Decorating tips: From first ladies in grand manses

Had enough of your own house over the holidays? Got some extra vacation time? Be a tourist in your own town and get some ideas for next year’s decorations with a visit to the Jameses– presidential homes of Madison and Monroe.

James Madison’s Montpelier celebrates the season with its fifth annual “Holiday at Home” exhibit.  This year’s exhibit, “Montpelier’s Christmas Through the Years” is a holiday decorator’s fantasy come true. Visitors can actually travel through time as they amble through the mansion, which has been carefully decorated to represent five different historic styles, from the 1790s to the present. 
The simple elegance of James and Dolley Madison’s Federal Christmas (1790) starts things off in the sitting room with a few evergreen sprigs, holly, a Yule log and a Twelfth Night Cake (note: the exhibit closes appropriately on January 6th, Twelfth Night). A naturalistic late Victorian Christmas (1882) follows in the north and south passage halls, followed by an all out “to the hilt with gilt” Edwardian holiday showcase (1902). The final two rooms, historically speaking, are the ones I really want to see. Just perfect for poinsettias is the vibrant “Red Room,” decorated in the arte moderne-deco style (1932) in red with black and white tiles, photomurals and a glass chimney piece.  In stark contrast to all that red is the exhibit’s grand finale, a white and silver contemporary “Winter wonderland,” which both complements and transforms Montpelier’s central hall.  
When you’ve had enough of the big mansion but still want to remain in the past, you can head outside for a stroll in the “Big Woods,” Montpelier’s 200-acre old-growth forest.  The trees of the James Madison Landmark Forest are up to 250 years old and range in size up to 60 inches in diameter. If you prefer to walk with a guide, be sure to sign up (after December 30th) for Montpelier’s annual two-hour winter walk through the woods on January 12th at 2pm.  What a way to walk off those holiday meals!  Ash Lawn-Highland,  the very comfy residence of President James Monroe, is also decked out for the holidays in early 19th century style. Fresh boxwood, fruits and holly adorn the mansion inside and out in graceful manner reminiscent of a time before tinsel, flashing lights and artificial trees. For you historic house and garden lovers who are also music fans, try to plan your visit on December 26th or 27th. At 4:30 pm on these afternoons, you’ll be able to sip spiced cider as you enjoy the seasonal sounds of the Charlottesville trio of  Rick LaRue on violin, Patty Rhines on flute and Elaine Tucker on piano. The trio will fill the hall with a performance of classical Christmas music and traditional caroling. Tours of the house will follow at 5:30pm.

Montpelier’s “Christmas Through the Years” exhibit runs through January 6th. The mansion is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm, but will be closed on January 1st. Montpelier is located on Route 20, four miles southwest of Orange. The “Big Woods Walk” The “Big Woods Walk” will begin at the Montpelier Visitor Center/Museum Shop on Route 20 promptly at 2:00 p.m.  There will be a $8 per-person charge ($4 for children) for this guided, reservations-only tour, which will be limited to 50 participants.  Interested individuals are encouraged to reserve a space by calling Montpelier’s 24-hour RSVP line at 540.672.2728 [press 6 for the RSVP line].  Reservations will be accepted beginning on December 30. For more information on Montpelier, call (540) 672-2728 or visit
    The Ash Lawn holiday concerts will be at 4:30 pm on December 25 and 27, with house tours at 5:30 pm, and spiced cider in the gift shop throughout. Reservations are recommended. The Christmas decorations won’t be taken down until after December 31.  Regular tours will be available daily except for Janurary 1. For reservations and more information, call 293-9539.

Read more on: montpelier