An engraving of Abraham Lincoln graces the Victorian-style David Davis Mansion’s dining room in Bloomington, Ill. The 36-room home was built in 1872 for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis and his wife, Sarah. Davis was a close friend of Lincoln, and Mrs. Davis purchased the engraving in January 1870. The home will be the centerpiece of a traditional Gilded Age Christmas this holiday season.
An engraving of Abraham Lincoln graces the Victorian-style David Davis Mansion’s dining room in Bloomington, Ill. The 36-room home was built in 1872 for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis and his wife, Sarah. Davis was a close friend of Lincoln, and Mrs. Davis purchased the engraving in January 1870. The home will be the centerpiece of a traditional Gilded Age Christmas this holiday season.

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — A historic mansion whose owner was close friends with Abraham Lincoln will be the centerpiece of a traditional Gilded Age Christmas this holiday season.

The Victorian-style David Davis Mansion State Historic Site, known by the family as Clover Lawn, was built in 1872 for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis and his wife, Sarah, on a 1,200-acre farm.

It was designed by Alfred Piquenard, who also designed the Illinois and Iowa state capitol buildings, both of which still are being used by the Legislatures.

The Davis Mansion is lavishly decorated for Christmas and open for free tours through Dec. 29. Visitors will be able to view authentic Victorian-era Christmas decorations and hear of the holiday customs entering the 20th century.

As an added treat to the annual event, a bit of the PBS hit series, “Downton Abbey,” will be on display at the mansion this year.

The home’s dining room tree will be covered with the same types of rare, imported, German-made Christmas ornaments that were featured on the “Downton Abbey” tree during the Christmas episodes of the series.

Intricate, hand-painted, glass ornaments, imported from Germany and sold by a small company in England, were handpicked to appear on the award-winning show.

According to the company’s owner, “these decorations are all handcrafted, and each one is a little work of art in its own right. ‘Downton’ bosses purchased around 1,000 of the festive trimmings, including miniature birds and figurines, because they were exactly the same as those used in 1919 — the year when the drama’s Christmas specials were set.

“The show’s producers went to great lengths to make sure everything was as authentic as possible.”

The Davis Mansion’s museum shop has purchased from the same British company about $2,000 worth of these rare ornaments for exhibit in the mansion during the 2013 Christmas tours.

The Davis Mansion tour also will feature seasonal music and costumed guides bringing visitors back to bygone days.

Davis, a friend, mentor and campaign manager for Lincoln, was appointed U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1862 and later served as U.S. senator. He previously was an Illinois legislator.

His association with Lincoln dates back to their early years when Davis, then a judicial circuit judge, and Lincoln, a lawyer, road the circuit together for trials.

Lincoln also was a frequent visitor to the earlier Davis residence that originally stood where the larger 36-room mansion is located.

The mansion now sits on 4.1 acres in a residential area east of downtown Bloomington that also contain a 1850s barn and stable dating back to Lincoln’s day, two privies, a foaling shed, a carriage barn and an ornamental flower garden.

Visitors to the Davis Mansion will not only see Christmas decorations from that era, but also hear insight into the holiday customs of that time.

The holiday season begins with the home highlighting Thanksgiving and how Mrs. Davis brought those traditions to central Illinois from her New England roots.

“We can say that Sarah is one of the few people who brought Thanksgiving to Bloomington,” said Dr. Marcia Young, Davis Mansion site superintendent.

“It was a holiday before the Civil War that was confined to the New England area, and she writes a letter to her family right after she gets here in the 1840s, saying ‘Thanksgiving is so new a holiday to us, new to this area and basically unknown to the people who live here. I’m worried about what our children are going to be doing in the future because no one is celebrating it.’

“So she starts celebrating it, and, of course, she grew up in New England, which was the only place where it was celebrated, and this was tradition to her by the time she got here, so she introduces the custom of having a family dinner, having friends join them, serving the traditional foods.”

Young said the traditional foods for the Thanksgiving feast in New England were created by magazine writers.

“This is not what pilgrims ate. There were no turkeys and things like that. These magazine editors decide that America needs a national holiday that will have spiritual values that will bring people to celebrate together, reinforce families, occur in the home and that kind of thing,” she said.

Young said the Thanksgiving at the home replicates a 1870s celebration, and the Christmas theme is “about the gilded age when everything was really sumptuous, when they had a lot more stuff and Sarah and David Davis are deceased by then.

“So our Christmas covers the era when their son, George, and his family were here. He lived here until his death in 1917, and his wife continued to live here until the early 1920s, so we go through 1919.”

Young said sharing the historic building throughout the year, as well as hosting special activities such as the holiday tours, is part of the site’s mission to educate.

“It’s not enough to preserve the great architectural wealth of the United States without inviting the public in to learn about their past, to learn about their history, their culture and so on,” she said.

This also is one of the best documented houses in the U.S. due to the wealth of paper resources the Davis family collected throughout their lives. For example, Young said, there are 19,000 documents in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library “just documenting this house in the early years.”

“So we know so much that we can tell stories to the public that are about their own past,” she said.

These stories from the mid-19th century forward also document that what was happening in Illinois was a precursor to events across the nation during that era.

“This is the generation who lived in houses like this and in the old farmhouse that preceded it. This is the generation of men and women who tamed the frontier and then led the United States through some of the most significant changes in our history,” Young said.

“The developments of a market economy, industrialization, urbanization, immigration because this house was staffed by servants and these buildings were built by immigrants and the Civil War

“The huge contribution that the men and women of Illinois made to America’s history is to guide our country, and, of course, the chief among them was Abraham Lincoln.

“But one of the significant men in Abraham Lincoln’s life was David Davis, so this is a national story. It happened here in Illinois.

“It should be a source of huge pride to Illinoisans to know what their ancestors and their predecessors did here that had such impact on the kind of lives we live today.

“And we think there are some fun stories along the way, the story about Christmas, the story about Thanksgiving reveal a lot about the values that these individuals had and these are values that are also part of forming the American character, forming the American identity, shaping the future of our country.

“Those stories are in houses like this, and we feel we need to tell them.”

Daily tours will be given during the site’s normal operating hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.