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Offbeat wedding venues grow in popularity

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In a touch of whimsy, a donkey briefly stole the spotlight during the ceremony of Giacomo Marchese and Dani Taylor at Winslow Farm in Norton.
In a touch of whimsy, a donkey briefly stole the spotlight during the ceremony of Giacomo Marchese and Dani Taylor at Winslow Farm in Norton.Drew B. Photography

One of the fundamentals of wedding etiquette is to never upstage the bride and groom. But no one told Stardust about this.

The donkey thought nothing of walking right in front of Dani Taylor and Giacomo Marchese as they exchanged vows on a crisp fall day last October in front of a small group of family and close friends.

"It was absolutely hilarious and exactly what I hoped for," said Taylor, 29.

The Haverhill couple held their wedding ceremony at Winslow Farm Animal Sanctuary in Norton, where 140 animals, including alpacas and donkeys, are allowed to roam free. Taylor and Marchese, 35, are among a growing number of couples who are opting to hold their nuptials in offbeat or unusual venues, driven by a desire to have a unique and memorable event.


Both vegans and active in the animal rights community, the couple wanted a venue that would reflect their personalities and that wasn't cookie-cutter.

"When we visited this one it was breathtaking, and the animals were so well taken care of," Taylor said. "All the animals were together; animals you wouldn't think would be together, like cats and chickens, and it was very, very clean. It was like the Garden of Eden."

Winslow's president and founder, Debra White, said she hosts only two or three weddings a year at the sanctuary, which is open year-round. The weddings must have no more than 25 people and must be catered, since there is no kitchen.

"It's whimsical," White said. "The buildings themselves are very historic-looking. It's a lot of flowers and herbs, and the fire pit is always lit and smoke fills the air, and around every corner there's a theme."

Many couples are holding personalized weddings in other nontraditional venues, including public parks, museums, or even their own homes. Industry-wide, historic buildings and homes and farm venues have grown in popularity since 2009, according to a survey by The Knot , a wedding resource site. In 2014, the use of historic buildings and homes for weddings ticked up to 14 percent from 12 percent in 2009. Farms made up 6 percent of venues in 2014, up from 3 percent in 2009.


There has been a slow decline of about 5 percent in wedding ceremonies in houses of worship, said Lauren Kay, The Knot's senior style editor.

"It used to be you booked a hall, a caterer, flowers, and every wedding just felt the same. And now couples want it to be different," Kay said. "Personalization is really huge, and it's going to continue to play a role in weddings for many years to come."

Cost motivated Kelley Shortsleeves, 28, and Jesse Godin, 34, to seek a venue that would allow them to take charge of all the details. An online search led them to the Kaleva Lodge at Fort Pond in Littleton, a campground for the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva, a Finnish society group.

The waterfront lodge proved to be the ultimate venue for the do-it-yourself couple, since nothing was provided but tables and chairs and a kitchen restricted to reheating food. The casual event in August was meant to embody a backyard barbecue incorporating aspects of the couple's personalities — scientific flasks as flower vases for her, and heavy-metal band photo markers in lieu of table numbers for him.

"It didn't seem like it was a traditional place to have a wedding; it was more casual and laid back, which is what we wanted to do," Shortsleeves said.

Veering away from the traditional also extended to their choice of April Ward-Stanbrook, also known as the Offbeat Officiant , as their justice of the peace. Ward-Stanbrook, a tattooed, flaming pink-red haired JP from Brockton, also officiated the Taylor-Marchese wedding at the animal sanctuary.


Since 2013, Ward-Stanbrook has officiated about 65 weddings, with about 10 of them at someone's home.

"I don't own one of those traditional JP black robes," she said. "I try to make the entire process really fun for the couple. I want them to feel like they're getting married by a friend."

Her unconventional look and approach persuaded Journey and Amy Joyner-Mayr to hire Ward-Stanbrook for their nuptials in June at Borderland State Park in North Easton.

"We're a lesbian couple and wanted someone comfortable with that," Journey said, adding that they also wanted a nontraditional location in a natural setting.

Because they were paying for the wedding themselves, Journey and Amy opted for a state park, which only required a modest permit fee to reserve.

The state's Department of Conservation and Recreation issues 50 to 70 park and beach permits for weddings between spring and fall each year, according to a spokesman. Most permits, however, are issued at the local park staff level for smaller weddings.

An offbeat venue does not necessarily mean low budget, said Holly Fawcett, a wedding planner who runs In the Pink Ink Events in Waltham. She advises couples to first come up with a realistic budget before any decisions are made.

"Based on that, is a unique location more cost-effective? It can be, but it depends on the finishes the client wants: the food, the designs, those are the things that kind of add up," Fawcett said. "Some places that are so unique, beautiful, and amazing to have a wedding at, you have to make allocations for a kitchen, for tenting for your guests."


Ana Stefanovich, who runs North Shore Weddings by Ana in Manchester-by-the-Sea, said she has planned an increasing number of weddings in unusual locations over the past few years, including last September's nuptials of Aisling Juanjuan Niska and Christian Andrew Niska on stage at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.

"Nowadays, people get married everywhere," Stefanovich said. "There's no right or wrong, as long as it represents the couple."

Because of its concert schedule, Shalin Liu mainly accommodates spring and fall weddings, with only a few in the summer, said Karen Herlitz, marketing director. On stage, couples are framed by 30-foot-tall windows that overlook the ocean.

"It's truly a unique, beautiful, and artistic place, vastly different from any other wedding venue out there," said Aisling Juanjuan Niska. "It's perfect for us, as we were looking for something near water that had its own identity, not your typical wedding-photo mansion or beach."

Aisling Juanjuan Niska (left) held her wedding at Shalin Liu Performance Center, overlooking the sea in Rockport.
Aisling Juanjuan Niska (left) held her wedding at Shalin Liu Performance Center, overlooking the sea in Rockport.Hadrien Dimier

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.