By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun
12:58 PM EST, November 15, 2012
Ted Frankel and Bill Gilmore
It would be difficult for even the smartest holiday decorations to compete with the artwork that fills every corner of Ted Frankel's North Calvert Street four-story brownstone. So he and his partner, Bill Gilmore, don't even try.
"This house is so complicated and busy, there really wouldn't be any point," says Frankel, who owns Sideshow, the gift shop at the American Visionary Art Museum. "The guests. That's what we decorate with," he says.
Those who attend their annual holiday party are just as eclectic as the art they have collected during their travels, from the janitors at AVAM to the governor and his wife, Martin and Katie O'Malley.
And though Frankel has been known to spontaneously tell shoppers at Sideshow to come by for the holiday open house, he and Gilmore, head of Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts, invite guests the old-fashioned way: with snail-mailed invitations they design every year.
"The first year we did this," Gilmore says of a tradition that began nine years ago, "everybody brought us wine. Since we weren't planning to open a liquor store, we decided to find a way that somebody could benefit."
Since then, their invitations have asked guests to bring art supplies to donate to Randi Pupkin's Art With a Heart, a nonprofit that brings arts and crafts classes to the neediest people in the city, or supplies for the Maryland SPCA or children's books for Baltimore Reads. This year, they will ask guests to bring art books for the library of the city's new magnet high school, which will focus on design.
Chef Sandy Lawler has free rein to create the menu for the party, with an emphasis on regional foods, such as rockfish and crab. To encourage guests to explore all four floors, which feature an astonishing mix of pop art, Haitian beaded flags and craft art, there are special appetizers and a small bar on each floor.
"If the art doesn't tempt them, the food and drink will," says Frankel.
The Christmas parties at Halcyon Farms, Stiles Colwill's childhood home, get started early. Six weeks early. And in the greenhouse.
That's where he will force dozens of amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs to combine with the truckload of flowers and greens partner Jonathan Gargiulo will bring back from the floral houses in New York City.
The Green Spring Valley horse farm that Colwill inherited will be filled to overflowing with exuberant flower arrangements that rival the beauty of the antiques, silver, fabric and art nearby.
But the house will not be full to overflowing with guests.
"We started with 50 or 75 of our friends and family and before we knew it, it was up to 250 or 300," says Colwill, an interior designer and former Baltimore Museum of Art board chair.
The morning after one of the parties, he asked Gargiulo, a director at New York's John Rosselli Antiques, if he had seen anyone he actually knew the night before.
"We asked ourselves, 'What are we doing this for?' and then we spent six months trying to cut the guest list," says Colwill. He wrote to all those who didn't make the cut, saying he would make a contribution to charity in their name.
Daniel Horwitz from The Pantry takes over the kitchen, and George Lee, in his 90s, is behind the bar, serving up his popular version of the South Side cocktail.
"He bartended for my parents 50 years ago. It isn't a party without him," Colwill says.
Decorating the house "takes a village," Colwill says. It begins in mid-November when Gilbert Edwards wraps 15-20 pine trees in lights and his wife, Ruth, unpacks huge plastic bins filled with decorations. The pair helps Colwill manage the property.
Colwill and Gargiulo create marvelous mantel tableaux, and Colwill does all the flowers, including the armload of cut amaryllis that blossom from his father's Maryland Hunt Cup Steeplechase trophy.
The fireplace in the original 18th-century log-cabin room is banked with poinsettias, and the fireplace in the living room, decorated in creams and pale yellows, is banked with paperwhites.
"Sometimes we wonder why we do it, and then we have such fun with our friends that night. And it reminds me of my father," Colwill says, "who loved Christmas so much."
Chuck and Mary Kay Nabit
Chuck and Mary Kay Nabit threw two parties in historic Cedarwood on North Charles Street before they even moved in.
Since the massive renovation of the 1927 stone mansion, there have been many more, including Preakness parties and New Year's Eve parties for which invitations are coveted.
But lately, the guests — and the guest lists — have been considerably shorter.
"It's gotten to be all about the kids," says Mary Kay. Grace, 7, and Alex, 6, are the reason you will see giant holiday blow-up figures on the lawn around the 40-room mansion, which sits across the street from Notre Dame of Maryland University.
"Our house is never more fun and alive than when we have a house full of our friends and our children's friends," says Mary Kay.
Cedarwood's most distinctive interior feature is a ballroom-sized foyer tiled dramatically in black and white. It is here that the Nabits' holiday parties are centered on a 9-foot live tree, covered in gold ornaments. It is one of four trees in the house, including a child-sized tree in Grace and Alex's "Under the Sea"-styled playroom that is covered in fishy ornaments.
There are candles in every window and swag of fresh greens under them. Oversized wreaths are mounted on the iron gates and the double front door. More than 10,000 miniature white lights are wrapped around the branches of the dogwood trees, and the rest of the landscape is awash in floodlights.
Often, they open the French doors to the terrace where heated tents extend the party space and a band plays. Carlton & Co. catering does the food — although Mary Kay makes her favorite sugar cookies every year — and Ory Florals does the flowers.
"I love the way the house looks at Christmas," says Chuck, head of the Westport Group and a model train fanatic who sets up a holiday train garden on the pool table in the billiard room.
It sounds like a lot, but Chuck and Mary Kay Nabit say they try to keep their holiday decorations dignified and understated.
Except, perhaps, for the blow-up Grinch.
Kerry and Donna Hill Staton
Kerry and Donna Hill Staton have the recipe for a perfect holiday party.
It is her grandmother's treasured recipe for gumbo, and she started making it 20 years ago to feed guests for a casual tree-trimming party.
Since then, the guest list has expanded every year to include adults who were little kids when this whole thing started. And the gumbo recipe has been multiplied so now it requires 14 pounds of crab meat and about 50 chicken wings, just to start.
"It's almost down to a science now," says Donna, who keeps her shopping list — which also includes 10 pounds of catfish, 7 pounds of brisket and a bushel of collard greens — on her iPad.
"We don't invite anyone. They just assume there will be gumbo here on Christmas Eve," says Kerry, a medical malpractice attorney and partner in Schochor, Federico and Staton.
"We think we would have to send out notices if we decided not to have it," says his wife, Howard County's first African-American judge and the state's first African-American deputy attorney general.
It began in their Baltimore apartment in Park Heights for their daughter's first Christmas — Brooke is now 23 and Lindsay is 20 — and they brought it with them to their Howard County home in Clarksville. Ethel K. Brown, Donna's grandmother, was there for that first gumbo Christmas. Now Donna works from a yellowing recipe in a church cookbook that her grandmother contributed.
"It's a North Carolina gumbo," she explains, though she won't say more than that about her recipe. "A lot of people would wonder, 'Where's the sausage? Where's the okra?'"
Donna does the food, and Kerry handles the decorating. "What takes the longest? Figuring out which lights still work," he says.
There is a table tennis tournament between the geezers and young guys. There are Wii games and lots of music. Some of the 40 to 70 guests stay until Christmas Eve becomes Christmas morning.
There is no gift exchange with neighbors and friends, but many of them leave with some gumbo.
Donna laughs. "They've even started to bring their own containers."
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