Philly area vacation home tours change format to resume during pandemic


Lionel tours a miniature village and ancient nativity scenes in Chestnut Hill; a collection of 275 Santa Claus in Ambler; a Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house on a Moorestown lawn; a Victorian tree decorated with lace ribbon, flocks of origami birds and snowflakes in Blue Bell; a 50s themed tree with light bubbles and garlands in Burlington City.

Every December for decades, visitors have flocked to beautifully decorated private homes in the area for sightseeing tours to benefit nonprofits in the area. Crowds came in rain, snow, sleet and freezing cold year after year – until 2020.

As with so many other activities last December, the danger of the coronavirus spreading has forced the cancellation of beloved holiday tours.

READ MORE: Calendar of 2021 Philadelphia Holiday Events

What about this year?

To prepare for the tours, sponsors have to line up houses months in advance, so this year decisions had to be made while people were still getting their first shots, and then while the delta variant was raging. Even with social distancing and masking, would homeowners be willing to open their homes? Would visitors come?

It was hard to know, so a number of tour sponsors came up with creative alternatives to showcase the beauty of the season. Other groups have canceled tours again, including the Cumberland County Historical Society, the Chadds Ford Historical Society, the Historic Yorkshire Alliance in Burlington City, and the Cooks Tour in Moorestown.

“This year we didn’t want to lose the holiday tradition, but we didn’t want to diminish it by not having enough housing,” said Anne McNiff, director of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, which sponsored 26 tours of previous vacation. “We wanted to come back in force.

Instead of opening half a dozen homes to visitors, the association decided to host “A Twilight Toast for the Holidays” in one large house: the Norwood Mansion, now part of the Norwood campus- Fontbonne Academy on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia.

The mansion was built in 1852 as a private residence, but is now part of the Catholic School sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph at Chestnut Hill for Kindergarten to Grade 8. The building is used for school offices and classrooms, and the old ballroom is now the school chapel.

For “A Twilight Toast,” the original dining room, used by students at lunchtime, will be filled with trees decorated by children and local businesses, and lights will be hung over a two-person holly. floors next to the porch.

Outside, wine and appetizers will be served on the wraparound porch, and visitors can relax on Adirondack chairs by the fire pits on the lawn. There will be musical entertainment.

The Chestnut Hill Community Association the event is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, December 11. Tickets: $ 40, $ 30 for association members at or call 215-248-8810. Masks and social distancing are required inside the Norwood Mansion.

For its 71st annual tour, the Norristown Garden Club also opted out of hiring private homes and instead lined up five historic public buildings in northern Montgomery County to decorate. Visitors can peek inside the Hope Lodge, built in the 1740s by Samuel Morris, a Quaker entrepreneur; the Peter Wentz Farmstead and Pennypacker Mills, both used as headquarters by General George Washington in the fall of 1777; Bethel Hill United Methodist Church, which celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2020; and Highlands Mansion, built in the late 1790s.

Garden club members typically spend weeks handcrafting holiday decorations from natural materials for participating homes. This year at Highlands Mansion, they’re recreating a holiday wedding, a kid’s Christmas and more. The state-owned structure is rented out for weddings and social events. Also in Highlands, vendors will sell an assortment of items including botanical prints, jewelry, honey and Christmas decorations.

Over the past few years, the tour has sold out in advance to over 1,000 visitors, said Jill Evans, a member of the gardening club’s board of directors. The proceeds fund scholarships for students who plan to study horticulture or related fields. This year, the visit has been extended to two days, instead of the typical second Friday in December, to account for social distancing and the lack of electric lighting in some of the historic buildings.

The Norristown Garden Club the visit is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, December 9 and Friday, December 10. Tickets: $ 25 to CDC guidelines on masks and social distancing will be enforced.

In 2019, Elfreth’s Alley Association’s “Deck the Alley” hosted 1,500 guests who walked through 10 townhouses on Philadelphia’s most historic street and watched 17 more from ribbon doors.

This year, the association decided to let everyone out; all houses on the tour will be taped. The planters will be filled with lights and greenery and the street lights will have fairy lights. Alley festivities will include singers and refreshments, and Elfreth’s Alley Museum will be open.

Visitors to the alley, where the 32 buildings date from the early 18th to early 19th centuries, “often feel like they’re in another era,” said association director Ted Maust. It could be Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Charles Dickens’ England, or Christmas morning with Louisa May Alcott’s. Little woman, he said.

To promote social distancing, Defeat the alley on Saturday, December 4, there will be two time slots, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets: $ 25 to Masks are compulsory inside the museum.

In Newtown, Bucks County, the Historical Association decided to include four private homes – three dating from the late 1800s and one dating from the late 1700s – as well as seven public buildings in this tour. year. The first visit to association houses was in 1963 when visitors paid $ 1.50 to visit seven houses.

The public buildings participating this year are the Old Presbyterian Church and Sessions House from 1769; the Newtown Firefighters Association; the Newtown Library; the Newtown Historical Association Research Center; the Stocking Works, a former hosiery factory converted into an office complex; the newly renovated Newtown Theater, built in 1831; and the 18th-century Half Moon Inn, which the Newtown Historic Association owns and maintains. Visitors to the hostel will be entertained with music and colonial cooking demonstrations.

All sites are easily accessible on foot from the city center.

By planning ahead, said Mary Jo Garner, the association’s archivist secretary, “we have already booked owners for 2022, and we are looking towards 2023”.

The Newtown Historical Association the visit is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, December 4. Tickets: $ 30 at Tour groups will be small to maintain social distance. Masks are mandatory.

»READ MORE: 18 Holiday Markets in the Philly Area

Sponsors of tours canceled in 2021 hope to be operational again next year.

Members of the Virtua Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, who sponsor the Cooks Tour in Moorestown, printed “Save the Date” flyers and distributed them in the fall in Moorestown, a community event in October, and a banner advertising the 2022 event hangs over Main Street. this holiday season.

The Cooks Tour name originated in the 1960s, when the wives of doctors from what was then Mount Holly Hospital decorated their kitchens for the holidays and sold gingerbread cookies to visitors, according to the president of the Auxiliary Council, Althea Penncock. Eventually, the visits included other rooms in the houses.

Each year, Pennock said, “visitors marvel at the creativity of the owners.”

The 2022 Moorestown Cooks Tour will take place on Wednesday, December 7. Proceeds from the $ 25 bills will be donated to patient care. And as always, gingerbread cookies will be for sale.

Before the Historic Yorkshire Alliance tour was canceled in Burlington, New Jersey, group chairman Harry Heck was eager to share his home with visitors again.

In the past, they loved his toy soldiers and other old toys, he said. He pruned trees with Victorian ornaments, but found his 1950s-themed tree particularly popular. Apparently, many visitors share Heck’s childhood memories of trees decorated with light bubbles and garlands.

He can’t wait to resume touring in 2022.

“Being on tour,” he said, “encourages me to do projects that I put off. “

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