WHITEMARSH — Someone once said that at Christmas all roads lead home.
That may be true, but for 70 years now the Norristown Garden Club has made sure that those roads always include some enticing detours along the way with their annual Holiday House tour.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of showcasing area homes, the club crowned its roundup of five homes in the Whitpain, Gwynedd and Ambler areas with a "Festival of Trees" at an historic Whitemarsh icon.
Highlighting the 70th Annual Norristown Garden Club Holiday House Tour, which sold out in October, the Highlands Mansion and Gardens in Fort Washington on Friday boasted a lavish display of a dozen Christmas trees decorated by various garden club members.
The 1200 tour-goers were also invited to vote for their favorite tree from a trio of trees that adorned stately rooms on the main floor of the mansion.
The majestic main tree, a Fraser fir donated by Kenny's Christmas Trees in Spring House, was warmly vitalized with a garden of dried flowers, ranging from elegant hydrangea blooms to ruby red coxcomb and unassuming globe amaranth, along with fresh poinsettia.
Tour Chair Caren Puschak of East Norriton knew that the Highlands was the angel topper on the Christmas tree, as it were, that the tour needed to recognize its 2019 milestone.
"We decided we needed a grand place for our 70th anniversary and this was the icing on the cake. Its an extra to our usual five homes," she noted. "We've done Fort Washington before, but not this far down; this is right on the edge of Whitemarsh. People said they'd heard so much about the Highlands but had never been here and they really wanted to go. It's such an elegant space, and it's a nonprofit that's always in need of repairs."
Estate caretaker Dana Dorsey knows a lot of the Highlands history,
"The Highlands was built between 1794 and 1796. Anthony Morris is the original owner. He purchased the property and hired architect Timothy Matlack to build his dream home," Dorsey noted. "He was the speaker of the senate for the state of Pennsylvania and purchased 200 acres here, had the house built and he and his family lived here for 12 years."
The second family to own The Highlands was the Sheaff family.
"The Sheaff family lived at the Highlands for 100 years," Dorsey said. "George Sheaff was a wealthy wine merchant. He and his wife and eight children added all of the upgrades to the home, including bringing in indoor plumbing and electricity as well as creating the gardens, which are now a big draw for weddings and parties. The last owner of the estate," Dorsey added, "was Caroline Sinkler, and when she passed away the estate was given to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1970. The Highlands Historical Society formed at the same time, which was basically a group of neighbors in the area that wanted to care for the home and not leave it an abandoned historical estate but to upkeep it, maintain the gardens and the integrity of the house and educate the community about the history of the home and the families that lived here. We hold a lot of fundraisers here and the estate is rented out for weddings, birthday parties and corporate events and all of the money goes back into the estate."
Dorsey knew the Holiday House Tour would ultimately benefit the Highlands in many important ways.
"When Caren Puschak approached me I thought it was a huge honor for us and we're thrilled to have that amount of people coming through the Highlands, because even people that live right down the street may not know that we're here. So we're really excited to be part of it, to see their beautiful decorations and have so many people visit the Highlands. My main goal is to have as many people in the area know about the Highlands so they can attend our events. We have musical events, kids programs and a festival every spring."
Brimming with the beauty of the Yuletide season, the Delaney home on Mallard Circle in Blue Bell exuded the inviting theme of "Christmas at Barberry Lodge."
The house is part of the original William Davis tract of 200 acres purchased in 1701, noted Barbara Campbell, who bought the house with her husband Joe Delaney in 2012.
"We go to the Chestnut Hill holiday tour every year but we didn't know there was one here in Montgomery County," Campbell said. "I'm amazed how big the Norristown Garden Club is, and how they work with schools and nursing homes. And the money raised from the tour helps fund a scholarship, so we're happy to do it. We love our house, we love old homes and when they said they love it too we said, c'mon in and decorate. I usually just decorate with a pair of candles, so it's nice to have other pairs of eyes to re-imagine how to decorate, with all these different ideas. What they've done is a work of art."
Campbell pointed out that the unique property still contains the remnants of a stone foundation wall that used to be the barn.
"There are still stone steps up from what was the inside of the barn to the ground. A few feet from these steps is a round concrete lined hole several feet down into the ground which we were told was probably the base of some kind of small silo," Campbell noted. "When we bought the home in 2012 there was a detached garage/shed on the Skippack Road. side of the home. There was a small garden bordered by a stone wall between the home and the garage/shed. We knocked down the old garage and built a modern one with a breezeway connecting it to the home."
Tour publicist Jill Evans touted a design of greens and berries that festooned a basket hanging on the entrance door.
"Trees made from wine corks, small pine cone trees in clay pots, and black and white plaid trees all contribute to the Christmas atmosphere in here," she said. "The large tree in the living room has some fascinating ornaments made by the committee: punched-design cat-food can lids, a 'bouquet' from newspaper with a created-flower center, snowmen made from pine cones and drums made from cat food cans covered with wide ribbon."
A delicately embellished Manzanita branch in the dining room thoughtfully reflected the discreet ginkgo leaves on the wallpaper.
The Sabatino home in Lower Gwynedd exuded "The Art of Elegant Simplicity," greeting guests with a design of glass containers containing cranberries and flowers on a round table in the hall. The tree, decorated in white with red accents, continued the Asian theme with hand-made ornaments such as Japanese lanterns, chrysanthemums fashioned from wire and also from plant material, white balls with an applied oriental design, small fans on which was painted a geisha, and white ribbon with hand painted red goldfish.
A jolly snowman cake sitting on a counter quietly brought a bit of Christmas sparkle to the kitchen.
Also part of the 70th Annual Norristown Garden Club Holiday House Tour,were the Smith family home in Lower Gwynedd ("Winter Tour in Gwynedd Valley"); the Goldberg home in Ambler ("Through an Artist's Eye") and the Wright family home in Ambler ("Woodland Wonder.")
For more information, visit norristowngardenclub.org and "like" the Norristown Garden Club on Facebook.