By Carolyn Bahm
ABERDEEN Nine homes can’t capture a city’s whole story, but they can tell tales. Aberdeen has been prosperous and diverse. The city’s well-preserved architectural styles vary from Victorian towers and turrets to Greek Revival mansions and turn-of-the-century Queen Annes trimmed in gingerbread.
Welcome to April in Aberdeen. The nine homes are this year’s featured slate for the 21st annual spring pilgrimage April 12, 13 and 14.
Last year, the weekend’s full calendar of events drew at least 1,500 visitors to Aberdeen, including an estimated 600 to 700 pilgrimage tourists.
The private residences on tour have been restored with private funds, to the surprise of many visitors. Susan Evans, Aberdeen’s director of tourism, said it’s a common mistake to believe that government grants fund the restorations and maintenance projects.
Owners dig into their own pockets, then open their homes to the public a few days each year. They do it simply for the love of fine architecture, she said. “If you’re concerned at all about saving a piece of history, at least you’ve done that.”
Celebrating the new
Holliday Haven, a Greek Revival mansion built in 1850, is new to the pilgrimage. It will be open to the public for the first time since the early ’30s.
The same family owned it until 1993, selling the home to Celetha and Thomas E. Seymer.
In addition to the furnishings and the immaculately maintained house, the Seymers also will display a self-guided tour room with notecards explaining various Holliday family heirlooms: Vintage clothing from the early 1800s, funeral notices, eyeglasses, calling cards from five generations and last wills and testaments.
The home has seen recent changes, including the addition of central heating and air conditioning, gutting of the old kitchen and butler’s pantry for one larger modern kitchen, and conversion of one downstairs bedroom into a closet and dressing room. Sheetrock replaced crumbling plaster. Hand refinishing preserved the floor’s period look; modern sanders would have damaged the old boards.
The immaculate mansion is soaked in history without looking like a museum. It’s a real home, with the occasional John Grisham novel peeking out from a bookshelf.
Mrs. Seymer said owning Holliday Haven has been a dream come true. “All my life as long as I can remember I’ve loved old houses. I can remember when I was 8 years old, knocking on people’s doors and asking if I could see their old houses.”
She fell in love with the house years ago and cherishes her role as a caretaker of history. “I get up and I sit in a different room every morning, and I just thank God He let me live here for a while.”
Revisiting old favorites
Shadowlawn, an Italianate home built in 1863 with additions in 1874, is a familiar sight gracing the pilgrimage. Owners Robert and Kathy Seymour have brought new light and life to the home with textured paint finishes, hand stenciling, heirloom quilts and a host of antiques from Robert’s family.
The staircase’s ruby glass newel post is original to the home, and the Seymours recently discovered and bought the original matching light fixture from a family estate sale. Light and dark floorboards stripe the downstairs hallway, a feature believed to be the signature mark of an old Aberdeen builder.
Vivid paint stripes in the woodwork frame the interior front entrance, and complex stencils and borders line the ceilings. Authentic jewel-toned paint brightens several rooms.
Mrs. Seymour said most people imagine that our ancestors lived in pale, elegant rooms with white woodwork. Not true. White woodwork and solid colors would not have obscured the era’s dirt and soot. Light, plain ceilings would have shown flyspecks.
“Those windows didn’t have any screens,” she said, pointing to the expanse of ventilation windows in each room.
Concern for flaw coverage is why so many period-correct surfaces are in bold colors and designs veined with faux marbling, dotted with sponge painting and enriched with stencils.
At Shadowlawn, a dramatic diamond shape bursts into color on the dining room ceiling above an ornate Victorian grandfather’s clock. Above the library’s ruby-red walls, Mrs. Seymour painted that ceiling in soft gray patterns with her original design; she cut the stencil to resemble shadows cast by a pressed tin ceiling.
Their own family heirlooms fill the house: Five to six generations of original family artwork hang in the library. Bob Seymour’s great-grandmother’s black beaded dress is displayed upstairs. His wife wore it at pilgrimages until she heard the beads falling.
A wall-mounted 1886 fan quilt has delicately embroidered initials from Bob Seymour’s relatives, and there is a central square with a spider and web motif a Victorian symbol for death. The modified quilt may have been used as a casket cover.
A former quilting and stenciling teacher, Mrs. Seymour displays her own quilts on walls, quilt stands and beds.
Some of Shadowlawn’s old additions were gutted to make room for a modern kitchen, and central heat and air conditioning were added throughout the home. Indoor plumbing in two upstairs and downstairs bathrooms (recently modernized) replaced a fire-ravaged chimney. Mrs. Seymour’s father, a Holland native, designed the yard, and her son, a landscaping architect, has assisted.
Part of the house was added on in the late ’30s and ’40s, when Prairie’s munitions plant geared up for war. Shadowlawn created two apartments for the workers, Mrs. Seymour said. “Almost every patriotic family in this area took in other families.”
Today’s Shadowlawn is a livable house, employing elements of history and signs of modern life. Computers and phones mingle among antique furniture.
It’s history progressing into the modern day. Mrs. Seymour said, “I think that’s what old houses are about.”