Three historical attractions famously draw visitors from all over this region to view their annual holiday displays. It’s worth a trip to Southeastern Massachusetts and across the state line to escape commercial holiday overload by slipping into the elegant homes of the Fall River Historical Society, and Blithewold and the Newport Mansions in southern Rhode Island. These house museums are impressive any time of the year, but each one presents unique offerings that make a December visit extra-special.
Fall River Historical Society
The hidden gem of the south coast is The Fall River Historical Society (451 Rock St., www.fallriverhistorical.org) which presents its free Holiday Open House till Dec. 30. It has hosted the event for more than 20 years in a 19th-century granite mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places. From the original black iron fence that wraps around the building (designed to resemble waves crashing on the shore) to its stunning Victorian-period rooms including the magnificent round dining room, the property whisks visitors back in time. Three uniquely decorated trees are set within three well-appointed rooms. The showpiece tree this year is “Lady de Winter,” 9 feet tall and adorned in brocade-like fabric cascading from a woman’s torso. The allusion to dressmaking — a vintage sewing machine sits nearby — recalls Fall River’s past as a textile capital as well as the many private seamstresses who made dresses for society women of the Victorian age.
The three trees are designed and constructed by historical society curator Michael Martins and assistant curator Dennis Binette. “We never repeat a tree,” says Martins. The curators — with a little help from volunteers — have had to up the ante on their designs since last year’s tree, titled “Rhapsody in Silver and Snow,” won second place in the Holiday and Decorative Association international tree design competition, no minor feat for a small historical society. “People don’t expect to see this in Fall River,” says Martins of the Open House displays. “We get comments all the time from people who say they’ve discovered a hidden gem. It’s worth the trip to make a day of it.”
No visit to the historical society is complete without browsing the ornaments and gift items in the Museum Shop and Boutique or splurging on classic candies in the second-floor Sweet Shop. On weekends, visitors can relax in one of three intimate parlors in the historical society-owned and operated Easton Tea Room, in the historic 1870 Alexander Dorrance Easton House at 458 High St. Reservations are recommended (508-679-1071).
A short drive from Fall River is Bristol, R.I., home to Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum (www.blithewold
.org). This 33-acre summer estate, with grand views of Narragansett Bay, was established in 1895 and has been preserved for the since 1976 for the public to experience the house and its spectacular lawns, gardens, specimen trees, historic stone structures, and greenhouse. Although Blithewold (Old English for “happy woodland”) welcomes some 20,000 visitors each year, the Christmas season is its largest draw (along with Daffodil Days, when tens of thousands of daffodils trumpet the arrival of spring to visitors). Blithewold’s Christmas theme this year is “A Garden for All Seasons,” with halls, staircases, and rooms in the Queen Anne-style mansion decorated with trees, mantle displays, and wreaths.
Running till Jan. 3, “A Garden for All Seasons” celebrates the love for nature and horticulture that is central to all activities and events at the estate; its original owners, the Van Wickle family, were avid horticulturalists. “Our decorators are all volunteers; we close Columbus Day and the work starts immediately,” says Tree Callanan, Blithewold’s communications director. The garden theme, for instance, includes “natural displays with twigs, Spanish moss and pinecones, all elegantly presented,” she says.
Admission to tour the 12-room mansion is $12 for adults, with discounts for seniors and families, but the gardens are free and open to the public except for a modest charge for a new event this year. “Sparkle! An Outdoor Family Event” takes place Friday evenings from 6-8 p.m. Guests can stroll through Blithewold’s illuminated gardens and fully-decorated greenhouse. There will be carol singing, hot cocoa, and s’mores around bonfires in Blithewold’s Enclosed Garden.
Visitors can also enjoy afternoon tea in the dining room (the price includes admission to the mansion for touring before or after tea; seatings at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tue-Fri). The mansion is open for tours 11 a.m.-
5 p.m., Tue-Sun.
Just 15 miles by car from Bristol is Newport, with its Gilded Age mansions. The Preservation Society of Newport County (www.newportmansions.org) maintains the mansions not just as first-class historical house museums but three of them — The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House, all National Historic Landmarks — are also holiday season showcases featuring 24 decorated Christmas trees, music, tours, a gingerbread mansion contest, shopping events, and visits from Santa Claus. Thousands of poinsettias, fresh flowers, evergreens, and wreaths fill the vast rooms. Dining tables are set with period silver and china and the windows of each mansion are lighted with individual white candles.
There are displays so impressive that they return year after year, like the 15-foot-tall red poinsettia tree in the Great Hall of The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo completed in 1895 for tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt II. There are also new displays and variations on traditional themes. At The Breakers, the annual display of gingerbread mansions created by local bakers moves to the second floor loggia, creating a holiday village. Kids of all ages will be awed by the garden scale model of the New York Central Railroad that runs through it.
The Elms, a French-style chateau built in 1901 for Philadelphia coal magnate Edward J. Berwind, will show off a new display this year: a Victorian streetscape scene in the ballroom, with sleighs, mannequins dressed in period costumes, and a topiary horse and footman with lantern.
Marble House, built in 1892 as the summer “cottage” of Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, will be the site for a local garden club holiday competition. Eight garden clubs will design and install mantelpiece decorations on the second-floor fireplaces, based on each room’s decor.
All three houses are open daily for tours through Jan. 3. A Winter Passport ticket providing daytime admission to all three is $29.49 for adults, $9 for children ages 6-17. There’s a separate admission to Holiday Evenings at the Newport Mansions which features light refreshments and live holiday music by artists including the Newport Navy Choristers and pianist John Black (Dec. 12 at The Breakers); New England Tenors (Dec. 19 at The Elms); and Voices of Xmas Victorian Carolers (Dec. 19 at Marble House).Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.