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MANSION MAGIC: Shining the light on a Capital City holiday tradition

MANSION MAGIC: Shining the light on a Capital City holiday tradition

Photos courtesy of Missouri Mansion Preservation, Inc.

Every year thousands of people full of holiday cheer gather at the Missouri Governor’s Mansion to share a moment of magic: the ceremonial lighting of the holiday lights outlining the house, the fence and the huge evergreen tree on the south lawn.

“It is always a thrill to hear the gasps and applause from the thousands of visitors waiting to tour the mansion during the annual Holiday Candlelight Tours,” says First Lady Melanie Blunt. “The governor, Branch and I enjoy meeting people from across the state during the tours, whether it is their first trip to the mansion or an annual family activity.”

The holiday transformation of the Governor’s Mansion requires months of planning and scores of volunteers. Mary Pat Abele, executive director of Missouri Mansion Preservation Inc., says it takes a team of 75-100 people to bring the annual festivities to life. The core group usually includes Abele; Ashley Rhode, tour coordinator for Missouri Mansion Preservation, Inc.; Bob Fennewald, a florist who has volunteered for 15 years; and Beth Schmidt, who assists part-time with tours. The group meets several times throughout the year.

“We research theme decorations and brainstorm and also meet with the first lady to share decorating ideas,” Abele says. “Mrs. Blunt is very creative and has a wonderful vision of how decorations will look in the mansion’s huge rooms.”

Over the years themes have varied from “Missouri Wildlife” to last year’s “Victorian Sleigh Ride.” The 2007 theme, “A Tribute to the Capital City’s Namesake: A Jeffersonian Christmas,” came from Gov. Blunt, a history buff.

Once the organizers have settled on a theme, they sort through the decorations on hand and decide what supplemental items to buy with donations made to MMPI (state funds are not used for decorations). The actual decorating takes only a week, thanks to the many volunteers who descend on the home to help out. Organization and communication are the keys to making that week run smoothly and efficiently.

“We organize the decorations by rooms, give the volunteers a broad overview of what we have in mind as the finished product in each room and explain how each area relates to the overall theme—and then let them put their creative talents to work,” Abele says. “It is an evolution process over several days. It really is a group effort.”

Last year, Abele says, the mansion team acquired by donation an antique Albany Cutter one-horse open sleigh, circa 1880, with its original black-and-red paint, iron runners and double boot scrapers. “When the antique sleigh arrived, it was heart-warming to see young Branch Blunt, 21 months old at the time, enjoying his stationary sleigh ride,” Abele says. The sleigh was the focal point for the “Victorian Sleigh Ride” theme and a popular attraction in 2006.

Other prized decorations include MMPI’s collection of antique toys donated by the late Jerry Smith of Kansas City. Smith was nationally known for his antique toy and car collections, and he donated more than 100 toys to MMPI in the late 1970s, Abele says.

To see the mansion’s treasures yourself, stop by for a tour at the start of the holiday season.

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