The hulking, richly ornate Vaile Mansion, designed by famed architect Asa Beebe Cross, sits alone on a postage stamp of its former grounds in a mostly working-class residential neighborhood in Independence, Missouri. It looks more like a rip in time and space than a wonderland of Victorian Christmas cheer.
But the Second Empire Gothic Italianate brick beauty shutters every year from November 1 through Thanksgiving Day to undergo a complete transformation, making it grand enough to melt even the most charred of Grinch-like hearts (of which this author possesses).
An almost life-sized St. Nicholas and his plush-reindeer sidekick stand ready to greet visitors on the porch. The mansion’s enormous wooden doors have, indeed, been decked with boughs of holly and garlands.
Inside, each of the rooms on the first two floors has been meticulously designed and decorated in an individual theme by a specific member of the all-volunteer Vaile Victorian Society.
“I just love it,” says Ron Potter, who is in his second run as the society’s president, having returned from an almost 15-year hiatus two years ago. “It grew on me. I see something new every day I’m here. Something new every day.”
Potter relishes telling the story of Colonel Harvey Vaile and his wife Sophia. Originally from Vermont, they moved to Kansas City and later to Independence, beginning construction on their dream home in 1871. Colonel Vaile owned the "Star Route," a mail service in which the United States Post Office Department hired contractors to deliver mail to the frontier, and owing to the Colonel's extravagant wealth, he and Sophia were prominent figures among Independence business and social circles.
The couple was childless and therefore free to design the showpiece of their dreams without fear of sticky fingers and adventurous climbers. The Vailes traveled to Europe in 1880, and finished their mansion the next year with a mind to bring some European aristocratic flair to Missouri.
In his second-floor smoking room, for example, Colonel Vaile wanted his guests to feel as if they were outdoors. So he had stars painted on the ceiling and had the walls trimmed in exceptional woodwork — but he also hired a painter to cleverly hide more than 300 natural whorls in the wood grain by painting faces into them. These faces are visible only if you look closely. (It's if Vaile wanted the effect to be: "I've had three or four brandies and two huge cigars ... is that a face? Am I surrounded by faces?") The room is signed by the artist above the door, year 1881.
Of the three European artists Colonel Vaile hired, it was the painter from Italy (paid $1,500 and given free access to the wine cellar) who became the Vailes’ undoing.
Sophia’s bedroom opens up into the much larger master bedroom, where the Italian artist painted a mural titled “Innocence” on the ceiling, directly above the bed. It depicts a semi-reclined woman, perhaps Persephone or Astraea, her hand thrown over her head dramatically, as if she were just rising from a satisfying slumber. The scandal was her uncovered breasts.
Finding gossip irresistible, the Vailes’ servants quickly spread the word. It turned out that the European flair the Vailes had hoped to cultivate had no place in Victorian Independence. Rumors abounded that the mural depicted Mrs. Vaile, and a filmy negligée top was added to the mural, barely disguising what was beneath.
“As you can see, it doesn’t cover much,” Potter muses.
The damage had been done. The couple was shunned by local high society, and Sophia’s short life in Independence was lonely. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, she was found dead in her bedroom of a morphine overdose in 1883, an apparent suicide.
At the time, Colonel Vaile was on his second trial in New York, having been accused of bribing postal officials and defrauding the government in what became known as the Star Route Scandal (he was found not guilty). He was granted permission to return home to bury his wife. They had spent only 18 months together in their dream mansion. Vaile lived another 12 years and never remarried.
After being embroiled in what one tour guide describes as a “custody” battle among the Vaile relatives, the mansion turned into a retirement home until it was purchased after the owner’s death by Roger and Mary Mildred Dewitt, who gifted the mansion to the city of Independence in 1983. That year neighbors formed the Vaile Victorian Society, and they’ve been meticulously restoring, decorating and caring for the house ever since.
Just inside the front door, volunteer tour guides greet every visitor with genuine enthusiasm and warmth.
“I love seeing it take shape,” Potter says of the Christmas decorations. “Sometimes I worry that they’re not going to get done in time, and I’m like, 'Come on. We have to get it done.”
It certainly got done this year.
An upside-down Christmas tree hangs next to the imposing Eastlake/Gothic black walnut staircase, an homage to Queen Victoria, who hung her tree from the ceiling to keep it out of the way of children and pets.
The men’s parlor has been tastefully adorned with antler accents hidden among lush greenery and pheasant feathers at the top of a giant Christmas tree. The “music room,” where the Vailes kept their piano and record player, is teeming with ornaments and peacock feathers (their real-life counterparts used to strut the property) and finely handcrafted faux Fabergé eggs, while the kitchen is outfitted with blue and white porcelain dishes, and the ladies’ parlor has three trees (one is 12 feet tall). Even the bathrooms have received the Christmas treatment with top hat wreaths, train garlands and faux icicles.
Upstairs, Santa’s clothes are strewn about in the hall, as if he’s just retired for the evening. Sophia’s copper bathtub has been giddily filled with giant glass bubbles. And in keeping with Victorian obsessions, the library is filled with cameos and scarlet roses.
Every year hundreds of people make the trek to bask in the mansion’s delights. This year’s attendance is especially important because the infamous “Innocence” has a crack, and repairs will be partially funded by revenue from holiday tours.
“We would love people to come and see us,” Potter says.
And regardless of whether that really is Mrs. Vaile depicted on the bedroom ceiling, she would undoubtedly be happy to finally see her showpiece mansion filled with people and cheer at last.
Vaile Mansion holiday hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., Sunday 1 -4 p.m. through December 30 (closed December 23-25), 1500 North Liberty Street, Independence, Missouri, 64050; 816-325-7430.
Monique Gabrielle Salazar is a Kansas City freelance writer, artist and producer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.