Courtesy of the Vaile Victorian Society
By Jonas Weir
“It’s always a marvel,” says Ron Potter of the Vaile Victorian Society.
There’s no other way to describe the Vaile Mansion during the holiday season. Each year, the Victorian Society—a volunteer group dedicated to the mansion’s preservation—selects a Christmas theme and begins to deck the halls of this historic Second Empire-style home.
Past themes have included Victorian Silver Christmas and Victorian Whimsical Christmas. This year, the mansion shut down on November 1 to begin setting up for a different yuletide theme: a Victorian Winter Wedding. The team has about three weeks to set up, so they can open the 134-year-old estate for the season on November 27.
“It’s a monumental thing,” Ron says of decorating the house for Christmas.
With thirty-one rooms and ceilings that reach the height of fourteen feet, preparing the house for Noel is no easy task. The mansion’s unfinished third floor and basement are full of decorations and plastic Christmas trees. There are so many decorations, in fact, that the Victorian society hires local Boy Scouts to unpack and move the boxes and trees. Ron says the society owns hundreds of trees, and the twelve-foot high trees work well on the first floor where the ceilings are the tallest.
Ron Potter has been involved with the Victorian Society for about thirty years, and he loves the mansion. He’s one of the tour guides at Vaile and is a wealth of knowledge about the estate that an 1882 Kansas City Times reporter called, “the most princely house and the most comfortable home in the entire West.”
Courtesy of the Vaile Victorian Society
The mansion takes its name from Harvey Vaile—a well-known statesman and abolitionist who was born on February 24, 1831, in Vermont and grew up in New York. As a lawyer and a journalist, Vaile worked in Indianapolis and Kansas City before he and his wife, Sophia Cecelia Graham, settled in Independence in 1870.
In 1880, the couple began construction on their residence. By the summer of 1881, construction was complete, and the cost totaled more than $150,000, which would be more than $3 million today. When it came to furnishing the mansion, Vaile spared no expense either.
“They brought over artists from Germany, France, and Italy to do the murals,” Ron says. “It’s just absolutely beautiful, especially upstairs in some of the bedrooms.”
Although Vaile must have decorated the mansion with grandeur, all of the furniture was sold when the estate left the Vaile family. The mansion was converted into a nursing home until it closed and was turned over to the City of Independence in 1983. That same year, the Vaile Victorian Society was formed. To the group’s delight, the owners of the nursing home had the foresight to keep all of the original paintwork and the nine marble fireplaces intact. The mansion also sports two original chandeliers in the ladies’ and gentlemen’s parlors.
“The chandeliers were supposedly meant for the White House,” Ron says, “but Vaile was in Washington, DC, and was able to buy those because there was some flaw in them.”
In fact, one of Ron’s favorite parts is the way the wood is painted in the house.
“All the woodwork was Georgia white pine, but they painted it to look like forty-five different kinds of wood,” Ron says. “If you go in, you think, ‘This is bird’s-eye maple,’ but it’s not. It’s just pine that’s been painted to look like that.”
Ron’s favorite part of working with the Vaile Victorian Society, however, is preparing for and giving Christmas tours each winter. The year’s theme is inspired by a donation of more than ninety vintage wedding dresses that the society received a few years ago.
“Every room will be decorated to the hilt,” Ron says, “and wedding dresses will be mixed in with the decorations.”
The mansion is open for the holiday season from November 27 to December 30, except for December 23 to 25. Admission is $3 for children twelve and under and $6 for adults. All proceeds go to the Vaile Victorian Society for upkeep on the mansion.
This year the Vaile Victorian Society will also be hosting a Champagne and Chandeliers fundraiser. For $40, patrons can enjoy a night of food, drinks, and games with a fairytale theme.