PHOTOS: Edson Pecheco
When the current owners bought the historic Stetson Mansion in 2005, they described their renovations as “polishing a diamond.” That diamond sparkles even brighter as the increasingly popular Christmas Spectacular gets underway at the 2.3-acre private estate.
Every Christmas, JT Thompson and Michael Solari invite a few thousand people to their DeLand home. More precisely, about 8,000 guests are expected to visit this season to view the “Stetson Mansion Christmas Spectacular.”
Built in 1886, the Stetson Mansion is Florida’s oldest and most historic home still being used as a private residence. It’s more than just a home to Thompson and Solari, however. The mansion is a link to Florida’s Victorian-era past and to John B. Stetson, a hat maker and entrepreneur whose philanthropy changed the face of DeLand during the 20 winters he lived there. His Stetson cowboy hat became an iconic symbol of Americana.
While the mansion hosts tours and special events year-’round, it’s the eight-week Christmas Spectacular that’s the biggest draw. The event is not a kitschy display of lights and plastic ornaments; rather it’s a sophisticated presentation that honors the Christian tradition of Christmas.
The philosophy is working. Positive reviews on the TripAdvisor travel site keep climbing. In fact, the travel site recently named Stetson Mansion as Florida’s most popular attraction, beating out even Disney.
The idea for opening the home at Christmas evolved from friends and acquaintances calling to come see Thompson’s “over-the-top” decorating skills, which included family heirlooms from both his and Solari’s mothers. The word spread and people kept calling, so in 2011 the first “Spectacular” opened to the public. Each year since, the number of visitors has doubled.
“We hear so many people say, ‘This is on our family’s Christmas to-do list every year,’ ” says Solari. “Kids love it even though it is very sophisticated and reverent.”
The decorations are always different and this year’s event includes a “Frozen” room, a tribute to the popular Disney movie.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights,” says Thompson. “My ‘Frozen’ room will be my interpretation of what the aurora borealis looks like.”
Decorating also has grown into a collaboration, as award-winning designers Lee James, Debbie Robertson and Barb Masri have come on board to enhance Thompson’s vision. This year’s tour includes 22 Christmas trees, a cowboy Christmas room featuring a diamond-studded Stetson hat and a music room filled with handmade quilted items from The Villages Quilting Guild. Five charities will benefit from a drawing for 13 quilted tree skirts, courtesy of that club.
The hard work by Thompson and Solari to provide a memorable holiday experience is surpassed only by the labor and passion they put into the house when they purchased it in 2005. The renovations — from replacing an electrical system originally installed by Stetson’s good friend Thomas Edison to rebuilding the on-site schoolhouse into a “Zen-like cottage” — took 18 months to complete.
The men were looking for a beach cottage near Daytona, not a mansion that needed an overhaul, when they moved from South Florida.
“The mansion chose us; we did not choose it,” says Thompson. “I’ve always been a dreamer and I knew what this home could be.”
Thompson and Solari found 325 sponsors nationwide who donated labor and products to save the home. When the restorations were completed in 2007, a charitable showcase event recognized the sponsors and raised money for the Museum of Florida Art in DeLand.
“Stetson Mansion was a diamond that had been forgotten,” Thompson wrote in his book, “The Stetson Mansion: How to Polish a Diamond.” “It was desperately crying out for the right people to see past the decades of neglect and save it. This diamond needed to be polished. I had never polished a diamond before, but I have never been one to run from a challenge.”
Solari and Thompson painstakingly renovated the entire home while incorporating modern conveniences without compromising the architectural or historical integrity. Every room on the three floors is decorated and none is off-limits to visitors on the guided tours.
“We don’t want people to feel like tourists, but rather like our guests,” says Thompson. “This is everyone’s home and it’s meant to be shared.”