Maybe you don’t have the time or money to travel to Disneyworld to see the famous Sleeping Beauty castle or even King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein fantasy palace in Germany, the inspiration for the famous Orlando symbol of Mickey’s kingdom.
Happily, I’ve been lucky enough to do both in my lifetime. But the next best thing to be found in Missouri is, hands down, the Vaile Mansion, tucked away just waiting to be discovered in a modest neighborhood at 1500 N. Liberty in Independence.
Does anyone else remember when they first looked out over the Grand Canyon and realized that a camera can’t really capture the view? I remember feeling that way the first time I walked through the massive cut crystal paneled mahogany doors at the Vaile.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this ornate mansion is considered to be one of the best examples of Victorian architecture in the entire United States. Designed for Colonel Harvey Merrick Vaile and his wife Sofia by noted Kansas City architect Asa Beebe Cross in the Second Empire Style, the home was finished in 1881 at a cost of more than $100,000. Noted author David McCullough described the home as “the showiest place in Independence, a towering stone-trimmed, red-brick Victorian wedding cake, with 31 rooms and Carrara marble fireplaces.” Hand-painted ceilings and woodwork, 14-foot-high ceilings, nine hand-carved fireplaces and brilliant crystal chandeliers are only a few of the features that often “wow” guests.
When I first toured the home in summertime, I was overwhelmed with the breathtaking elegance of both the structure and the period furnishings. But it’s during the holidays when the home really shines and the reason why USA Today referred to the Vaile as a “Christmas Castle.” When the home closes for regular tours every year on Oct. 31, the opulence factor is ratcheted up to an unbelievable level as about 30 volunteer decorators are turned loose for the entire month of November to do their magic.
I’ve been told that it’s not unusual for decorating to require 1,000 hours to be transformed for the holidays. The theme varies from year to year, and while the popular upside down chandelier tree (a nod to Queen Victoria, who adopted this delightful tradition from her German husband Albert) in the grand entry always returns, the other decorations in the mansion will be fresh and different.
So what will visitors to the Christmas Vaile tours expect to enjoy in 2013? This year’s theme is “A Victorian Winter Wonderland.” Imagine walking inside the grand entry and seeing visions of snowflakes, icicles, sleighs and all things winter. Decorating chair Carolyn Hanes promises the Snow Queen and characters from the beloved Hans Christen Anderson story, a snowy forest complete with fairy driven sleigh, a bedroom that is truly a childhood winter wonderland, and a snowman complete with stovepipe hat. Almost 75 decorated Christmas trees of all sizes will be spread throughout the rooms and thousands of tiny white twinkling lights hang from doorways, marble fireplaces, stairways and even show up in surprising places like copper bathtubs.
The mansion opens for tours the day after Thanksgiving, with tours continuing through Dec. 30. Visit Monday through Saturday anytime from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and allow about an hour for a guided tour, included in the $6 admission price ($3 for children ages 6 through 16.) Sundays, tours begin at 1:00 p.m. and end at 4:00 p.m. Of course, even the elves at the Vaile deserve some time off to celebrate Christmas in their own homes, so Vaile closes from December 23-25.
Save a few minutes to browse through the always exciting offerings in the gift shop, many items with a Victorian twist. You might want to flip through the pages of the nationally published hard bound full color coffee table book, “Christmas at Historic Houses,”on sale there, which features a chapter on the Vaile. It’s good to know that proceeds help with continual restoration of the home and as an additional perk, there’s no sales tax.
Note: If you enjoy strolling through historic homes decorated for Christmas, you can choose to purchase a three-site discount ticket for $15 at the Vaile, which allows admission to the Marshal’s Home at the 1859 Jail, 217 N. Main, and the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, 313 W. Pacific.
I highly recommend that if possible, you time your visit for the once-a-season Twilight Tour, slated for Sunday, Dec. 1 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. when all those lights sparkle and shine even more brightly over the frosty splendor during the early evening hours. As a bonus, the Twilight Tour includes complimentary refreshments and live music. The last time I attended, a charming and festive bell choir played Christmas carols in the music room that filled the entire first floor.
I’ll be rounding up my group of best girl friends in early December for our annual visit in what has become one of my favorite annual traditions. How about you?
For more information, call the Vaile front desk at 816-325-7430 or visit the website at vailemansion.org. If you’d like to scroll through a gallery of photos from Christmas at the Vaile that were taken in 2011 and 2010, click here.
Written by Janeen Aggen, public relations representative for Vaile Mansion and an associate member of Midwest Travel Writers Association.