A Tip of the Hat to Stetson Mansion

By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Neal Smith, Edson Pacheco and Art Faulkner

The Stetson Mansion “Christmas Spectacular!” is a link to Florida’s Victorian past and to John B. Stetson, a hatmaker and entrepreneur whose philanthropy changed American manufacturing, especially at the holidays.

Every Christmas since 2011, JT Thompson and Michael Solari have invited a few thousand people into their home to view the “Stetson Mansion Christmas Spectacular!” And spectacular doesn’t begin to describe the elaborate decorations that fill the home they restored after moving there in 2005.
The eight-week long holiday home tour is a fitting tribute to John B. Stetson, whose Stetson cowboy hat became an iconic symbol of Americana. The hatmaker and philanthropist was among the first – if not the first – manufacturer to give his employees Christmas bonuses and gifts in the early 20th century. The extravagant annual company Christmas parties were legendary and even continued long after his death. In 1920, his Christmas gifts to employees were valued to be more than half a million dollars. In addition to cash bonuses for every worker, he also gave shares of stock, 2,524 turkeys, 444 hats, and 1,400 pounds of candy.
His philanthropy and generosity extended to his winter hometown of Deland, Florida, as well. The Philadelphia native’s contributions to the Central Florida town were numerous: power and icemaking plants, a golf course, tourism efforts, and – most notably – large contributions of money, time, and land to Deland College, which eventually became Stetson University. He served on the board and often walked on campus.
“John Stetson was Florida’s first snowbird,” says Solari. “He brought his whole family down for six months every year. He built a schoolhouse in the backyard for his children and even opened it to his servants’ kids as well.”
Stetson entertained many prominent guests, including Thomas Edison who installed the electrical system in the mansion, making it the first in Deland to have illuminated lights. And he didn’t forget the town’s residents either: he often invited the community to concerts on the massive Stetson Mansion lawn.
By the same token, Solari and Thompson open their doors to the community. Guided tours of the historic mansion are offered throughout the spring and summer, but it’s the highly rated “Christmas Spectacular!” that draws sell-out crowds. Last year alone, more than 10,000 people came to see the Victorian-era home decorated for Christmas.
Unlike many holiday home tours, the Stetson Mansion’s event is not staged by professional designers but rather Thompson himself.
“We close the mansion for two months so JT can devote every day to install every painstaking detail. It is amazing to watch his love for the season provide such original inspiration,” says Solari.
Last year, Thompson jokingly said he had a little help from a designer named Irma. He painted and re-used many of the limbs and boards that he found in the yard after the hurricane blew through in September 2017. The natural elements provided an ethereal beauty to the decorations, especially in the dining room where the theme ‘Snow Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ adorned almost every surface.

“The decorations come right from my own head; I don’t even look at Pinterest,” Thompson says with a smile. “I don’t repeat the same decorations each year. It’s always different and it will be at least four years before the Snow Babies return.”
Knowledgeable guides lead guests through every room in the mansion, all filled with exquisite layers of decorations that the home’s owners have collected through the years. Many of the decorations are family heirlooms, and rooms often have a Victorian theme – particularly appropriate as the Stetson Mansion was built in 1886.
Although the decorations and themes change every season, some things are a constant, such as the “Salute to Veterans” display. Guests also wonder about the strategically placed peacock décor, which is a nod to Mr. Stetson’s “guard” peacocks that roamed the property in the late 1800s. But it’s the traditional crèches with the Christ child that are always prominent.
“This is a Christmas house that celebrates Christ’s birth, first and foremost,” says Thompson. “There is a crèche in every room. We’re not apologetic about what it is, and we will not compromise on calling it ‘Christmas.’”
The philosophy is working. Positive ratings on the TripAdvisor travel site keep climbing, garnering a “Certificate of Excellence” because of the consistently great reviews from travelers. In addition, the travel site recently named Stetson Mansion as Florida’s most popular attraction, beating out even DisneyWorld.
The idea for opening the historic home at Christmas evolved from friends and acquaintances asking to see Thompson’s “over-the-top” decorating skills, which included family heirlooms from both his and Solari’s mothers. The word spread and people kept calling, so in 2011 the first “Christmas Spectacular!” opened to the public. Each year since, the number of visitors has doubled for the 75-to-90-minute tours.
Thompson says this year’s highlights will include tributes to classic Christmas carols, such as “Angels We Have Heard on High” in the living room and “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem” in the music room.
“We hear so many people say, ‘This is on our family’s Christmas to-do list every year,’” says Solari. “Kids love it even though it is very sophisticated and reverent.”
Thompson, who creates the Christmas wonderland with very little outside help, adds, “This is not just a tour, but an experience. People can step back 130 years and still experience something fresh and new.”

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Stetson Mansion “Christmas Spectacular!”
Holiday Home Tour
Deland, Florida
Nov. 15 – Jan. 15
Tours: 10:30, 1:30, 3:15, 5:00, 7:00 daily, excluding Sunday mornings
Online reservations required at stetsonmansion.com
Adults: $25+tax ($26.63)
Children & Students (ages 6-22): $15+tax ($15.98)
Children (ages 5 & under): free (Not recommended for infants and toddlers)
Free Parking

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