By Suzanne Besser
In 1995 three Beacon Hillers put their heads together to devise a creative fundraising scheme that would support the small house museum on Mt. Vernon Street that provides a unique glimpse into the neighborhood’s domestic life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
What they came up with was so successful it’s been repeated twenty times since.
The 20th annual Nichols House Museum Holiday House Tour, which has become one the neighborhood’s most beloved holiday traditions, will take place on Sunday, December 11 from 12 noon to 4 pm. And just as the first Tour did, it will feature tours of six festively decorated private Beacon Hill homes and the Nichols House itself, followed by a party for all.
“It is always a joyous day on Beacon Hill,” said Jonnet Holladay. She, David Beal and Betsy McNeel, who at the time served on the Nichols House Museum board of directors, not only founded the event but also went on to co-chair the Tour for ten years and to this day still offer help whenever needed.
“The founders created a winning formula,” said Flavia Cigliano, who served as the museum’s executive director from 1999 until 2015. “We knew that if it worked and people enjoyed it and we got great feedback, it was the thing to do. So we kept on doing it.”
The first few years of the Tour were “a bit of a risk,” admitted Holladay. “We worried hard because we knew we had to get it right.”
Apparently they did. Their concept stemmed from an earlier fundraising tour that took place in Nichols House alone. Partnering with the Beacon Hill Garden Club, volunteers decorated each room with holiday ornaments and live greens. Holladay even remembers a live Christmas tree in the parlor adorned with pink roses in vials of water in recognition of Rose Standish Nichols, who lived in Nichols House from 1885 to 1960.
“Those tours, which included a gift shop with stunning handmade items, were a roaring success,” said Holladay. The threesome realized there was an appetite for such tours in the community but the museum’s small size limited the amount of tickets they could sell. “We knew we could do better than that,” she said.
“Why, then, don’t we ‘borrow’ some other houses already decorated for Christmas,” Holladay remembered another organizer, Bobbi Hastings saying.
And so they did. The three ‘borrowed’ 48 Chestnut Street, 86A Chestnut Street, 1 Louisburg Square, 12 Louisburg Square, 89 Mt Vernon Street, 63 Mt Vernon Street and 22 West Cedar Street, and held the first official Holiday House Tour in 1995.
That first year they sold 240 tickets and generated $21,090. Today the Tours, which are only promoted on Beacon Hill, are capped at around 300 guests which usually results in a slow but steady stream of guests in each home during the four-hour time period.
“Their wonderful vision at the beginning has stayed with us ever since,” said Cigliano. “Year after year I am most struck by the homeowners whose extreme generosity make these Tours happen. To enter their home is to have an aesthetic experience. People go to so much trouble to make them attractive to support the museum. We are so appreciative of them.”
Another part of the original formula includes assigning more than 100 volunteers to greet guests, answer questions and safeguard all rooms open to the public. In exchange for serving two hour shifts, these volunteers are given tickets to view the other homes on the Tour and invited to the party to celebrate the day with the homeowners and guests.
The party was originally held at the Nichols House. About ten years ago, crowding so many people into the historic rooms was deemed detrimental to the collection and the party was moved first to the Church of the Advent and then to the American Meteorological Society. This year it will be held at King’s Chapel Parish House on Beacon Street from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
After the party was moved and the Nichols House celebrated as one of the homes on the Tour, dedicated volunteers such as June Hutchinson, Ann Connor and Jim Borden chose various decorative themes that reflect the family’s lives. Aware that today’s lavish holiday decorations were not typical of that time period, they focus on the dining room.
Picking themes in context with what they know about the family, they once set the table with cigars and port as Rose Nichols’s father would have done entertaining his doctor h
Last year’s theme reflected the home’s long history of bell ringing. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary, the home will display as much porcelain and china from their collection as is tastefully and interpretatively appropriate as well as a few more traditional late 20th century holiday decorations, said Executive Director Victoria McKay. Tickets to the tour are $125 per person. For more information or to purchase tickets, go online at nicholshousemuseum.org or call 617.227.6993.