Want some Christmas cheer around Kansas City? Check out our historic mansions and houses
Throughout the Kansas City area, historic homes dating back nearly 200 years are opulently decorated for the holidays, demonstrating how the Christmas season was celebrated in years gone by. These venues show off their festive décor with tours, events, and performances during December.
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You probably know the iconic holiday song “Deck the Halls,” but you might not realize it began with a melody of an old Welsh tune from the 16th century.
The melody was first published as “Nos Galan” in 1862, with Welsh lyrics that celebrated the New Year, rather than Christmas. The English lyrics that are known today come from Scottish songwriter and author Thomas Oliphant and once contained the line “Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel.” The American version in 1877 erased any mention of drinking, although that still may be a Christmastime tradition in many homes.
Around Kansas City, you can find some remarkable decking-of-halls this time of year: mansions that sparkle like tinsel hung from a tree; Victorian homes that look like they were transported from the North Pole; historic buildings that take us back in time to when the song was originally published.
As the song states, “Tis the season to be jolly,” and an adventure around the metro to visit these magnificent homes will put anyone in the holiday mood. Not only can you see garlands strung across marble fireplaces and Christmas trees gleaming in bay windows, but many of these homes have special seasonal programming for all ages – from Victorian-era libations to Kansas City’s fairy princess tradition.
So, follow me in merry measure, while I tell of yuletide treasure.
Bingham-Waggoner Mansion & Estate
The Independence, Missouri, residence is categorized as a Victorian, which simply means it was built during the reign of Queen Victoria (1830-1910). There are many different styles of Victorians, but they have a few constants like rounded towers, gabled roofs and bright paint colors.
The imposing Bingham-Waggoner estate – which sits on 19 acres of land and boasts over 26 rooms – is an example of the Italianate architecture style. Inspired by Italian villas, this style is characterized by its symmetrical layout, four-sided slanted roofs, and eaves supported by decorative brackets.
This was the home of artist George Caleb Bingham, and where he painted "Order #11” as an act of defiance to the Union Army’s command that all residents be removed from Jackson, Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon counties in 1863.
Bingham lived in the house until 1870, and in 1879, the home was purchased by the Waggoner family, who operated a flour mill. Their brand of flour, Queen of the Pantry, became world-famous for its quality. A member of the Waggoner family resided in the home up until 1976. After this, it became a museum owned and operated by the Bingham-Waggoner Historical Society to preserve the history and to further showcase the city of Independence as the "Queen City of the Trails."
For the last 50 years, the Bingham-Waggoner estate has brought holiday cheer to the metro. Every room of the mansion is decorated, from the butler's pantry and servants' quarters to the hand-carved staircase and main dining room – like Santa’s elves worked overtime.
On guided tours, you’ll find an exquisite display of Christmas trees, over 50 of them! White ribbons and lights cascading through the branches like shooting stars. Period decorations from the 1860-70s adorn tabletops. The staircase is wrapped in garland, pearls, ribbons, and ornaments. It truly is breathtaking to spend an afternoon here.
The holiday season is further celebrated by two events the Bingham-Waggoner Estate holds in December. On Friday, Dec. 1, enjoy the mansion’s Twilight Gala beginning at 5 p.m., and on Saturday, Dec. 16, you can have “Cookies and Cocoa with Mrs. Claus” from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, 1-4 p.m.
Guided Tours: Monday to Wednesday starting at 12-2 p.m. (Call ahead.) Thursday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, 1-4 p.m. with guided tours every hour (last one at 3).
Alexander Majors House
Alexander Majors is mostly known for the creation of the Pony Express, where riders would deliver mail from St. Joseph all the way to California. They were able to travel over 1,900 miles in just 10 days, which was 11 days faster than any other courier service at the time. Riders like “Buffalo Bill” Cody made the Pony Express a legend, but Alexander was more than that.
Majors was really the modern-day equivalent of FedEx or UPS, and became Kansas City’s first millionaire. In 1856, he built his estate in Kansas City, characterized by four large white columns and a second-story balcony where he could overlook a 300-acre farm and manage his shipping company. The home is built in the Greek Revival style as a symbol of his wealth and power.
However, the invention of the telegraph was the beginning of his end. The Pony Express went out of business in 1861, and the rest of Majors’ shipping company would soon follow suit thanks to the ever-expanding railroad. Alexander Majors died, broke, in Chicago in 1900, but his legacy remains strong in Kansas City.
The home remained in the Majors family through his great-granddaughter, Louisa Johnston, who lived there until 1979. Before she passed away, she set up the Majors Historical Trust, which maintains the estate and celebrates the contributions of Alexander Majors.
The estate now consists of a two-story mansion, an event barn, and a few other outbuildings. The home itself is mostly closing down for the season on Nov. 21, but you can get a special Christmas tour on Saturday, Dec. 9. Learn about how Christmas was celebrated in the 19th century, tour the home and barn to see the decorations, enjoy fun crafts and games, and meet Santa from 10 a.m. until noon.
At the barn, you can take part in the event "Drink Your History: Victorian Christmas Libations” on Friday, Dec. 15, where you can try cocktails such as wassail and English milk punch. If you have little ones, then the Hearthside Fireside Story Time on Saturday, Dec. 16, might be more for you.
Hours: Thursday to Sunday, 1-4 p.m. (House closed for the season on Nov. 21, but the barn special events are active.)
John Wornall House
Wornall and his family were not ordinary farmers. His father, Richard Wornall, brought the family from Kentucky when John was 21, and purchased 500 acres that now cover the area from 59th to 67th Street and Main to State Line.
With enslaved laborers, Wornall made a fortune from growing corn, oats, and wheat on this land. From there, Wornall and his family built an empire that would span generations and lead John to the legislature as a Missouri State Senator in 1870.
Sitting on the road now that bears the family name, the home was used as a field hospital by both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Westport, sometimes referred to as the Gettysburg of the West. Wornall himself was not present at the battle, having fled after the Union’s Order #11, which commanded Missouri residents across the region to evacuate.
However, his wife, Eliza, and their young son hid in the basement while much of the battle raged, and then later provided care to the injured when it was used as a field hospital.
The Wornall Estate remained in the family until 1962 and was later sold to the Jackson County Historical Society, which decorates the home for the holidays, with garland filling the mantle places.
The Wornall House partners with the Alexander Majors House for their events.
Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Guided tours on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.; Sundays, 1-4 p.m.
It takes the volunteers of the Vaile Mansion in Independence an entire month to decorate the home. Closed after Halloween and open again by Thanksgiving, Vaile Mansion transforms into Santa's home away from home.
Built in 1881 by Harvey Vaile and his wife Sofia, and modeled after a building in Normandy, France, it’s designed to bring some European culture to the Midwest. A perfect example of the Second Empire style of Victorian housing, its distinguishable tower rises above the center. Dormer windows, which have little peaks as their own structure, are a definitive feature of this style.
The mansion features 31 rooms, nine marble fireplaces, painted ceilings, a 6,000-gallon water tank, and an absolutely huge wine cellar capable of holding up to 48,000 gallons. To call it ornate is an understatement.
Harvey Vaile made his money as an investor in the Erie Canal and the owner of the Star Mail Route, which ran official U.S. mail from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Once recognized as a member of high society, two things began Vaile’s unraveling.
The first was the rather risqué painting above his and his wife’s bed that featured a topless woman. Rumors ran rampantthat this painting was Mrs. Vaile, even though the couple denied it. However, the damage was done to their reputation. Even after the painting received a lacy-painted coverup, the couple’s social status began to fall.
Second, Vaile was tried for defrauding the government as part of his Star Mail routes. He was acquitted of both charges.
After the Vailes’ deaths — Sofia in 1883 and Harvey in 1895 — the mansion has had an interesting history. It’s acted as a nursing home, sanitorium, the center of operations for a water bottling company, and finally, since 1983, a museum run by the Vaile Victorian Society.
For the holiday season, you get a full European Victorian Christmas that begins with decorated garland wrapped around the porch rails and leads to double doors with mounted wreaths. Once inside, white crystal chandeliers (two of which were meant for the White House) bathe the inside with clear light, like it’s reflected off snow.
Each and every surface is decorated, incorporating time-period antiques and more garlands — strung with white and gold flowers, pink ribbons and strings of pearls — hanging from doorways, tabletops, and many, many mirrors.
Several trees glitter as the centerpieces, with large red orbs hanging like apples. It’s especially fitting because the tradition of Christmas trees comes from 15th century Germany, where they were first used to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve.
You can take in the decorations on a tour, or at the mansion’s Champagne and Chandeliers event on Saturday, Dec. 2.
Hours: Nov. 25 through Dec. 30. Closed Dec. 23-25. Open Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, 1-4 p.m.
Corinthian Hall at Kansas City Museum
Corinthian Hall is the centerpiece of the estate of R.A. Long. The grounds contain numerous outbuildings under renovation or construction such as the carriage house, the future Jewel House —which reimagines the original conservatory on the property — and the future James Turrell’s Skyspace – a chamber with an opening in the ceiling so that visitors can gaze at the sky.
Corinthian Hall finished construction in 1910 in the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, which is characterized by stone construction, large columns, and a “hierarchy of interior spaces.” The 70-room, 35,000-square-foot mansion now houses the Kansas City Museum. After years of effort, Corinthian Hall has been fully restored and ready to make holiday dreams come true with beautiful and unique decorations.
The Kansas City Museum has partnered with Kansas City’s own Nell Hills interior designers to decorate this year. Last year featured a 10-foot-tall blue spruce in the grand hall. The color palette, according to Nell Hills, is “glittering gold, frosted white, and touches of deep red to add depth to the design,” and they delivered.
The tree towers over other decorations and draws the eye up to the ornamental ceiling designs. Another impressive tree looms over the billiards room. Backlit by white light, the ornaments seem to glow as each contains a Christmas wish.
Next, the grand staircase gets the Santa’s elves treatment: 216 feet of flocked garland tie in colorful ornaments and red, white, and gold ribbons.
One of the most popular yearly programs, and a Kansas City tradition, is the Fairy Princess. This tradition — an alternative photo opp to Santa, with a Louis XVI French salon-style setting — goes back to 1935, originally held at Kline’s Department Store on Main Street. After the store went out of business, the Kansas City Museum revived the princess in 1987.
Held this year from Dec. 7-10, check their website for more details.
Finally, for the adults who want to live a little, don’t miss the history of bourbon balls (with a free tasting). Held in the café, Bootleg Bourbon Balls owner Lisa Fitch will offer samples of their Noggy or Nice and Jacked-Up Apple flavors.
Hours: Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, 12-5 p.m.
Built in the Queen Anne Style of Victorian homes, the Cruise-Scroggs Mansion is home to the Strawberry Hill Museum. Run by the Strawberry Hill Ethnic Cultural Society, it celebrates the diverse backgrounds that make Kansas City, Kansas, so great.
Constructed in 1887 by John and Margaret Scroggs, the mansion has a second-floor balcony, decorative lattice, and at one time had stained and leaded glass windows. John Scroggs, a lawyer, was a pioneer of the Wyandotte County Bar Association. The home served as a statement of his success and was built at the time on a place called Splitlog’s Hill.
From the height of the hill, Mr. and Mrs. Scroggs had an impressive view of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. Later, the mansion was used as an orphanage by the Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King until 1988.
For the holidays, the home is decorated with extensive garland, lights, and Christmas trees. They offer nighttime tours so that you can see the home in a way that accentuates the decorations. You can pair that with a wine tasting or a traditional dinner featuring the Croatian treat povitica and other delicacies.
The Strawberry Hill Museum currently represents 14 different ethnic regions, and this holiday display will put nine of those on display. Each exhibit features an “artifact” native to the region – like the Croatian Licitar, which are festively decorated cookies that can be molded in a variety of shapes like hearts, birds and dolls, and then hung from a tree.
From Denmark, enjoy a Christmas plate from Bing & Grondahl from the 1890s. Cobalt blue and white, the plate features a girl looking out the window onto a snowy landscape with a Christmas tree in the corner.
Want a chance to meet St. Nick? Have breakfast with him on Saturday, Dec. 2. The museum also offers cooking classes where you can learn to make foods from around the world such as sarma (a Croatian cabbage roll), apple strudel, or pierogi (Polish half-moon dumplings.) Check their website for dates and times.
The Strawberry Hill Museum is run by the Strawberry Hill Ethnic Cultural Society.
Hours: Tours are Saturday and Sunday every hour beginning at noon and running until the last tour at 3 p.m. Tickets must be purchased online the day before your visit.