A home for the holidays
- Jill Spitznass
- Portland Tribune - Features
Neighbors love the creations of this decorating diva
Halloween is in full swing at Neen and Steve Fitzwalter's house. The stately white home at 5111 N.E. Alameda St. is known to neighbors as the Holiday House, for the exuberant melee of lights and adornment that materializes every major holiday Ñ and on a few minor ones.
Throughout October, neighbors are treated to a Halloween spectacle that routinely draws television crews and slows traffic as drivers try to take it all in.
Dozens of tombstones dot the corner lot, many etched with the names of friends and family members who have yet to expire. Ghosts playing ring-around-the-rosy mingle with dangling skeletons, Frankenstein and a neon 'Bates Motel' sign above the front door. Hundreds of colored and white lights are turned on as dusk descends, completing the house's transformation from cute to creepy.
Inside the Holiday House, no surface appears to have escaped Neen's dedicated decorating. Spider webs are ubiquitous, a child-size mannequin in a ghost costume waits in the foyer, and visitors to the powder room find that Halloween-print toilet paper has replaced the Charmin.
Fitzwalter says that as much as she loves decorating for the holidays, it's others' reactions that keep her up to her elbows in embellishments.
'The big thing is that the neighbors really appreciate it. People stop by to take pictures, or even to say, 'Thank you for doing this,' ' says Fitzwalter, whose personality is as whimsical as her wedding ring: an American flag done in rubies, sapphires and diamonds to commemorate her July 4th anniversary.
The neighbors' appreciation often finds its way through the mail slot. Fitzwalter shows the correspondence that she's received over the years; a thank-you card in an elderly woman's spidery handwriting is kept with a child's crayon drawing of the Holiday House. And when the majority of the Fitzwalter's flags were stolen last year only days after Sept. 11, the neighbors responded with anonymous gestures of support, including a delivery of new flags and a $100 bill, accompanied by a note of encouragement: 'Please don't let this incident discourage you; we love what you do.'
After more than a decade of decorating the Holiday House, Fitzwalter says there are several predictable questions from onlookers.
'Everyone always asks, 'Are you a schoolteacher?'' she says. 'When I say no, then they say, 'Well, then, you must have a ton of kids!'' This is also untrue; the Fitzwalters have no children. 'Finally,' she says, 'People want to know where we store all the decorations.'
That's what the attic is for.
Resembling a holiday museum, the 1,000-square-foot space is divided into 11 designated areas. Easter is next to Valentine's Day, which is next to Cinco de Mayo and so forth. Fitzwalter began recognizing Sept. 11 this year in her own inimitable fashion. Flags, candles and all things patriotic now share space with Fourth of July trimmings in the tightly packed attic.
'This place is like a pi–ata,' Steve Fitzwalter says dryly. 'Some day it's just going to blow, and stuff's going to fly everywhere.'
Getting the decorations from the attic to their place of display often takes several days and the occasional pit stop. A guest room on the second floor, dubbed the 'holding tank,' is where decorations are kept until they're eventually put in place.
Fitzwalter says her decorations were largely found in routine searches of vintage stores and catalogs, and while on vacation. Halloween is her favorite celebration and requires more effort to set up than any other holiday, she says.
'Halloween takes a week to do,' she says. 'Battery installation itself can take hours. The rest of the holidays can be set up in a day.'
Fitzwalter credits her husband for his strong back and willing attitude throughout the decorating process.
'Stevie's been a really good sport,' she says. 'He doesn't like the mess, but he also sees how much it means to people.' Then with an impish grin, Fitzwalter says, 'He also knows it's part of his job.'
The dynamo behind the Holiday House credits her mother for instilling in her a love of celebration.
'My mom used to decorate for the holidays; she'd do a little something for each one,' says Fitzwalter, a Lincoln High School grad who grew up in Cornelius Pass as the youngest of seven children.
Fitzwalter now admits to being 'maxed out.'
'I'm so done now that I really don't look anymore,' she says. 'I still have 15 Halloween boxes upstairs that I haven't unpacked yet!'