Walking into Cheney Mansion during the month of December is like stepping into a scene from The Nutcracker. Seven large Christmas trees anchor a room-to-room display of garlands, ribbons and blue and white lights. This holiday season, in its smallest room, the historic home designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright includes an unduplicated show: a themed display of ornaments by a local collector who’s nationally known.
Jerry Ehernberger’s finds and creativity glow on the second floor, in the sewing room. Ehernberger, who works at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, was asked to put together a display on behalf of the housing center by colleague Meridian Herman, who also works part-time at Cheney Mansion. After seeing displays at Ehernberger’s home, Herman twisted his elbow, he says, to do something for the mansion.
Ehernberger started with four tiers of small paper houses, in the far end of the sewing room. One of them is an apartment building.
“I chose these because the housing center deals with apartment rentals and houses were the closest thing I could come up with,” Ehernberger says, referring to the display that includes renderings of log cabins and churches. The paper buildings in this display were made in Japan from the 1930s to the 1950s; they have holes to allow for lighting to show through their cellophane windows and doors.
Around the paper houses are delicate twig fences, imported from Germany around 1910, a period during which most Christmas decorations arrived from Germany, Ehernberger says. Amid the houses and fences are bristly green trees lightly frosted with “snow.”
It’s a surprise when Ehernberger explains the trees’ origins: “These are bottle-brush trees. They have that name because they’re made by a company that makes toilet brushes.” Indeed, upon closer inspection, the trees from Japan and West Germany do resemble prettier versions green toilet bowl brushes.
“I don’t know when I first started collecting,” Ehernberger says with a delighted smile. “I’ve loved Christmas since I was little, though I was mainly drawn to Christmas lights. My collection revolves around Christmas period lighting but has expanded to include other things.” Those “other things” all date from the 1890s to the 1950s.
Crowning the Christmas village is a white tree, which appears to be synthetic, like the sparkling silver tree near the entrance. Ehernberger is glad to share that this tree isn’t synthetic. It’s a tree from a few years ago, he says, that was dried, stripped of its needles and some branches, and then wrapped in strips of white cotton.
“It’s an obscure German tradition of reusing the tree for several years,” Ehernberger says. “I made this one myself.”
The tree’s glow comes from Swedish candle lights dating to the 1950s and from ornaments that represent Ehernberger’s entire collection. This one-of-a-kind holiday presentation is called Vintage Village Christmas and, because of its valuable items, is the only locked display room at Cheney Mansion this season.
See Ehernberger’s display, as well as holiday decorations by the Oak Park Conservatory throughout the rest of the historic property, during the Cheney Mansion’s holiday open house.