Back In Time For Christmas: The Charms of Fairmount Park

Kris Walski, for GPA -- Philadelphia is often associated with the Fourth of July, thanks to the Liberty Bell and the sweltering history of the summer founding at Independence Hall. But a trip to Fairmount Park during the winter holidays will uncover a gem that takes visitors back in time, to a lesser-known historic locale.

Every year, the historic houses of Fairmount Park, known as “The Charms,” host Christmas tours. They are decorated with festive lights, food and details to make it look like Christmas is being celebrated hundreds of years ago. It’s as accurate and unique as it can be.

The tour gives visitors a glimpse of everything from the domestic and international politics at the time to the architecture, household furniture and individuals that adorned these houses. The names and portraits of Benjamin Franklin, William Penn and George Washington often come up, along with more obscure names of equally active citizens who were part of Franklin’s Junto club, establishing many of Philadelphia’s longstanding public and private associations.

The Charms of Fairmount Park offers something for everyone, especially those interested in exploring the early history and intricacies of an emerging nation. There are six mansions to choose from, each with a unique theme and a variety of tours to suit every taste.

Laurel Hill Mansion, for example, was decorated beautifully by the Community Garden club at Wayne and Women for Greater Philadelphia, with a real twelve foot Christmas tree donated by Bustard Tree Farm in Lehighton, the same organization that donated the tree erected this year at the White House.

The very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, Harry Kyriakodis, summarized the villas during a recent tour.

“They happen to be the largest and finest group of authentic colonial and federal houses in the country,” he said. “They were erected by leading families of Philadelphia as country seats or rural retreats that provided beautiful and peaceful locations away from the city's heat, noise and congestion, as well as the urban contagions that frequented Philadelphia in the 18th and early 19th centuries.”

Many of the houses and their cultural histories are now preserved and maintained with the help of private and civic organizations. Laurel Hill Mansion is supported by Women for Greater Philadelphia and items on display for the Christmas tour were donated from various places in Pennsylvania, including the Community Garden Club and Culinary Arts Institute of Montgomery County Community College.

A short distance away is another gem and National Historical Landmark, Woodford Mansion. It is one of the best maintained mansions, an elegant example of Georgian architecture and an amazing replica of an interior of its time.

“Woodford Mansion gives insight into the life of colonial Philadelphia, American patriots, British loyalists, immigrants, merchants and influential citizens during an often tumultuous time period,” said Ann Bagley, a charming tour guide of several years’ experience.

The Christmas decorations provided by the Garden Club of Philadelphia adorn the Naomi Wood Antiques Collection, collected from all over New England and showcasing some of the past talent of Philadelphia’s craftsmen.

If you didn’t get a chance to tour these hidden gems this season, make sure to mark your calendars for next year. It is a great way to get into the holiday spirit, to go back in time and learn a great deal about Philadelphia and its figures of the past who left one of the most influential legacies throughout the world.

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