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Holiday Spirit is Alive at Two Historic Houses By STEVEN FINACOM

Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 07, 2004

The seasonal tradition of “decking the halls” makes December a particularly colorful time to visit local house museums decorated for Christmas tours and events. 

You’ll find contrasting, but equally interesting, holiday displays at two local houses, one in Oakland and another in Hayward. 

Dunsmuir House is clearly the queen house museum estate of the Oakland area, featuring not only a four story mansion but extensive grounds which trail down along a forked creeklet south of the Oakland Zoo and just over a hill from the ceaseless roar of Highway 580. 

Walking from the north entrance down to the four-story wedding-cake white structure that sits of the edge of an enormous meadow is a trip back in time. 

Today, the refurbished and furnished 1899 mansion is owned by the City of Oakland, managed by a nonprofit, and available for both private events and public touring.  

Christmas at Dunsmuir has become an East Bay tradition, extending this year over three December weekends. 

The centerpiece of the season is the amazing house itself, from Tiffany stained glass dome to original wine cellar. Special Christmas decorations range from the whimsical—a dining table set for characters from the Nutcracker, beneath Christmas carol garlands—to the breath-taking—a 25-foot-tall Christmas tree festooned with enormous red and gold ornaments rising up through the central stairhall. 

Each room has a different decorative theme and its own Christmas tree. Look for the tree in the library that subtly changes color, the amusing “dessert tree” in the kitchen, a bathtub filled with glass “bubbles,” and a tree showered by a perpetually moving snowfall in an upstairs side hall. 

A few tips for a visit. Adult tickets are a not-inexpensive $15, but only $11 ordered in advance. (There are also senior and junior discounts.) Entry to the house itself is timed, so make sure the ticket you get at the gate reflects a workable schedule for you.  

When you tour the main house, don’t rush. The one-way route wends its way through three floors, and there’s no going back.  

Pick-up the written guide sheet at the front door, but also chat with the docents stationed throughout the house. They can share stories about the house and furnishings that aren’t written in the guide.  

When we were there upstairs foot traffic was carefully regulated but there was gridlock in the basement gift shop, which doubles as the only open exit for tour goers. 

Make sure to leave time to walk around the much less crowded grounds, where holiday carolers are also strolling. There’s an entertainment tent with various performers; on arrival, check your program for performance times.  

Children’s activities are available and the newest building on the property, an event pavilion, hosts vendors selling handcrafted jewelry, specialty foods, dolls and stuffed animals, and various other items. 

A holiday tea—an extra $23 per adult—is served in the Dinkelspiel House at the northern end of the estate, while a la carte food is available to purchase in the Carriage House at the southern end of the grounds. 

In contrast to the bustle and stately opulence of Dunsmuir House, Hayward’s McConaghy House seems an oasis of quiet 19th century tranquility for the holidays.  

Built in 1886, the two story, 12 room, home with wrap-around porch once stood in the midst of expansive farmlands, a far cry from the gas stations, strip malls, and fast food outlets that now share Hesperian Boulevard.  

The same family of Gold Rush Scottish immigrants lived there up through the early 1970s and now it’s a house museum traditionally decorated for “Christmas 1886” with appropriate ornaments and traditions.  

When we visited on a recent weekend there was only one other guest (ironically, a docent from Dunsmuir). We had a leisurely three-person tour for only $4 per adult, led by a friendly, costumed, guide. 

From the double front doors of glowing stained glass to the costumed woman playing the piano in the music parlor, the house exudes an antique festive spirit. 

During the Christmas season the house is decorated as a 19th century farm family of respectable means might have furnished it. There are several Christmas trees, tables set for elegant meals, and much assorted and colorful bric-a-brac of the era.  

Concise placards posted outside each room explain the use and significance of the holiday decorations. 

The house includes a wonderful kitchen with wooden ice box, a butler’s pantry displaying the best china and glass, and a commodious second pantry with wide shelving and bins to store home-canned and produced goods. 

There are two downstairs parlors, one set up as a music room, plus a dining room and an office complete with cougar rug. 

Upstairs, four main rooms are furnished to display a typical master bedroom, a children’s nursery, and the bedrooms of a grown up son and daughter of the McConaghy family.  

The latter contains still life paintings of fruit from the farm by the daughter, as well as a vintage “walking Christmas tree.” Intended as a party costume, the armless attire festooned with ornaments looks a bit like a torture device for the wearer. 

Upstairs back bedrooms probably intended for servants are now fitted out as a small museum shop with Victorian-style decorative items, Christmas ornaments, and other gifts from teddy bears to mechanical toys; when we visited many items were on sale at half price. 

Two important outbuildings remain, a two room water tower and a carriage house containing stabling for four horses, a clever arrangement of chutes and mangers to distribute their feed from the hay loft above, and a display of farm equipment and carriages.