BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — A historic mansion whose owner was close
friends with Abraham Lincoln will be the centerpiece of a traditional Gilded Age
Christmas this holiday season.
The Victorian-style David Davis Mansion State Historic Site,
known by the family as Clover Lawn, was built in 1872 for U.S. Supreme Court
Justice David Davis and his wife, Sarah, on a 1,200-acre farm.
It was designed by Alfred Piquenard, who also designed the
Illinois and Iowa state capitol buildings, both of which still are being used by
The Davis Mansion is lavishly decorated for Christmas and
open for free tours through Dec. 29. Visitors will be able to view authentic
Victorian-era Christmas decorations and hear of the holiday customs entering the
As an added treat to the annual event, a bit of the PBS hit
series, “Downton Abbey,” will be on display at the mansion this year.
The home’s dining room tree will be covered with the same
types of rare, imported, German-made Christmas ornaments that were featured on
the “Downton Abbey” tree during the Christmas episodes of the series.
Intricate, hand-painted, glass ornaments, imported from
Germany and sold by a small company in England, were handpicked to appear on the
According to the company’s owner, “these decorations are all
handcrafted, and each one is a little work of art in its own right. ‘Downton’
bosses purchased around 1,000 of the festive trimmings, including miniature
birds and figurines, because they were exactly the same as those used in 1919 —
the year when the drama’s Christmas specials were set.
“The show’s producers went to great lengths to make sure
everything was as authentic as possible.”
The Davis Mansion’s museum shop has purchased from the same
British company about $2,000 worth of these rare ornaments for exhibit in the
mansion during the 2013 Christmas tours.
The Davis Mansion tour also will feature seasonal music and
costumed guides bringing visitors back to bygone days.
Davis, a friend, mentor and campaign manager for Lincoln,
was appointed U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1862 and later served as U.S.
senator. He previously was an Illinois legislator.
His association with Lincoln dates back to their early years
when Davis, then a judicial circuit judge, and Lincoln, a lawyer, road the
circuit together for trials.
Lincoln also was a frequent visitor to the earlier Davis
residence that originally stood where the larger 36-room mansion is located.
The mansion now sits on 4.1 acres in a residential area east
of downtown Bloomington that also contain a 1850s barn and stable dating back to
Lincoln’s day, two privies, a foaling shed, a carriage barn and an ornamental
Visitors to the Davis Mansion will not only see Christmas
decorations from that era, but also hear insight into the holiday customs of
The holiday season begins with the home highlighting
Thanksgiving and how Mrs. Davis brought those traditions to central Illinois
from her New England roots.
“We can say that Sarah is one of the few people who brought
Thanksgiving to Bloomington,” said Dr. Marcia Young, Davis Mansion site
“It was a holiday before the Civil War that was confined to
the New England area, and she writes a letter to her family right after she gets
here in the 1840s, saying ‘Thanksgiving is so new a holiday to us, new to this
area and basically unknown to the people who live here. I’m worried about what
our children are going to be doing in the future because no one is celebrating
“So she starts celebrating it, and, of course, she grew up
in New England, which was the only place where it was celebrated, and this was
tradition to her by the time she got here, so she introduces the custom of
having a family dinner, having friends join them, serving the traditional
Young said the traditional foods for the Thanksgiving feast
in New England were created by magazine writers.
“This is not what pilgrims ate. There were no turkeys and
things like that. These magazine editors decide that America needs a national
holiday that will have spiritual values that will bring people to celebrate
together, reinforce families, occur in the home and that kind of thing,” she
Young said the Thanksgiving at the home replicates a 1870s
celebration, and the Christmas theme is “about the gilded age when everything
was really sumptuous, when they had a lot more stuff and Sarah and David Davis
are deceased by then.
“So our Christmas covers the era when their son, George, and
his family were here. He lived here until his death in 1917, and his wife
continued to live here until the early 1920s, so we go through 1919.”
Young said sharing the historic building throughout the
year, as well as hosting special activities such as the holiday tours, is part
of the site’s mission to educate.
“It’s not enough to preserve the great architectural wealth
of the United States without inviting the public in to learn about their past,
to learn about their history, their culture and so on,” she said.
This also is one of the best documented houses in the U.S.
due to the wealth of paper resources the Davis family collected throughout their
lives. For example, Young said, there are 19,000 documents in the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library “just documenting this house in the early
“So we know so much that we can tell stories to the public
that are about their own past,” she said.
These stories from the mid-19th century forward also
document that what was happening in Illinois was a precursor to events across
the nation during that era.
“This is the generation who lived in houses like this and in
the old farmhouse that preceded it. This is the generation of men and women who
tamed the frontier and then led the United States through some of the most
significant changes in our history,” Young said.
“The developments of a market economy, industrialization,
urbanization, immigration because this house was staffed by servants and these
buildings were built by immigrants and the Civil War
“The huge contribution that the men and women of Illinois
made to America’s history is to guide our country, and, of course, the chief
among them was Abraham Lincoln.
“But one of the significant men in Abraham Lincoln’s life
was David Davis, so this is a national story. It happened here in Illinois.
“It should be a source of huge pride to Illinoisans to know
what their ancestors and their predecessors did here that had such impact on the
kind of lives we live today.
“And we think there are some fun stories along the way, the
story about Christmas, the story about Thanksgiving reveal a lot about the
values that these individuals had and these are values that are also part of
forming the American character, forming the American identity, shaping the
future of our country.
“Those stories are in houses like this, and we feel we need
to tell them.”
Daily tours will be given during the site’s normal operating
hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.