Dressing Up Historic Homes for the Holidays


With the holiday season in full tilt with all its accompanying commercialism, a comfortably decorated home can do wonders for tired soles, frazzled families and holiday cynics.  Yet, all too often the fun of decorating our vintage homes for the holidays becomes a task of epic proportion.

“Is this someone’s home, or a department store display?”

If that question pops into someone’s mind when they see your historic home lovingly decorated for the holidays, just maybe you went a wee bit over the top. Since I have been guilty of this in the past I will pass judgment here. Pine roping, cascades of ribbon, wreathes, miniature Dickensian villages, scented pine-cones…more begets more and sometimes we need a guiding hand in dolling up our homes for the season.  We put so much thought and effort into restoring our grande dames, why not give equal time to holiday décor?

One reason so many individuals seek to restore historic homes is because of their wonderful character and charm. When decorating historic homes for the holidays, it’s important to keep the timeless look and feel of the residence by using appropriate and thoughtful holiday decor. Chicago area interior designers, Tom Segal and Madeline Roth provide a few thoughts that can help you achieve beautiful holiday decor for your historic home.

“Christmas is a good time to emphasize why you loved and bought an old home in the first place,” says Madeline Roth of Pariscope Design.  “Beautiful banisters to decorate with roping, mantels for candles, pretty front doors for wreaths; I say, no rules! Christmas is the time to put the jewels on the grande dame.”

Tom Segal of Kaufman Segal Design adopts a more project-management approach to putting your house in order for the holidays. “I really like themes based on either color, or a type of ornament mixed with ornaments that have a personal connection to the home owner. I like being a bit contemporary in a vintage home too for a nice contrast, but not so modern that it clashes with the vintage detailing in the home. I’m also careful to scale the tree to the room in both height and diameter, so you can still enjoy your space during the holiday season and not have the tree or decorations overwhelm the room. “

Despite their different approaches to decoration, Roth and Segal do agree on the tree. “A real Christmas tree is the only way to go!  The fragrance, the fun of picking out the right tree each year,” says Roth.  For Segal, it’s all about the senses.  “I love the way a real tree smells,” he says. “Décor is not just about the visual information. Let your senses pick up the sights, sounds, feel, and smells of the holiday. All of these things influence how you enjoy a space and add to your memory of that space in this wonderful time of year.”

Whether you go the traditional route or move in a more contemporary direction, the options can be overwhelming.  Just like any home decorating project, pick a style, put together a budget, add water and stir.    The holidays present a special set of pressures and priorities.  Decorating you home should be a fun and exciting family event.  Not a chore, to be dreaded.   Take Roth’s and Segal’s tips to help you prioritize and plan so you can kick back and enjoy the season.
Happy Holidays!

Just plain interesting.

What Is the Oldest House in Chicago, Anyway?

Posted Sept. 7, 2011, at 5:09 p.m.
By Whet Moser

oldest house in chicago
Since 1836, the peripatetic Henry B. Clarke House (left) has settled in at three different addresses. The Noble-Seymour-Crippen House (right) comprises the original 1833 farmhouse on the south (far left) and the two-story 1868 Italianate addition on the north.


The AP had a brief yesterday about the Clarke House’s impending 175th birthday. It’s an august age for a house, dating to before the city’s 1837 incorporation. But is it, as the brief claims, the oldest? It’s not quite that simple, as Geoffrey Johnson pointed out in his 2007 piece, “Battle of the Ages.”

The Noble-Seymour-Crippen house in Norwood Park is unquestionably older, but it comes down to a philosophical point: what do you mean by “the oldest house in Chicago”?

At the most basic level, there would appear to be no contest. Mark Noble, an English immigrant, built his farmhouse in 1833 (today the house is at 5624 North Newark Avenue). Henry B. Clarke, who had traveled to Illinois from New York State, didn’t begin work on his house (in what would today be the 1600 block of South Michigan Avenue) until 1836, three years later. So how can there be any dispute?

Members of the Clarke camp base their claim on several things. Neither house, when built, was within the limits of the town of Chicago, but the Clarke property became part of the city when it was incorporated in 1837. Chicago did not annex the village of Norwood Park until 1893. That 56-year difference is crucial—”I feel we got there first,” says Maldonado—as are Clarke’s and Noble’s motives in building their homes. The rurally inclined Noble, says Maldonado, came to Illinois to establish a 150-acre farm. “The Clarkes were pioneers who had come here to help establish a city,” he says.

If you look at the pictures, you might think that the Noble-Seymour-Crippen house sure doesn’t look like a rural 1830s farm, and you’d be right: the Italianate addition was added later on. But as Johnson points out in the article, the Clarke House is now on its third location in the city—it was moved in 1872 when its owners got spooked by the Chicago fire, and after the City of Chicago took ownership it was moved to the Prairie Avenue Historic District, because why not, it was already moved once.

Here’s a video, with handy tips should your bungalow or condo building need to escape the next fire. At the very least, be sure to check out the video at 14 minutes, where you’ll be treated to a surreal image of the Clarke House crossing the Stevenson.

Clarke House Move from Chicago magazine on Vimeo.


Photography: Nathan Kirkman