
Victorians “invented” the secular celebration of Christmas as we know it today. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced Great Britain to the German tradition of Christmas trees when he installed one at Buckingham Palace in 1840, a practice that quickly migrated across the Atlantic. Sending Christmas cards, and the story of Santa Claus with his gift-laden sleigh are other traditions that date to the Victorian era. For Christmas at Victoria Mansion, however, the designers are not bound by history. “It’s really interesting to see how they reinterpret the designs, says Heck. “It fosters a conversation between the contemporary designs that they’re utilizing and the mansion’s original decor.”
In addition to being open for daily visitors to see the decorations, Victoria Mansion hosts several public holiday events, including a gala to kickoff the season and “Five Dollar First Friday,” when the $16 admission fee ($14 for seniors and AAA members) is reduced to $5—the only time all year the museum participates in Portland’s First Friday Art Walk. Every Wednesday beginning November 29, children ages three to five are invited to Stories on the Staircase, a free event that also includes a mini-tour of the mansion. On December 2, Christmas with Mr. Dickens features British actor Andrew Harris in character as the Victorian author, and dancers from the Portland Ballet will perform scenes from The Victorian Nutcracker at an event on December 3. “The stage setting for The Victorian Nutcracker is actually based on interiors of Victoria Mansion,” says Johnson.
Visiting Victoria Mansion during the holiday season is a tradition for many local families, but there are still those every year discovering it for the first time. “I always tell people who visit at Christmas they should come back in the summer because it’s a totally different house,” says Johnson. “A couple of Christmases ago, a guy who had lived on Park Street—a block away—for 70-odd years had never been inside,” says Heck. “He remembered looking at the house when he was a kid and feeling like he didn’t have access to it. He and his wife had traveled all over the world, and when they finally came in, they were in awe.”