One of Maine’s crowning jewels kicked off the holiday season in awe-inspiring style Wednesday night, celebrating the grandeur of the Gilded Age at Christmastime.
The Victoria Mansion on Danforth Street in Portland came alive under festive lights and merry decadence true to the age known for its great wealth and even greater competitive spirit personified by the notion that “none shall be outdone.” With garlands of evergreens wrapped in brightly colored bows and magical lighting that was both intimate and apt, guests dressed in their holiday best were treated to a singular experience.
“He wanted to show off his wealth,” explained Sandra Riley, citing the original owner’s propensity for extravagant display. “You don’t build a place like this because you are shy.” Riley, first vice president and a trustee of the mansion, knows a thing or two about Ruggles Sylvester Morse, a man of modest means born in Leeds who went on to make his fortune as a proprietor of luxury hotels in New Orleans. And this was his summer home.
“We are the singular, most important pre-Civil War house to survive in America,” boasted Thomas Johnson, director of the Victoria Museum. “We are better known nationally and internationally than we are in our own state.”
Actually, it’s no boast. The mansion, also known as the Morse-Libby House, is a national historic landmark built by the architect Henry Austin of New Haven, Conn., in the Italianate style between 1858 and 1860. The interiors, created by leading 19th century designer Gustave Herter, were not only his earliest commission, but the only one to survive intact today.
This is nothing short of miraculous considering the house fell into disrepair after experiencing extensive damage from a hurricane in 1938. It was scheduled to be demolished in 1940 to make way for a gas station when Dr. William H. Holmes purchased it and opened it to the public as a museum in 1941, naming it after Queen Victoria. And that’s how this grand old dame got her name.
“We always use to say it’s the finest example of Victorian architecture in the United States,” recalls past president Dodie Detmer, host of the very first Christmas at the mansion, back in 1970.
Perhaps one of the most impressive rooms on this evening is the dining room, designed and decorated by Gail Diamon, owner of Dodge the Florist in Portland, and her two designers Robin Turnbull and Shannon Hanley.
“It’s a long process, started in the summer,” explains Diamon, one of the many designers and local business people who volunteered not only their time but also their design expertise to bring the mansion into its full glory for the season. “This was the first year we’ve done the dining room. It was a new challenge.”
And clearly a labor of love. The formal place settings were softened by the lush foliage and gorgeous flowers indicative of the times. A printed menu featuring period foods was researched by Diamon, and a gingerbread replica of the mansion created by Hanley added a lovely holiday touch.
“They didn’t use reds and greens for Christmas back then,” said Turnbull, explaining the feminine feel to the room. “They used a lot of mauve, aqua, deep rose…”
“Dinner parties were really the main thing, all of the socializing happened here,” added Diamon, gesturing to the lavish and yet very welcoming spread.
If only these walls could talk….
“Christmas at Victoria Mansion, The Gilded Age” runs through Jan. 6 and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Margaret Logan is a freelance writer who lives in Scarborough. She can be contacted at: