The upcoming December 10 Holiday Open House marks the 25th such event that I have overseen as Director of Gari Melchers Home and Studio. The event has evolved from a free community-wide evening packing as many as 500 visitors into a fast-paced 2 hours, to a more intimate invitational event thanking our loyal Friends of Belmont for their annual support. This year’s Holiday event is again open to the public for a nominal charge to defer expenses (Friends of Belmont are still free).
When I arrived in Fredericksburg in November of 1990, the first event I was drawn into was the Holiday Open House, which had been organized by Curator Joanna Catron since the early 1980s. Joanna was assisted by only 5 docents at the time, who all worked several days per week giving tours (today we spread the hours among over 20 docents who average a day a week or a weekend a month).
The exterior decorations were, like today, rotated among the seven clubs of the Fredericksburg Area Council of Garden Clubs, and the interior house decorations were overseen by Joanna and often created by the docents themselves. Fresh natural trees and greens were still used inside those days, before the concern for pest infestation and damage to the collections was as pronounced.
In 1990, we had no visitor center or museum shop, and the parking lot was a third the size of today. Depending on the severity of the weather in mid-December, our then caretaker Bill Chandler and his wife Maxine would station themselves with flashlights to direct traffic, and if wet or snowy, Bill often had to have his old Farmall tractor out and poised to pull stuck cars out of the quickly muddy grass field that was used for overflow parking (tow trucks had to be called on more than one occasion). We sometimes had to have the Sheriff direct traffic for us. And always in the dark—no spotlights or floodlights for visitors or cars to find their way!
Some years we had school music groups perform in the old studio, or choral groups stand on the second floor house porch to serenade visitors. We provided cookies and punch for visitors, but learned very quickly that the cookies lasted in inverse proportion to the number of student musicians, and rarely lasted through the first hour!
Before the visitor center was opened in 1995 (and even after) waiting lines often stretched from the house porch out to the parking lot, in below-freezing temperatures, year after year. Joanna and I would take turns bundled up as the front door greeters and marshals, letting in only as many visitors as had just left.
In 2000 we had a very special guest just before the Holiday Open House. Willard Scott, famed television weatherman, sat himself in the parlor amidst specially installed decorations by local designer Ken Kroko to tape narration for an HGTV special called “Christmas across America.” The filming took three days, during which all the docents got their turn chatting with the charming host, and for authenticity real fires where lit in the fireplaces for the first time in decades (with a fire marshall on duty throughout!). Oh, and Joanna got to sit on Willard’s lap (just kidding, but many photos were taken)!
Today Belmont is much changed, but the Melchers’ home remains as welcoming and festive at the holidays as it was 25 years ago. I look forward to welcoming the community again as we celebrate the season in style!