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Each year, the historic Durkee Mansion at Kemper Center is decked out for the holiday season.
And, each year, the decorators come up with a theme.
No matter what the “official” theme is, however, the enduring theme each year is love.
(For the record, the 2021 theme is “Starry Woodland Nights.”)
We caught up with the volunteer decorators at their annual luncheon last week at Kemper as they were celebrating another job well done.
“We had so much fun tucking in as many woodland animals as we could this year, to go with our theme,” said Julie Iorio, a longtime Durkee volunteer. “Everybody put their own spin on the theme. We’re excited for the opening this weekend.”
Her sister, Lynn Lanouette, said decorating the 1860s era mansion “is work, but it’s a fun kind of work.”
For Sandy Wright, “working together as a team” is what makes the project so fun to do.”
The mansion — a local landmark — “looks so pretty when it’s decorated,” said Marilyn Smith. “I toured it several times before joining the team as a decorator.”
Carol Murphy and Janet Dalpaos worked on the mansion’s kitchen this year — joking that “we’re the kitchen help!”
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Murphy, back for her second year as a volunteer, said “the people here are so helpful. There’s a lot of camaraderie. We look forward to this every year.”
First-time decorator Dalpaos “borrowed” a stuffed squirrel named Buddy, who is perched on top of the kitchen cupboard.
“Buddy is my 7-year-old grandson’s pride and joy,” she said, laughing. “He let us borrow him, but we had to promise to take good care of Buddy and bring him back home safely.”
Sisters Alex and Melissa Sturycz “toured the Durkee as kids because our grandma was a docent here,” Alex said.
They both love Christmas so much, Melissa is planning a Christmas Eve wedding. (Not this year. She wouldn’t have been so calm if her own wedding was in a few weeks!)
Durkee veteran Tina Dodd has “been here since 2008. I just love it here,” she said. “I love making the mansion look beautiful for the holidays.”
For Amy-Louise Seyller, decorating the Durkee Mansion means she’s adding sparkle to “a hidden gem in Kenosha. I love decorating, and I love this era, so this is the perfect recipe for me. I feel very blessed to come here every year.”
“I’m not a professional,” Dennis Garafol says, but he is a busy decorator who is also working on Kemper’s Gallery of Trees.
“I just love decorating,” he said, “and I am learning more and more about the Victorian era.”
Garafol works with Mary Lou Loriss, who is a longtime Kemper Center volunteer doing “a little bit of everything.”
This year, she did the outside decorations at the mansion’s entrance and was thrilled to know the greens over the front door were still intact. “Even in all this wind?” she asked. “Praise the Lord!”
Lorris describes herself as “an old soul. I feel like I was born in the wrong era. This is the perfect place for me.”
Working as a team
Judy Sommers says her strength as a Durkee volunteer is being “good at following orders. I’m not the most creative decorator, but I like to help.” She feels a personal connection to Kemper, a former school for girls. Her grandmother “worked at the school as the head cook when she came here from Scotland.”
Kathy Vescova and Tom Andrews worked as a team, making sure the upstairs man’s bedroom “isn’t too frou-frou,” Vescova said with a laugh.
The two work well together, Andrews said, “because she does the decorating, and I just do what I’m told. I’m good at putting up lights for everyone.” (“I call him my elf,” Vescova added, with a smile for her fellow volunteer.)
Sitting among all these Durkee veterans, sharing laughs and desserts, was first-time decorator Bob Greco.
The Chicago native moved to Kenosha several months ago after a 45-year career in the New York fashion and design industry and was looking for a way to get involved in the community. He found it at the Kemper Center, where he took charge of the mansion’s dining room and is also decorating a 9-foor tree for the Gallery of Trees, next door in Kemper’s Conference Center.
A lasting legacy
A common refrain among the decorators is “I started during Diane’s last year” or “Mary really mentored me.”
They are talking about Diane Holzschuh, who started the Durkee Mansion decorating project and oversaw the holiday decorating for nearly 20 years, and Mary Wirch, who took charge after Holzschuh died in November of 2015. Then Wirch died in February of 2020.
They remain a guiding light for the volunteers.
Holzschuh wanted Durkee “to be decorated as much as possible in the style of the 1860s,” Iorio said. “We keep the décor appropriate for the mansion.”
The decorators continue an annual tribute to Holzschuh by including dried hydrangeas and Queen Anne’s lace in the mansion. While you’re busy counting the many woodland animals in the mansion this year, look for those items, too.
Visitors who appreciate the historic home’s annual holiday decorations are seeing love in action. And that’s a theme that works every season.
Have a comment? Email Liz at [email protected] or call her at 262-656-6271.