What’s Your Motif?

Local museums offer a treasure trove of decorating ideas. Especially if you’re choosing a theme.

OThe Wilson-Warner House parlor is ready for tea. Photograph by Tom Nutterne of these things is not like the others: Rudolph, Santa Claus and Jane Austen. If you’ve read or watched “Pride & Prejudice,” you know Jane Austen is not a holiday character.

No matter. The early 19th-century author inspired the yuletide decorations at the Historic Houses of Odessa’s Corbit-Sharp House. And she’s not the first author to do so. Last year, Beatrix Potter served as inspiration for the fanciful decor. Fairytale characters Hansel and Gretel provided the theme in 2006.

“For the last 20 years, we’ve chosen 19th-century literature and recreated scenes,” says Brian Miller, the assistant curator, who also teaches art at Middletown High School. “Usually the theme is just one story, but we’ve deviated a little bit from that with authors.”

- Advertisement -

A theme is the backbone of other museums’ holiday trimmings. Winterthur is showcasing du Pont family customs, while Hagley’s stately Eleutherian Mills is highlighting antique toys, in addition to its traditional displays, which include a Colonial Revival Christmas.

For homeowners, the venues are repositories of holiday ideas, especially if you want to carry out a theme. You could allot a different theme for each room, or select an overall theme for the entire house.

A Georgian-style dollhouse carries out a Beatrix Potter theme. Photograph by Tom NutterYour home might have something to say about it.

“It’s important to keep in concert with the age of the house,” says Debra Hughes, curator at Hagley Museum and Library. There is some leeway depending on the house’s history. Eleutherian Mills, for instance, was built in 1803 by a French family that did not celebrate Christmas with fanfare. “It was mostly just a dinner,” Hughes says.

Christmas trees gained fame in the Victorian era. Yet there is no shortage of exuberantly decorated trees at Eleutherian Mills. That is because the house was restored by Louise du Pont Crowninshield, who lived there part time from 1925 to 1958. “Most of the house is in the Colonial Revival style,” Hughes says.

- Partner Content -

Colonial Revival, which began in the late 19th century with the Centennial, became especially fashionable after restoration started on Colonial Williamsburg in 1926, and its popularity continued far into the 20th century, especially on the East Coast. “I’m not sure it’s ever stopped,” Hughes says.

The Corbit-Sharp House long room reflects the 1940s. Photograph by Tom NutterA Colonial Revival Christmas is not necessarily Colonial. “It’s how the folks in the early 20th century portrayed Colonial,” Hughes notes. Candles in the windows, garlands, wreaths, and bowls brimming with fruits and nuts are prime examples.

At Historic Houses of Odessa, Miller and his colleagues choose a theme in part based upon the collection at hand. Certainly, that is part of what is prompting Hagley this year to highlight antique toys. Winterthur this year is placing a new collection of toys in the library.

Homeowners can follow suit by sifting through their own decorations to see if there is a common thread. Think outside the Christmas storage box. You can incorporate dolls, toy trains and dried flowers.

Once you’ve decided on a theme for the house—or individual rooms—decide what you need to buy or borrow. For a Twelfth Night ball—a much-anticipated event during Austen’s time—Miller sought the help of the Dover Symphony Orchestra, whose members let him use their instruments. Last year, for the Beatrix Potter theme, he borrowed items from the Delaware Natural History Museum. Though we don’t all have access to museum collections, we can traipse down to the Dollar Store.

- Advertisement -

Miller reads books or watches movies related to the theme. He garnered plenty of ideas from Potter’s books, which she illustrated. A Georgian-style doll house in a bedroom last year became a prop for Miller’s interpretation of “The Tale of Two Bad Mice.”

Page 2: What’s Your Motif? continues…


In the story, Tom Thumb and his wife, Hunca Munca, sneak into a rodent’s dream home. There’s a problem, however: The food is fake, and the fireplace won’t work. Disgruntled, they rob the house of its furnishings. To give the story a Christmas feel, Miller added two stockings on the bedroom’s fireplace grate and a small tree.

Last summer Miller visited the Jane Austen Center in Bath, England. “Walking around town and going in her house really inspired me,” he says. He’s so dedicated to the theme that this is the first year the house won’t have a Christmas tree, which was lacking in the early 19th century.

Garland dresses a staircase. Photograph by Tom NutterFor the Potter theme, creative license was in order. A clever trellis with scarlet roses on the front door paid homage to Potter’s English roots, yet still provided a splash of holiday color.

Red tulips, another alternative to the expected poinsettias, adorned a whimsical dining room table fit for Peter Rabbit. Moss was used as a tablecloth and carrots stood in for cutlery. Roses also paraded across the mantel of a parlor, decorated for a Christmas morning tea.

No matter the theme or the home’s era, mantels often become swag-draped stages. Hagley has filled glass hurricane lamp globes with artificial fruit and nuts and placed them on the mantels draped with garland.

Hagley staff and volunteers, who spend nearly three weeks decorating the house, have festooned garland and wreaths with everything from seashells to ostrich feathers to quince. Pine cones are easy to find and affix. Miller has decorated stair rails and posts with pine cone-studded garland accented with blowsy bows. Add tiny lights for a festive effect.

Last year the Historic Houses of Odessa chose a Beatrix Potter Christmas Party theme for the Wilson-Warner House.Expect greenery in the Austen-inspired house. “It’s still ‘deck the halls,’” Miller says. “Holly, mistletoe and maybe some boxwood were all popular in her time.”

Winterthur protects its woodwork by tucking greenery around picture frames or decorative objects. A few Christmas ornaments can suddenly add seasonal flavor, says Debbie Harper, curator of education for tour interpretation at Winterthur.

Like Henry Francis du Pont did, use color to make an impact. Winterthur’s popular dried flower tree this year will stand in the Port Royal Entrance Hall, which boasts 18th-century wallpaper with peonies. The dried flowers, including peonies, will bring out the wallpaper’s hues. Harper has followed the same approach in her dining room, where tree ornaments match the china.

Do what strikes your fancy. “The fun thing is when people put themselves into their holiday decor,” Harper says. “Ultimately, you can make your own traditions.”

  • During the Victorian era, Christmas became a major cause for celebration, decorating and gift-giving. Children became the focus of the holiday. Keep that childlike spirit by incorporating whimsical elements into your holiday decor. Children can help create many of the looks. Here are some tips:
  • Hang construction-paper chains in alternating red and green from all four corners of the dining room, then join them at the chandelier to create a simple but charming effect.
  • Set a small table with a miniature tea set and invite vintage dolls to the party. Put a few dolls under the tree, and scatter old sleighs, ice skates and other toys that suit the season.
  • Hang toys on the tree, which was the custom in the 19th century. Victorians were also fond of decorating with apples, cookies and paper goods. Cut out figures on vintage-style holiday cards, then lace red, green, gold or silver ribbon through a hole.

 Page 3: Fire Protection—With Alarming Style


Fire Protection—With Alarming Style

Last year 412,500 residential fires occurred in the United States, causing 2,580 people to die.

Brian Corbett, fire chief for the Cecilton Volunteer Fire Company and a member of Newark’s Aetna Hose Hook and Ladder Fire Company, has dedicated his life to reducing these grim statistics. He is also co-inventor of EgressLite, a state-of-the-art emergency lighting system designed for residential and commercial use.

“I invented this thing to save lives,” he says.

Most traditional emergency lighting systems have two large incandescent lights fastened to a battery pack. The pack attaches to the wall, protruding between 4 and 6 inches.

In contrast, the EgressLite battery box is placed inside the wall. The only thing visible is a small plate that resembles a light switch. (The plate can be painted to blend with your home’s decor.) In an emergency, the unit detects a loss of power in your home. The recessed lamp housing pops out of the wall to light the area for up to two hours. When power is restored, the unit retreats into the wall and the battery begins recharging.

Due to its slender form, EgressLite was approved by Underwriters Laboratory for installation at any height on a wall or ceiling, which allows for flexibility when incorporating the unit into the design of your home. This is a first in the emergency lighting industry.

South Shore Builders has included the system in the model house for a development in Georgetown.

Residential models range in price from $149 to $275. For more information, visit sentrylight-emergencylight.com.               —Denise Blum

Page 4: Heavy Metal



 Heavy Metal

Don’t throw away that used shock absorber. Judy and Lou Hagen can use it.test

The Millsboro couple is the nationally recognized designer-welder team of 2nd Time Designs, which is known for turning recycled metal scraps into whimsical creations.

The Hagens’ large pieces can be seen at large places. A giant red knot bird guards the DuPont Nature Center at Mispillion Harbor Reserve in Slaughter Beach. Their massive SpongeBob SquarePants hovers over a courtyard at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington.

The work was a hobby until the Hagens appeared on the HGTV show “Offbeat America” in 2006. Since then requests for commissioned work have been rolling in from everywhere.

The process always starts the same way: with a discarded piece of metal. “A part speaks to me,” Judy Hagen says. “It tells me it’s a seahorse.”

Tractor fan blades tell her they want to become purple pansies. Irrigation pipes long to be the legs of hippopotamuses. And combined, bicycle wheels, rainspouts, Christmas tree stands and garage door rollers are reborn as spinning flowers six feet tall.

Most work is priced by size but popular pieces are produced in bulk. Wall fish range from $350 to $550. Spinning male clown fish are $700, but females are more because they wear lipstick and copper eyelashes.

Despite the hoopla, the Hagens can’t live on scraps alone. “We’re not making a full-time living on art yet, but it’s our dream,” Judy Hagen says. So for now, both will keep their part-time day gigs—driving tractor-trailers.

Contact 2nd Time Designs at 945-3988, or info@2ndtimedesigns.com.
—Maria Hess


Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.