J.J. Nolis’ wood shingled home on Denison Street can best be described as traditional, but with a contemporary twist. Elegantly furnished and boasting a master bathroom that is the envy of all who lay eyes on it, the home is full of light and good cheer — especially good cheer.
Every other year, the Sag Harbor LVIS hosts a house tour between Christmas and New Year’s. This year, there are five homes on the tour, but without a doubt, Nolis’ house will be the holiday centerpiece of the event. Visitors need take only one step inside Nolis’ front door before they will realize that in addition to being an architect, and a designer — Nolis is, in fact, a child who has never grown up.
There, nestled in the foyer of his entryway is the true centerpiece of the home — a 19 foot high, tin foil covered Christmas display that Nolis (who doesn’t mind being known as the “Willy Wonka of Christmas”) calls “Candy Cane Mountain.”
To get a sense of Candy Cane Mountain, think of a favorite childhood memory and add a vision of a very tall Macy’s window during the holidays, but without the crass commercialism of product placement.
Nolis’ Candy Cane Mountain is a riot of color and light with layers upon layers of tinsel, and beads and faces and figures surrounding a virtual fantasy land of miniature joy. Through the post W.W.II miracle of animatronics (batteries and extension cords not included) tiny skiers go up plastic hills only to turn around and come zipping back down, over and over again. Meanwhile, the Tornado, a mini roller coaster, rushes full speed down hills and around curves while little amusement park planes suspended by strings from a revolving carousel soar round and round.
But the main attraction of candy cane mountain is the music. It sits overhead, at about the 10 foot level and is a miniature bell choir made up of seven soldiers and one Santa. With little mallets in hand, each figure turns to ring the bells at their sides. The little choir rings out 36 separate songs before starting all over. It’s not just Jingle Bells either — the repertoire even includes Carol of the Bells, a tough song for such a tiny bell choir.
“The origins of the bell choir were my Aunt Marion and Uncle Al Sakavich,” explains Nolis. “They live in Woodbury, Conn. and three years ago when I moved in they said, ‘You’re the person we want to have this.’ They were older and always knew I was the one person who would care for this and use it.”
Nolis has been creating his elaborate Christmas display for 20 years now. But this is only his third Christmas in his new house. Prior to that, he had only the limited space in his apartment with which to work, and most of the 80 boxes of decorations stayed in the attic or basement.
A lot of friends come and see the display and say I put them in the Christmas spirit every year.”
It’s easy to see why. In addition to Candy Cane Mountain, Nolis also has some 150 nutcrackers, bunches of Santas and countless other memorable Christmas objects. In the living room is a Lithuanian Christmas tree, a nod to Nolis’ heritage, with hand made ornaments created by his grandmother.
This year, it took 100 hours and 32 rolls of aluminum foil to assemble Candy Cane Mountain, and Nolis called on his godson, Dana Harvey, a Pierson High School student, to help.
“There are also 180 electric candles in the windows,” says Nolis, who points to his mother as being the inspiration behind his love of Christmas.
“Tillie Nolis, my mom, was over the top with anything that could make people laugh. My mom passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease two years ago. Christmas was always so much fun,” he says. “I definitely have my mom’s Christmas spirit. I didn’t realize how much I had it until she passed away. I built the house and I wanted to bring her here, but she was so ill, she never saw it.”
“Everything in my house as a story behind it. It’s authentic and for a reason. That’s what Christmas is for me,” he adds. “It’s my meaningful connection.”
Nolis is also a session singer who travels regularly to Nashville to record. He and his friend Mike Dodson have written a Christmas song entitled, what else, “Candy Cane Mountain.” Nolis recently recorded the song, backed up by some of his favorite Nashville singers, and come next Christmas, will officially release it.
Â “It’s just a fun Christmas song. It reminds you of those old specials like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Also on the tour this year is the historic Sag Harbor home of Joy Lewis — a circa 1830 Greek Revival on Hampton Street built for shipbuilder Charles T. Dering. Like Nolis, Lewis loves decorating for the holidays. But her displays reflect a slightly different focus.
“It touches me…the things people bring when they come to this country,” says Joy Lewis as she looks wistfully at the small, elegant Christmas tree on a table in the front hall of her home.
It’s obvious even to a casual viewer that Lewis has love for all things historic. Busts of George Washington and Voltaire share space with vintage board games and paintings of local notable figures.
“When I came to the East Coast, I can’t forget the first night I slept in an 18th century house,” says Lewis. “I loved it — that feeling of being in a house someone spent so much time in, the feel of the people that lived there before.”
“It inspires you to think of those who were here before,” says Lewis who is fascinated not only by people with names like Dering or James Fennimore Cooper who was Dering’s business partner and very likely visited him at the home or William Wallace Tooker the well known ethnologist who also once lived there — but by the smaller and often undocumented lives. The lives represented, for instance, on the Christmas tree in Lewis’ foyer.
The tree itself is from the German area of Transylvania in Romania. It’s all white — made of turkey feathers wrapped around wire. Hanging from the boughs are intricate little silvery ornaments that, at first glance, look as if they are made of tin. But closer examination reveals they are much more fragile in nature and are actually constructed of thick paper.
Â “They are called Dresdens and were made in Germany from 1880 until W.W.I when they melted down the molds for munitions,” says Lewis. “I think the center of the craft was in Dresden.”
“They had a male and female mold, and they would punch them as engravers do,” adds Lewis. “There were three dimensional ones and also flat ones.”
Lewis notes that while the Germans were also known for making fine blown glass ornaments, those were primarily for export. The paper Dresdens didn’t tend to travel far from home — unless they were packed in the luggage of immigrants.
“The paper ones were for themselves,” she says.
Lewis and her late husband, Bob, became avid collectors of Dresdens after finding their first — a delicate little armchair — in an antique shop in the city. Many more were found at shops locally
“Our imagination was as if these are the ornaments that might have been brought by the Germans who worked at the watch case factory,” says Lewis.
Among the paper Dresdens on Lewis’ tree is a zeppelin, a fish, a miniature house and a sailboat. The tree is also decorated with die-cut lithographs from the period of angelic faces and outdoor scenes, as well as cornucopias and fragile, lacy looking ornaments most likely handmade by women in the ThÃ¼ringen Mountains from material like cotton, wool and paper.
“They are so delicate. It’s amazing they survived,” says Lewis. “I love the cornucopia and the little presents in them.”
Considering the violent history of Germany — particularly Dresden which was heavily bombed during W.W.II — and the fact that the paper ornaments were mainly produced for the local market, it’s amazing that any of them have survived at all. In fact, notes Lewis, they are not all that common.
“In big traumas, things get lost,” she notes.
As a child born in Kansas during the Depression, Lewis knows all about big traumas, the fragile nature of family treasures and the appreciation of simple gifts.
“People born in the dust bowl in Kansas appreciate everything so much,” she says. “When you’ve had enough time to realize what you’ve been doing, though you don’t know while you’re doing it, you get an interesting perspective.”
“One thing I’ve realized is that one of the things Bob and I shared was a rescue fantasy,” says Lewis who bought and fixed up a number of old houses with her husband during their life together. “The first time we were in Sag Harbor, it looked like it was going into the ground. We just felt we had to save it.”
“My father was a small town preacher,” says Lewis. “That’s probably where I got my interest in saving things — but I turned to different stuff.”
When she was in third grade, Lewis and her family escaped the dust bowl by moving to Sheridan, Wyoming where her father had found a church to preach in. For Lewis and her little sister, it was Shangri-la.
“Everything I had seen until then was brown,” she says. “It was the Christmas season when we were there. People at the social hall were singing Christmas songs and they sang this Victorian one — ‘Up on the housetop.’”
“My sister told me later she was amazed that our mother knew the words,” says Lewis. “How did our mother learn the words? We had never heard her sing that song. That’s when I realized at another depth what the Depression meant. They could’ve sung them but didn’t. The songs are free, but they were too sad to sing them.”
The Sag Harbor LVIS Holiday House Tour is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, December 27. Five homes and the Sag Harbor Historical Society will be on view. Refreshments will be served at Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf. Tickets are $35 in advance at the Wharf Shop or $40 on tour day at the Historical Society, 174 Main Street. Call 725-7984 for details.