The Past & Present of West Chester Public Library’s Holiday Home Tour
There are some holiday traditions we just can’t shake. Whether it’s the inclusion of your great aunt’s favorite mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, visiting the Christmas tree farm where you purchase your annual tree, or determining who lights the family Menorah, traditions are often just as important as the holidays themselves.
And yet, this year, in the year of all crazy years, many of us are reconsidering our rituals. For the sake of safety, health, family and community, we are sacrificing many of our personal and public traditions. Families are canceling Thanksgiving. Towns and cities are canceling parades. It’s a sad and difficult time, made more so by our separation from those we love.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Though plenty of holiday events have been canceled or postponed this year, some, including the West Chester Public Library Annual Holiday House Tour, have been creatively modified, giving us both a semblance of normalcy and even something to celebrate.
The WCPL Holiday Home Tour has been a staple in the Borough for nine years. The YWCA originally brought the Holiday Home Tour to the borough, but the library took over the event 10 years ago.
“They (the YWCA) hadn’t conducted the tour for two or three years, and at the time I was on the board,” says Phyllis Dunn, former Library Board Member. “We were looking for a much-needed fundraiser to keep everything perking at the library. And we thought maybe that would be a good idea to go ahead and pick up that tour because it hadn’t been done for a few years.”
The response was hardly expected.
“For the first year, we printed ‘x’ amount of tickets, based on what they had done previously, and we were totally inundated with sales. We couldn’t accommodate it,” says Dunn. “It turned out to be a good thing because it built up demand then for the tour the following year. And it’s been building every year.”
For those who haven’t attended in the past, the Holiday House Tour is a fun and interesting self-guided tour of participating houses throughout the borough. Generally, there are about 10 homes on the tour each year, and in addition to a guidebook full of information, each property has docents on hand to answer questions and provide guidance to tour-goers. The tour includes homes of different architectural styles and sizes, and shines a spotlight on holiday décor of any religion as well as hobbies, artwork, antiques and furnishings—it’s an enjoyable way to have a birds-eye view into different décor and styles.
“It’s a one-day event. It’s a 10am to 3pm event, always on the first Saturday of December,” says Clare Quinn, Development Manager of the WCPL for the past five years.
The event, a major fundraiser for the library, brings in 700-800 guests annually and raises money from both ticket sales and event sponsorships.
“Last year was our best year ever, and our income from the tour, our net income, was over $35,000,” says Quinn.
“Our goal is to present West Chester as it is,” says Quinn. “We like diversity in age, style, size, everything. So we’ve had very modest homes, teeny tiny row houses, up to fabulous mansions, and we usually have a range every year.”
It’s a one-day event. It’s a 10am to 3pm event, always on the first Saturday of December
“The original idea was a walkable tour within the confines of the borough,” says Quinn. “We tried to focus on one quadrant of it. So it would be in the southwest one year, and we would flip it, but that’s kind of broken down over the years because so many places have been on the tour…people want to see new things.”
Because the event committee tries to limit repeat homes, these days, the tour may include homes from different parts of the borough. “It’s sometimes like a ‘park once, do a bunch, move your car, do a bunch’,” says Quinn.
Although those who face ambulatory challenges, or simply don’t feel like walking, can easily drive from quadrant to quadrant, the entire tour is walkable for those who prefer to stay on foot.
In addition to the homes involved, the tour has included one or two open houses and tours at local institutions, such as the Chester County Historical Society or the Chester County Art Association. Each institution is invited to participate for two years in a row before moving on to another venue.
So how many people does it take to put the Holiday House Tour together?
“When I came, [the tour] had been on for four years. Phyllis Dunn had run it with a group of volunteers for those four years, and I kind of very gradually took over,” says Quinn.
Dunn—described by Quinn as a “dynamo”—is no longer on the library board, but still in West Chester, and works as a docent on the day of the house tour.
“I had built a wonderful and very competent committee, and after seven years, I decided to step away and let the committee do their thing,” says Dunn.
“Phyllis is great, she’s a great networker,” says Quinn. “She created something. I’m just following in her footsteps, pretty much.”
“It was a beautiful transition,” says Dunn. “The committee just stepped right up and kept going.”
Quinn has worked to expand the tour a little bit while maintaining a level of continuity and tradition.
“Most of the people on the Holiday Home Tour Committee, or at least the two—Donna Eaves, the volunteer coordinator for the tour, and Carol Zabriskie, who handles mailing the booklets and getting tickets out to people—have been with Phyllis from the beginning, so that’s my continuity,” says Quinn.
Like any event that has evolved over the years, there have been some changes in the Holiday House Tour, though most have been internal. Rather than a single individual responsible for recruiting participating homeowners, there is now a committee of about six to eight people that meets monthly to do that work.
Sometimes the owners like to stay in their homes, and when they do, it is a bonus because they might point out things that didn’t come up when we were doing our write up
In addition to the committee, there are a bevy of volunteers.
“It’s a group that knows each other socially a lot,” says Quinn, “They enjoy getting together. Some have been on the board at the library. So that’s probably 300, 400 people on that list. It might be less, but it’s a lot.”
To keep the momentum of the annual event alive, volunteers participate in two parties each year—one in the spring that introduces that year’s tour to potential volunteers, and one in October when they’re ready to go, and volunteers get to see the new tour booklet, get tickets, and get the final lowdown on the upcoming tour.
“That’s traditionally how it’s been done,” says Quinn.
The volunteers do more than help with the planning stage. About 100 volunteers, from students to seniors, show up as guides for the day of the event. “Sometimes the owners like to stay in their homes, and when they do, it is a bonus because they might point out things that didn’t come up when we were doing our write up,” says Quinn.
Of course, the best part of the Holiday House Tour isn’t just the houses.
“The houses were one thing. That’s the one aspect of the tour that brings the people out,” says Dunn. “But what’s really happened is it’s raised awareness for the historic gem that the library really is. People don’t realize what they have in their own backyard. It‘s just a wonderful little place tucked right away.”
In light of a global pandemic, how is the Holiday Home Tour taking place this year?
Rather than an interior home tour in 2020—an impossibility considering the state of affairs—this year, the library will be sponsoring a different take on what would have been their 10th Annual Holiday Home Tour—a Holiday Door Tour.
“At the beginning of the year, we knew we had to cancel other events. This is our biggest moneymaker so it’s a critical event,” says Quinn. “At first, we thought about turning it into a fundraiser without an event. But someone on our board, Shannon McDonald, came up with this brilliant idea; why don’t we have a door tour that people can walk around outside, especially since the Christmas Parade was cancelled this year? So, this is not just a substitute for the home tour but kind of a substitute for the parade for a lot of families that are used to spending that evening going to the parade. Now they can take their kids to this.”
Besides being an outside event, perfect for social distancing, the Holiday Door Tour differs from the Holiday House Tour in other ways too. Rather than a one-day event with docents, the Door Tour is an eight-day affair, lasting from Saturday, December 5 through Saturday, December 12, and is entirely self-guided, with participants receiving tour map booklets. Front doors and porches on the tour will be decorated for the holidays, and just as in the Holiday House Tour, every religious and ethnic tradition is welcome. Guests can visit at their leisure, even breaking up the tour by clusters of houses, giving themselves a holiday activity each day that week.
We expect this to be more of a child and family-oriented event because of the scavenger hunt element. Take the stroller out, take the kids, and give them something fun to do for Christmas.
To up the fun quotient, guests can participate in a Door Tour Scavenger Hunt as well as a holiday raffle with about seven winners.
“We expect this to be more of a child and family-oriented event because of the scavenger hunt element,” says Quinn. “Take the stroller out, take the kids, and give them something fun to do for Christmas.”
It changes the demographic—the Holiday House Tour isn’t exactly kid friendly—but no one seems to mind. “Someone else on the committee came up with the Scavenger Hunt idea and we just ran with it. And it’s turned out to be really popular already. We’re already getting people making donations,” says Quinn.
While the Holiday House Tour is a ticketed event—tickets have been $40 for the past few years—the Holiday Door Tour is donation-only.
“We’ll send out a mass email suggesting that they pay the amount they would have paid for a home tour ticket, but if they don’t, any donation of any amount will get you a ticket for the door tour,” says Quinn.
The goal, of course, is that this altered fundraiser can earn an amount of funds in its new iteration comparable to previous years. Again, that was over $35,000 last year—a lot of donations.
“We also have sponsors for this,” says Quinn. “We’ve got $15,600 in our sponsorships. We’re trying to use that money as an incentive for people to match. We’re going to have a stack of books that will function as a thermometer saying ‘Can you help us match what our sponsors have given?’ The goal is to get another $15,000 from our donors. That won’t bring us everything we made last year, but close.”
There will also be not one, but four different scavenger hunt zones, one in each quadrant. In addition to a tiny hunt with only about eight doors in the southeast quadrant, perfect for little kids, there is a 26-door zone in the southwest quadrant, which is a longer walk with more participants. The other two quadrants are about 12 houses each.
“You can do them all, or you can do one, but you fill out your scavenger hunt, you can bring them back to the library and you’ll get a little treat,” says Quinn.
And as opposed to the 10 houses usually on the Holiday House Tour, at the time of this writing, at least 50 people have signed up to decorate their doors.
It really involves the community. It gives families something to do together.
So how can you make out which are the participating homes versus homes that are simply decked out for the holidays?
In addition to your pamphlet, homes will be marked. “Every house that’s participating will have a lawn sign,” says Quinn.
Though it’s not the Annual Holiday House Tour West Chester residents have come to know and love, people seem excited. “The people hearing about it are really enthusiastic,” says Quinn. “You don’t know with something like this, but the feedback has been really good.”
Dunn concurs. “I thought this was ingenious,” she said of the door tour. “It really involves the community. It gives families something to do together.”
“When we first conceived this, we did think of doing a digital house tour, but this is exactly what’s needed right now, in our opinion,” says Quinn. “I mean, people are really itching to do something for the holidays that’s safe and that’s family friendly, and this is it.”
In other words, it’s still West Chester dressed for the holidays—it’s just inside out.
If there’s ever a time to put on your walking shoes, this is it. In addition to walking around the borough—something that can certainly be avoided to some extent by driving—tour goers will spend plenty of time on their feet, looking for items that are listed in the scavenger hunts.
And though the usual guidelines for the Holiday House Tour don’t apply this year—high heels and indoor photography are both prohibited—there are some new rules.
“Don’t go on the porches. Don’t try to enter the houses,” says Quinn. “You can go on the walkway to the porch if you need a better view, but that’s as far as you can go. The goal is to stay on the sidewalk.”
Furthermore, masks will be encouraged if people cannot be socially distanced.