It began 12 years ago as a typical gathering of the clan on Christmas Eve. Still in the throes of a major remodeling project, the host and hostess decided to serve turkey and mashed potatoes in the dining room. The 22 guests would be seated around the dining table, admittedly large by conventional standards.
“My job was to set it all up,” recalls Nancy Nicholson. “I got out the silver chafing dishes and started decorating. Pretty soon I was so excited I asked everyone to come in black tie. It just grew from there.”
The guest list doubled as a new generation came on the scene. When the annual holiday bash was forced to abandon the dining room for the second-floor ballroom, Nancy was delighted. This was precisely why she and her husband, Dick, purchased the Georgian Revival brick mansion on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue in 2001, launching an overhaul that left no room untouched.
Built by railroad tycoon James J. Hill for his son, Louis, in 1903, the mansion had seen its fortunes wax and wane over the decades. The Hills gave the property to the Catholic Church after Louis’s death, and for a time it was home to Maryknoll nuns.
“We raised our family in an ordinary house,” Nancy says. As the kids got older, the couple debated their choices: downsize, as many of their friends were doing, or…. Unconventional sorts, they decided to break ranks.
Instead of riding out retirement in a shoebox, they would spend their golden years living large. They would open their home—and their life—to throngs of people. They would insist that all social events they hosted at the house they named Dove Hill—whether the annual family Christmas or a fundraiser for a struggling nonprofit—would be not merely magical but one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime, over-the-top magnificent. They would reclaim a bit of St. Paul’s exuberant heyday, when westward expansion was turning out millionaires almost as fast as the tech boom is minting them today.
That Nicholson forebears were among those who struck it rich back then makes the annual gathering of the clan all the more nostalgic. Nancy and Dick pull out all the stops. Preparations begin weeks in advance. The enormous Christmas tree in the ballroom must be specially ordered.
“Last year’s tree was so big we ran out of decorations and could only trim the side facing into the room,” Nancy says. It was the largest of nine trees throughout the house. A 13-foot balsam scented the air in the master bedroom. A Scotch pine lit up an upper balcony in the 90-foot-long front hall.
Nancy trolls the aisles of craft stores and discount retailers, wherever she thinks she’ll find suitably proportioned (i.e. huge) ornaments to supplement the already abundant supply on hand from Christmases past. One year she spied a small army of colorful nutcrackers at HomeGoods, fell in love, and began her own collection.
Nancy’s enthusiasm is apparently infectious, because Dick gets just as carried away at holiday time as his wife does. One year he brought home a sleigh. ”He picked it up at an antiques show in southern Minnesota,” recalls Nancy. “He put it on top of his car and drove home with it. That bugger is heavy. It took three men to move it into the house.”
The sleigh wouldn’t fit through the front door, so they jammed it into the mansion’s hospital-sized elevator. It spends the winter in the basement, but during the holidays it’s parked smack in the middle of the front hall, festooned with garlands and silver bells.
Nancy’s holiday collection also includes some serious antiques, such as the gold vases on either side of the living room fireplace, but she isn’t out to impress connoisseurs. “I just love to make people laugh,” she says.
And sing. Music is a family tradition—on Nancy’s side. A high-school band teacher, her dad gave her piano lessons and she worked as a piano tuner to help pay college expenses. She still loves pianos. A rare Steinway grand is one of three vintage pianos in the ballroom.
On Christmas Eve, Santa comes to the party, of course, and then dinner is served—still turkey and mashed potatoes. And then comes the evening’s climatic moment, as Nancy’s son, Chad, rises from the table and bursts into song: “Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man,. . . ?”
After one verse, he points to a relative chosen at random to join in singing round two. “You have to respond, no matter what your age is,” says Nancy. A third victim is pegged and then a fourth and so on, until everyone is singing the chorus.
Finally, Chad leads the entire family in singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and another Dove Hill celebration is history.