Celebrating a Victorian Holiday House
Much like a beloved postcard from the mid-19th century that celebrated the Christmas season, Madison Street in the Garland Hill Historic District of Lynchburg is one of the most fashionable in the city that memorializes Victorian society. Queen Victoria presented many aspects of Christmas to the British that we still honor today, such as trees trimmed with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
Even the acclaimed Charles Dickens tale “A Christmas Carol” was written during the Victorian era, a time where they were examining Christmas traditions from the past and creating new Christmas customs for the future. No era influenced modern Christmas more than the Victorians.
In that same spirit, “The Wilson House,” as it is commonly referred to by local historians, was built during Queen Victoria’s reign. It resides on Madison Street, which was among the first roads to be paved with brick in 1895.
This prominent street with its elegant homes still entertains and welcomes friends and families to relish in its sentimental charms and rich historic past.
Ghost of Christmas Past
This stately Queen Anne Victorian is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designed by E.G. Frye, an esteemed local architect well-known among the most prominent landowners of the day. Frye designed many of the larger homes and buildings in Lynchburg, including Jones Memorial Library on Rivermont Avenue and Court Street United Methodist Church, sparing no simplicity in his designs. The Wilson House was built by contractors Wilson & Seay circa 1894 for William V. Wilson Jr., a law partner of Kemp and Hodges and President of the Lynchburg National Bank. While Wilson’s wife died in 1915, he lived for almost two more decades, passing away in 1933. In his will, Wilson left the majority of his estate in a trust fund entitled “Nellie Wilson Trust” in memory of his wife. She often bestowed love on children who fell into her life since she didn’t have any of her own. To honor this legacy, he left the trust to the former Presbyterian Homes & Family Services in Lynchburg.
Through the years, the house had been divided into three apartments, one on each floor. It remained apartments until Bobbi Hurst and her husband Randy bought the historic house in 2004 and began restoring it back into a single family home.
“We discovered the house while driving through some historic neighborhoods with my brother,” Bobbi said.
The couple’s goal was to make the home livable, so they first added heating and air. There were six fireplaces that heated with coal, and since electricity wasn’t original to the house, their first addition was a large undertaking.
Fortunately, they had experience with restorations. Randy restored, remodeled, repaired and built custom homes for a living, so this house certainly rendered the need for his services. Since moving to Lynchburg from North Carolina, he had studied historic homes, as well as Frye and his designs, which helped them reinvent the home’s original authentic charm.
“We hadn’t thought of moving here until we fell in love with the house… saw it, called the realtor to see it the next weekend and bought the house,” Bobbi said.
When they began the restoration, they found some unique oddities. The stairs had been redirected to an outside entrance for apartments. While reconstructing those, they discovered the finished side of the stairs and a hidden five-foot archway. The archway mirrored one on the other side of the entrance hall fireplace. This helped them see where the original stairs, landings and archway had been before removal.
“When we pulled the paneling off, we could see the ghost of where stairs had been,” Bobbi said.
They took great effort to not lose any paneling in their 14 x 25-foot entrance hall. The panels stop at the first landing and act like a chair rail that rises three to four feet up the wall. The parlor fireplace had also been removed, covered up and moved to the terrace level apartment, so they relocated it back to the parlor. They even moved a bathroom to make one of the bedrooms into a master suite.
On the exterior, there is plenty of charm—the home’s inverted columns and detailed use of mixed materials of red slate, pressed brick, wood, corrugated metal and even Spanish copper is indicative of a time period when lavish detail was celebrated.
“The restoration and renovating has been a labor of love, and sometimes hate, but we love living here,” Bobbi said.
Ghost of Christmas Present
By starting their holiday decorating the day after Thanksgiving and tearing down seasonal décor around New Year’s, it takes the Hursts about two weeks to put up and take down all of their decorations. This gives them time to pull their holiday baubles and trinkets together, ensuring their trimmings from nature will last through Christmas Day without causing any fire hazards.
“I do as much as I can with natural things, but since natural things get dried out, I’m afraid to do too much,” Bobbi said.
As a former art teacher with an undergraduate degree in home economics, along with an art graduate degree, Hurst knows how to arrange and artistically present her home’s decorations. She uses that artistic eye to think creatively each Christmas. By intertwining silk flowers and synthetic Christmas trees with natural greenery and boughs, it adds a fullness and realistic element to her arrangements. She elegantly interweaves silk with live greens, velvet bows and ribbons on their intricate stairwell, making the artificial appear genuine. In the Victorian era, ribbons and bows were used in abundance as a festive embellishment in both men’s and women’s fashions, so Bobbi tries to keep her holiday décor as authentic to the home’s original period as possible by using them within her seasonal decorating. She also includes dolls typical of the Victorian time period.
Though she strives for period appropriate décor in much of the house, Hurst recognizes that the original homeowner, William V. Wilson Jr., didn’t always live in the Victorian age. She allows herself the beauty of living in the present by taking detours on occasion. She uses a lot of candles since that would have been indicative of the Victorians, but one advantage to modern living she enjoys celebrating is the use of electricity. Decorating with an array of lights makes the home sparkle, both inside and out.
Throughout this stately Victorian house, eight artificial Christmas trees adorn the home each season. The main tree in the parlor sits by itself within a nine-foot octagon shaped section of the room, framed inside a beautiful archway, creating a grand focal point for the home’s most significant tree. With 12-foot-high ceilings in much of the house, Bobbi finds it a welcomed challenge to decorate vertically. She incorporates a theme of red, white and gold throughout the main living areas of the home, including in the parlor and entrance. At the top of their ornate wooden stairway is a feather tree, much like those originally used in Germany; the branches are made from goose feathers. The master bedroom is an area where Bobbi detours from traditional hues to introduce a more modern color scheme. She chose blue and aqua tones indicative of the Art Nouveau time period, embellishing with balls and ribbons. The guest bedroom is home to a smaller tree that sits on a table draped in beads and angels.
Atop her elaborate mantels, Bobbi decorates using items with value. One of the more sentimental pieces she incorporates into her theme is a nativity that encapsulates Mary holding Christ. It is a resin statue she bought unfinished. She embellished it in a brownish antique color and then varnished it. Randy then built a manger for her, which they married to the crèche. Bobbi places it on the entrance hall’s mantel so when their guests come through the doorway, it is the first thing they see.
“It was a fun way to put it together,” Bobbi said. “We put it in a prominent place because that is what Christmas is about. I love doing the mantels.”
The Hursts take great enjoyment making sure all the rooms are festive for the holiday season even if there’s not a tree in that room. In the bathrooms, Bobbi uses bows, colored glass balls and glittery wreaths. Silk poinsettias, ivy, fruit, pinecones, magnolia leaves and different garlands are also seen throughout the home during Christmastime, along with antique glass balls she purchased locally. Bobbi buys the pieces individually and then puts them together to become a cohesive arrangement.
“I don’t buy very much,” Bobbi said. “I use my own ideas to put it together. We’ve collected things from when we first married. We’ve kept things we like.”
Bobbi’s art studio is home to one of their most whimsical and colorful spaces during the holidays. In the bright and sunny space, Bobbi embraces the creative aspects found in the room by garnishing the tree with angels, butterflies, snowmen and beads, along with whimsical hues of bright lime greens mixed with coral tones.
The couple’s beloved pets, a golden retriever and a cat, Jude and Jazzy, are even given special honor with decorations just for them under that tree and in the windows.
“[In the studio] things typical of the Christmas season are done in an unusual way,” Bobbi said. “I like that room. I don’t mind putting colors together that you wouldn’t ordinarily use together. I tackle the challenge.”
The Hursts have two grandchildren. In the room where their granddaughter Caroline sleeps when visiting, Bobbi decorates with special touches of pink and white décor, incorporating baby dolls.
For their grandson Christopher, Bobbi thoughtfully decorates his room in his favorite sports team colors and with cherished nutcrackers.
While Bobbi focuses on the inside, Randy spearheads all the outdoor decorating. He uses flood lights to highlight the Queen Anne house, but to keep with the authenticity of the period, he uses mostly garlands, wreaths and bows to decorate rather than electrical lights, since candles would have been the only light present during that age. He does detour from tradition slightly though by hanging individual lights on the porch garlands and wreaths.
“My husband is really helpful because he can make basic things that help a lot with decorating,” Bobbi said.
Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
To ensure that the next holiday season is as stress-free as possible, the Hursts incorporate a few key measures that make it easier for decorating the following year. One major advantage that allows them the luxury of ease for the next year’s holiday is their attic storage space. Having a large house, they are able to keep all their trees decorated by covering them with plastic sacks and placing them in the attic. Some trees are prelit, but mostly they use string lights that they keep hung on the trees.
“Decorating from scratch would take too long,” Bobbi said. “We try to do one room at a time.”
By wiring glass balls to branches and using twisty ties for other embellishments, ornaments are less likely to fall off. To prevent dust, all the decorations are either stored in plastic tubs or the Christmas trees are covered with plastic. The tubs are all stackable and labeled by room, making it easy to get everything distributed to the right place each year.
“Having the boxes labeled for the rooms is one of the best things I do,” Bobbi said.
Using the same ribbons each year and storing them on cardboard rolls keeps their vast array of bows preserved. However, Bobbi admits that her plush red bows often come out of the box a tad smushed, which she happens to appreciate. Modern bows that are perfectly symmetrical aren’t her taste. She prefers a more natural heir about them that she describes as “the Victorian look” and if they come out of the box a bit too pristine, she confesses to purposely smashing them up.
“I don’t like things to look too fixed,” Bobbi said. “I don’t want it to look like it was produced by a machine.”
By Heather Cravens
Photography by Tera Janelle Auch