Designer Rita Pacheco reimagines Highfield Hall for the holidays
The holiday season at Highfield Hall & Gardens in Falmouth is always a showcase of old traditions and new trends in the world of festive decoration. This year’s experience is no different, yet entirely new and unexpected at the same time. Local designer Rita Pacheco, who has been at the helm of several successful Upper Cape businesses over the years, has transformed the grand old home into a seasonal celebration of everything Highfield’s innovative programming successfully delivers. Music, culture, art, culinary arts and horticulture are all brought front and center and heralded in a uniquely natural way. Relying on the principles of reuse, reinvention and repurposing, Pacheco has created an exploration of the holidays that serves the simple elegance of the history of the magnificent house.
“It is all intended to inspire the public to take a look at their natural surroundings and reimagine how they could take what they already have, whether it is from their yard or their attic, and celebrate the holidays in a new way that is really so historic,” Pacheco explains. “The holidays are about remembering, and childhood memories in particular. What child doesn’t love to explore? Explore the forest, explore the cupboards in the kitchen, explore their grandmother’s sewing room with all of the bits and bobbles, their grandfather’s study and his collections gathered while sailing the globe. Those are the kind of memories I hope are sparked by the display I have created.”
As visitors meander through the walkways that lead to the home, pert ornamental kale punctuates the winter garden beds, installed by Soares Flower Garden Nursery. Upon entering the majestic home, they are greeted by a tree dressed in drums, with a massive antique bass drum at the base of the tree. Simple, rusted barrel rings dressed in greenery grace the walls, instead of the expected evergreen wreathes that are commonly found this time of year. The elegant, black-lacquered grand piano, crowned by 88 paper flowers made from sheets of music, has been moved to the center of the room to command everyone’s attention, and in its usual spot below the stairs is now a 19th-century conservatory with all of the fresh and verdant scents that would accompany such an extravagance. The eclectic and lush selection of potted specimen have generously been provided by Marcia and George Chapman, straight from their locally renown gardens. The dining room has been set for tea, for the lady of the house, as she relaxes amongst her books and her birds. Reflections of the scene are glimpsed through a menagerie of mirrors, giving visitors the effect of spying on a domestic scene of an era gone by.
The grand staircase has been intricately woven in shipping line as the knots create a language known only to seaman like Tony Alvarnez, who crafted the netted garland at Pacheco’s request. The landing of the stairs stands in defiance of The Twelve Days of Christmas as five rusted rings hang as proudly as their gold counterparts. The loss of sparkle is compensated for as shimmering icicles dance in front of the grand mirror.
On the second floor, visitors are greeted by a pair of boats on loan from the Woods Hole Historical Museum—one restored and one awaiting a new lease on its next chapter of service. The boats are nestled under a grove of evergreens draped with snow, as though they had been beached by a fisherman only hours before. Nautical artifacts from local collections are on display, making the second-floor landing feel like a wharf-front sail loft appropriate for inspiration for the likes of Herman Melville, or Nathaniel Philbrick. The walls complete the intricate navigation of the past and all that has come before with their presentation of a handful of reclaimed wooden artwork, crafted by visual artist James Tobey. Tobey, who passed away several years ago, was known for many styles of artistic interpretation, but perhaps none as extraordinary as his framed wooden ephemera. These intricately puzzled collections of the driftwood remains of ships, wharves and fishing equipment provide a glimpse into the historic working coastline of New England. In one piece, the tattered clew of a sail (the triangular corner of a spinnaker that is connected to the deck of a sailboat) still retains the printed numbers applied by the sail maker.
An adjacent room has been set as a ship captain’s study, where his desk tells the tale of adventures of faraway ports. A block and tackle from one of the last of the American whaling ships sits upon a shelf alongside ancient whale teeth etched by scrimshandering whalers from another century. An elegant crystal chandelier—no doubt sourced by the captain’s delicate and refined wife—has been rendered appropriately more masculine by swags of cotton fishing net.
Highfield’s annual tradition of writing letters to American servicemen, The Any Soldier Project, continues in the library, surrounded by the impressive crèche collection of the late Bill Hendel. The landing for the third-floor stairway displays a trunkload of treasures from Grandma’s attic in imaginative ways. Pacheco has festooned dress forms with collections found in any well-appointed closet. Wreathes are fashioned from flannel shirts, men’s ties are put to new and unexpected use, and antique pocketbooks and purses are laid at the feet of fanciful frocks. Telling their own stories through crazy quilts they have crafted from the everyday clothing of their parents, Isabel Melo and Alda Barron, who along with George Chapman, served as Pacheco’s staging crew.
Throughout this grand estate, the past is a not-so-distant memory, reminding us that the lives that once lived in this spectacular home were not much different than ours today. As the holidays arrived, families gathered together, and, just as today, the special surroundings of this region had a large impact on who and how we celebrated. In 2018, Pacheco and her team have successfully shown that though the years have ticked by, the beauty and splendor found around us will never get old.
Holidays at Highfield are open to the public through December 2. For more information, visit highfieldhallandgardens.org
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