As I rounded the corner onto the Park Street sidewalk in Portland’s posh West End, I heard the faint notes of Christmas carols. By the time I turned onto Danforth Street and stood looking up at the opulent brownstone edifice of the Victoria Mansion, I could see the source of the music: Five members of the Choral Art Society were singing in harmony from the vestibule atop the front steps.

The vocalists were there to greet guests as they arrived at the 26th annual Christmas at the Victoria Mansion Gala held the evening of Dec. 2.

The party celebrates the holiday transformation of the 19th-century mansion at the hands of area floral designers. This year, the decorating theme is “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and the participating designers outdid themselves creating unexpected spaces filled with the season’s signature colors and cheer.

“It’s a challenge because you’re working within a museum,” designer Dan Kennedy of Harmon’s & Barton’s told me. “But a fun challenge.”

For the past 19 years, Kennedy has been in charge of the holiday decor in the Gustave Herter-designed parlor. This season he and his team, which included Jo Marsanskis and Tracy Elliott, used the Seven Swans A-Swimming theme to make over the room into a winter wonderland.

“We brought in over 100 yards of silver satin fabric, feathers and more feathers,” Kennedy said.

While Kennedy has become a seasoned pro at decorating the mansion for the holiday, the design team from Dodge the Florist tackled the red bedroom for the first time this year.

“We started thinking about it last summer,” said designer Gail Diamon, who worked with Shannon Hanley and Paul Weston to decorate the bedroom using the Eight Maids A-Milking theme.

Once the planning was complete, the actual installation of the design elements took about a month of careful construction and placement.

“Before the designers come in, I strip the rooms of all the small breakable things and have movers move the furniture,” museum curator Arlene Palmer Schwind told me.

Still the designers have to be careful not to mar any of the museum’s priceless fixtures and furnishings as they install the decorations.

When I had a chance to catch up with former board member Harry Sawyer, he recalled how in the 1940s the mansion was slated to be torn down to make way for a gas station. By the time he first glimpsed the interior in the 1980s, which was when he joined the nonprofit house museum’s newly formed board, the cherished trompe l’oeil wall paintings were peeling, the ceilings were crumbling and the house was in a general state of decay.

“It was dirty and dusty and the stairs wouldn’t be pretty, like they are now,” Sawyer told me.

Over the ensuing years, historic preservation grants and the generous support of local donors have allowed the museum to slowly restore both the interior and exterior of the National Historic Landmark.

Most recently, replicas of the original brownstone finials were installed on the front steps, and right now a restoration of the Pompeiian-style bathroom suite is under way.

At this time of year, the staff is focused on the large number of visitors who come to see the elegantly decorated rooms.

“It’s become such a ritual for many people in the Christmas season,” Schwind said.

“What amazes me is people who came here as children, now come with their children,” added recently appointed director Tom Johnson.

But in our modern era of clean lines and uncluttered spaces, there’s something magical about a house designed to wow guests with grandeur and luxury.

As designer Marsanskis told me, “When you’re in here decorating and it’s quiet, you can feel the spirit of what was.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]

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