Long-running Fundraiser Celebrates 55th Year
By Ryan Jones
The first week of December marks for many Lexington families the start of traditions that typically involve securing a tree to trim, hanging some lights, adding a wreath or two, and settling in to enjoy the festive atmosphere with close family and friends.
But for those homeowners lucky enough to be inducted into the Holiday House Hall of Fame, the first week of December means stepping aside to let a league of ladies descend, decorate, and, finally, march hordes of strangers through each room to admire their handiwork.
Every year since 1960, one local family has agreed to let their home be the site of the Charity League of Lexington’s signature fundraiser, which draws hundreds of visitors from across Davidson County and generates enough money to support a year’s worth of charitable outreach geared toward children.
This year on Dec. 5 and 6, Lexington Mayor Newell Clark will join the ranks of past hosts, opening his Colonial Revival-style home on West Third Avenue to the public for the 55th annual Holiday House. Across the street at the J. Smith Young YMCA’s brand-new event space, 119 West Third, will be the Shoppes of Holiday House.
“I’m excited to do it. I love my home. I’d open the doors right now and let people walk in,” laughed Clark. He bought the house in 2009, five years after moving back to North Carolina from Santa Barbara, CA. “I think probably one thing I’m most excited about is that this is the first house to be shown in the newly-named historic district for the city.”
Like several other homes located in what is now known as the Park Place Historic District in Uptown Lexington, Clark’s was built using the plans of Atlanta-based architect, Leila Ross Wilburn in the early 1920s.
“[A female architect] was pretty unheard of back then. She did a lot of homes in Lexington and this house is definitely one of them,” Clark said. “There’s a long history of multiple families living here. Folks that have been in that home that are in their 80s will still see the home they remember, but it’s been freshened and made more contemporary [while] paying respect to the architecture and the architect.”
One thing Clark wants to be visible amidst the holiday décor is his own careful blend of contemporary and antique style.
“In one room I’ve got a cabinet from the 1800s and a couch that’s Lexington Home Brands that was built last year. [Visitors] will be able to see a blend of artwork I’ve collected; abstracts and realistic work by local artists I like and some of my work, my photography, throughout the house. I love hearing [other people’s] stories of unique pieces of furniture, paintings, and how they collected it. That’s what I think people will see in my home. I live my life as a public official and my home is my sanctuary to escape and just be with my family. But I also know I like to get creative ideas from other people. That part of sharing my home I enjoy.”
Though he’s excited to show off pieces like a framed mirror in his living room that was reclaimed from one of the home’s original medicine cabinets, Clark is adamant that people who visit the Holiday House take note of the fact that it isn’t a museum.
“It’s me and my daughter here. It’s well-designed and well-built but it’s also a home. I’d like for people to get that feeling because that’s how we feel. We truly use every room in the house,” he said. “Each room has its own character; they serve purposes.”
In spite of the unusual circumstance of hundreds of strangers viewing his private life, Clark is attracted to the idea of supporting an organization with a long history of helping the community.
“It’s personal to open your home. People hear me speak or see me on TV or read about me in an article and they think they know me [but) it’s a different thing to walk into someone’s home,” he said. “I believe in the mission of the Charity League and the work they’re doing to raise money to help with initiatives for kids. If something I can do to help is open my home, then I’m willing to do that. All of this goes back to how giving this community is. Every year someone says, ‘I’m opening my home, come through it,’ and it’s amazing that through the years folks do that; they do it to help their community. It’s fantastic to be part of that group.”
Ralph and Mary Allison Bailey were the first to open their home to the public to support the Charity League’s mission.
“We needed some money,” laughed Julia Strader, who served as the Holiday House’s first chairwoman the same year she joined the league as an official member. “The [Bailey] house was new and we thought people would be very interested in going through it.”
The Holiday House wasn’t the first fundraiser the league had put on since it was founded by a group of good-hearted, card-playing women in 1935, but it stuck. Strader, a Lexington transplant from Greenville, SC said the first event brought in a little over $400.
“I thought we were on to something, but you never know until you see how it works out and in a small town in particular. Every year it just increased with people interested. We’ve come a long way.”
Nowadays the fundraiser brings in between $6,000 and $10,000 annually in ticket sales. That doesn’t include the revenue from the Holiday House Shoppes, which can approach $11,000 in a good year. The Shoppes are a sister fundraiser based on the original bazaar-style event hosted by the Charity League that fell to the wayside in the mid-1980s. Members contribute projects, crafts, and pre-prepared food items to be sold alongside items from outside vendors.
“We brought it [the Shoppes] back in 2007-ish. We knew we had some talented people within the group and the leadership was in place for that,” said Ellen Welborn, a longtime League member. “It’s hard to go up on the ticket price for the house, so we decided we would do that [to bring in more money].”
Welborn said most visitors to the Holiday House have been coming for years.
“It’s a tradition with a lot of clubs and groups of women. They’ll come in the morning, go through the Shoppes, and then have lunch.”
“The Holiday House is a great tradition. I think people look forward to it as a kickoff for the holiday season,” said Paula Turlington, a 25-year veteran of the Charity League. “People love to come see the homes themselves, but I think they also really enjoy seeing [them] decorated for the holidays. They get ideas to decorate their own homes.”
Brenda Houser, who is serving as co-chair of the Holiday House this year along with Christa Weeks, said the makeup of visitors is usually a good mix of people from Lexington and surrounding areas.
“A lot of folks come in from the county; some folks with ties to friends, family or colleagues will come in from out of town. We do our best to advertise it on news stations outside of just Lexington and Davidson County. Our goal is really to raise as much money as possible from everywhere.”
One of Turlington’s most memorable Holiday House experiences was in 1999 when the then-home of Ed and Peggy Hinkle was featured.