Volunteer decorators make Pittock Mansion shine for 50th year

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Santa poses with guests at Pittock Mansion.There’s no shortage of creativity that goes into Pittock Mansion’s Yuletide trim — an annual event that started five decades ago this year.

As reported on page 3 of the Dec. 15, 1966, edition of The Oregonian at that time, young art students at Laurelhurst School “fashioned angels, humpty-dumpties, gala stars and colorful geometric designs reminiscent of their grandparents’ days.”

The decorative extravaganza worthy of newspaper copy was then only contained to one 8-foot fir in the mansion’s ballroom. It was hoped, as reported in the article, that it would become an annual custom for schoolchildren to participate in decorating the city-owned mansion — one tradition that didn’t quite stick.

Since the early days, the affair has evolved and become more extravagant, expanding to 15 rooms in the house, 39 Christmas trees large and small, and a who-knows number of ornaments. In addition, the once-simple event, which commissioned a few students and handcrafted ornaments, has turned into a yearlong planning project with many volunteers, designers and themes.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Guests at Pittock Mansion check out the various rooms decorated for the holidays.This year, 70 volunteers, all recruited by word of mouth, decorated with the theme of “Symbols of the Season” in mind, where each room’s holiday decorations were inspired by a specific holiday symbol, such as an angel, Santa Claus, family recipes, evergreens and the like.

Though a visit to the mansion during the holiday season has become a tradition for many Oregonians near and far, so has the annual decorating process become a tradition for the volunteers, like sixth-generation Southeast Portlander Alison Chapman. This is her sixth time decking the halls — or rooms— at the mansion. This year was the third she and friend Nancy Kurkinen have specifically concentrated on the kitchen, where the chosen symbol was family recipes.

“It’s tricky in the kitchen — you want to show food, but you can’t have food in there,” Chapman says. The pair secured a fake turkey from a photography studio with a warehouse full of props in the area.

A window display designer in her spare time, Chapman, along with Kurkinen, gets to work early in the year to collect items needed for the room.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Antique playing cards' was the theme for this room.“Nancy had a friend rent a large collection of amber glassware, which we thought would make (the kitchen) look really warm and cozy and sparkly,” Chapman says. Indeed, during a tour of the mansion, light coming through the kitchen window and passing through the golden glass offered exquisite warmth. She says she likes decorating the kitchen because it’s a neutral space with a lot of white, where it’s easy to make a “strong visual boom.”

“It’s just super fun. I’ve visited this house all my life,” she says. “My sisters and I would fantasize about having our Christmas parties here.”

Decorating takes place over two days when the mansion closes to the public. On the third day, there is a members/volunteers-only preview party. About 500 people attended the event Nov. 21.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The grand staircase of Pittock Mansion is adorned for the holiday season.Chapman especially loves that the house, despite being the mansion of wealthy newspaper mogul Henry Pittock, still feels like a humble home — and being a designer for the mansion during the holidays makes it feel like one, especially since her family became involved.

Her sister, a graphic designer, also helps decorate at the mansion, and they often borrow various doodads belonging to their mother for decoration, making it a true family affair. Chapman says her mother will laugh when walking through the exhibit and seeing her household items on display. She now brings the family to the volunteer party to celebrate.

“It’s fun to be a part of a historic home like that. It’s still a really living, creative thing for us and, I think, the whole city,” Chapman says. “I think there’s a lot of people in the city who feel connected to it and the history.”

Next year’s theme already has been picked, according to the mansion’s curator, Patti Larkin. Though still a working title, the theme will be “Iconic Portland Christmas.”

“Think Rose Festival, ZooLights, those kinds of things,” Larkin says.

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