Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tiffany Tour for One

There's nothing like a man in a red sweater and green corduroy pants to put a person in the Christmas spirit, especially factoring in an extravagantly-decorated Gilded Age mansion.

In further pursuit of seeing another of Virginia's magnificent Tiffany windows, I took the Maymont House Holiday tour this afternoon.

I reported to the basement door of the house, knocked for what seemed like forever and was finally admitted to the inner sanctum.

To my great delight, I was the only one who showed up for the tour at that hour, so mine was to be a personal tour.

"Interrupt me to ask whatever you want," he said, obviously having no idea whom he had taken on.

You know, I think I will, sir.

The funny part was that after paying, I was told to leave the basement and walk around to the front of the house to start my tour.

"We want you to enter as a guest would have," the ticket guy told me.

"As opposed to coming in the back way I did like a lowly servant?" I inquired.

Sheepishly, he said yes.

So around the porte-cochere I went and up through the grand entrance as if I were paying a call on Mrs. Dooley (which, by the way, was done on Wednesdays only from 1 to 5; so I was at least following social protocol with today's visit).

My knowledgeable guide began by warning me that the Victorians believed that if a little holiday decoration was good, a lot was even better.

The first floor rooms were effusively decorated with greenery, poinsettias, red ribbons, golden beading and such.

Add in the mahogany walls, stenciled ceilings, elaborate woodwork and fussy furniture and it was bordering on visual overload.

In the dining room, the table was set for Christmas dinner and the menu was heavy on protein with many elaborate courses.

It began with oysters and moved through Virginia ham, roasted turkey and dressing, duck with mixed lettuces and, a personal favorite, glazed sweetbreads (explained to me by my guide as not really bread at all).

I was struck by the enormity of the table's centrepiece only to be told that large arrangements were used to prevent glancing, much less conversation, across the table.

One spoke with the people on either side, but never to anyone else.

Some might see that as limiting, but it sounds like more of a challenge to me than anything.

Tiffany items were present throughout the house, including several gilded clocks and an elaborate dressing table and chair made of silver and tusks from the narwhal whale.

I found the set both strikingly beautiful and appalling distasteful for seeing part of four whales incorporated into the pieces.

And then there was that 15' Tiffany window, which I was lucky enough to catch at an absolutely perfect moment.

"You're seeing it at its best, with the afternoon sun coming in, " my guide told me, knowing the real reason I'd come on his tour.

Hey, it was just the two of us for an hour, so we'd shared a lot by that point.

He'd already learned that I'd been raised a Catholic (like Major Dooley), so he said he felt comfortable explaining the New Testament imagery in the bottom third of the window (I have to presume he has an alternate tour for non-Christians).

What I hadn't mentioned was that I'm really a heathen, so I still had no idea what he was talking about.

But it was the upper portions in all their Art Nouveau splendor that I found most impressive.

That Art Deco desire to bring the outdoors in was perfectly represented with the twining grape vines and elegant non-representational forms.

I tried to imagine living in a house where I would see such a window every time I came up or down the stairs and couldn't.

Too big, too fussy, just too much.

But for a while this afternoon, it was the loveliest place to be...admiring Tiffany's handiwork in the sunlight with a terrific tour guide in green pants and a red sweater.

I could practically hear angels singing.



  1. well, certainly scored today. Tried your hand at crashing the White House lately? i to have been to the Dooley Mansion on several occasions. a bit drab on the exterior. however as you say several interesting touches inside. never took the holiday tour..did go once when it was snowing... marched uphill with my girfriend of collegiate days & went right in. always fond of Maymont so it was just the icing on the cake. a little dark inside for my tastes...dark wood paneling a little bleak...& i like wood.. except too much for me. things seemed out of kilter in there... nevertheless you picked a pretty day.

  2. I like to think I score every day, in one way or another.