Summit Avenue Manse Dresses for the Holidays
The 1904 Clarence Johnston-designed home, a mix of Baroque Revival and Jacobean styles, shows off its holiday glam at dusk.
When Shari Taylor Wilsey decorates her home for Christmas, she’s not messing around. Shari and her husband, Roger Wilsey, have lived in their 1904 Summit Avenue home in St. Paul for nearly two decades. While Summit’s 4.5 mile stretch of historically significant houses is one of the most beloved in the Midwest, the Wilseys’ home, a mix of Baroque Revival and Jacobean styles, lent distinction to the cover of the 2013 book, Great Houses of Summit Avenue and the Hill District. The home sparkles especially brightly during the holidays, thanks to Shari’s creative flair and love for the season.
“Christmas was always special in our house growing up,” Shari says. “My folks always got a beautiful tree. My mother would always cook beautiful food. I had a dear aunt Doris who made Christmas Eve super special. My mother died when I was 19, and I’m the oldest of five kids. I have every Christmas for my family with our home being the hub. I’ve tried to keep it special.”
Part of celebrating Christmas for the Wilseys is decorating. And when it comes to holiday decor, Shari believes in picking a theme. One year she turned to fruit for inspiration, another year it was all about cardinals, and then there was the time the Christmas tree was covered in “white, sparkly blingish stuff,” she recalls. Brainstorming the annual theme begins in September when the former professional decorator meets up with her friend Tommy Brandt.
Shari Wilsey adds greenery and sparkling fruit around the hand-carved mahogany fireplace in the living room.
“We always try to change it up,” she says. “We want it to look cool and different. Like something we’ve never done before. We’re both super clever.”
The half-dozen cast-iron urns that line the walkway to the Wilsey house set the tone. Whether overflowing with beautiful flowers or stacked high with unique topiaries, the urns attract visitors from the neighborhood year-round.
“People can’t wait to see what I end up doing,” Shari says. “I feel like I have a lot of pressure every year to switch it up.”
Even though people keep an eye on the urns, she says the only competition she feels is with herself.
“One year, I had this crazy idea,” she smiles. “I thought, what if I bought big tree toppers, the tall ones, and made them look like topiaries. So, I did. And then I had to have someone put them in cement so they wouldn’t blow away. We’re good once it freezes, but if it’s not frozen we [can] be in trouble.”
Inside, Shari pulls from dozens of boxes of Christmas treasures along with an abundance of fresh flowers and plants to transform her home into a festive winter wonderland.
Shari and Roger trek out to the woods to get the star of the show: a balsam fir. Last year’s beauty topped 20 feet, the fragrant boughs making their way from the first to the second floor of the house. Roger is tasked with putting on 15 strings of lights, a duty that can take up to four hours and countless unsavory words. After he’s done, Shari recruits family members (the couple has seven children) to help adorn the tree with hundreds of ornaments, except for treasured pieces from her grandmother.
“I hang them, so if something happens [to them] it’s on me,” she says of the beloved jewel-colored ornaments from Germany.
Shari describes her overall style as old-world European.“It goes with the house,” she says. As a decorator—she's no longer in the business, but she still helps out clients on occasion—she always tries “to decorate with what the home is, not to make it something it isn’t,” she says.
A Party to Remember
Every year, the Wilseys throw a much-anticipated Christmas party for 150 people including friends, family, prominent St. Paulites, and acquaintances they’ve made throughout the years.
Former Minnesota Senator Dave Durenberger and his wife Susan Foote have a permanent place on the guest list. He says Shari gathers a diverse group of folks who attend what he calls a “unique institution.” It’s impossible not to feel festive stepping into the Wilsey home, he says.
A festive spirit also reigns in a kitchen made for entertaining—it has three ovens, two sinks, two dishwashers, and a marble-topped island.
“Without her, there wouldn’t be the Wilsey Christmas party because it’s an expression of her generosity,” Durenberger says. “It’s all the things that are genuine in the value she puts on relationships.”
Putting It All Away
In the dining room, featuring ornate woodwork and an original hand-painted frieze, the 12-foot-long table will hold all sorts of goodies for the annual holiday party.
While they painstakingly decorate their home for the holidays, the Wilseys don't let Christmas overstay its welcome. Especially when it comes to the tree.
A 20-foot balsam fir towers above the open staircase in the entry hall.
“We’re both allergic,” says Roger. “We put it up the first week in December, so by the day after Christmas, it’s time to go.”
All to good purpose—even watery eyes and runny noses can’t get in the way of the Wilseys’ Christmas spirit.
Throwing a Great Christmas Party
The Wilseys’ annual Christmas party is a highly anticipated event for their constantly growing group of family, friends, and acquaintances. Shari Taylor Wilsey shares her tips for a great Christmas party.
An interesting mix of people.
“We have friends from every walk of life at our party,” Wilsey says. “We love interesting people.” Along with family and friends, previous guests have included an archbishop, politicians, a chief of police, and previous owners of their house.
Lots of food.
The Wilseys fill their 12-foot-long dining room table with all sorts of goodies including what Shari calls the “pièce de résistance”—two 20-pound hams dressed in her homemade apricot glaze. “There’s no reason to leave our party,” she says. “There’s so much food, there’s so much wine and desserts, ham, salmon, veggies, fruits, cookies, beef, grilled chicken.”
A festive atmosphere.
From hiring a piano player and carolers to Santa and Mrs. Claus, Wilsey knows how to spark a holiday mood. The music and festive décor set the stage, with the giant Christmas tree playing a starring role in the festivities.
By: Amy Carlson Gustafson
Photos By: Karen Melvin