As impressive as Brookside, the former Bass Mansion, is from the outside, the stately administrative center for the University of Saint Francis is stunning on the inside, especially when it's decorated for Christmas.
The 24,000-square-foot former home of John Henry Bass, a wealthy industrialist, will be open to the public the next two weekends. Local designers and florists have volunteered time and materials to decorate the “castle” in a style befitting the grandeur of the building.
“I think they're intrigued by the architecture,” said Jan Patterson, event coordinator for Christmas at USF. Some designers have been participating for several years; others are new this year. “They do this out of the goodness of their hearts,” Patterson said.
The designers get to pick what room or area they do, and then let the creativity flow. “They just kind of have a free hand with what they want to do,” Patterson said.
For years Brookside, which used to be called the Bass Mansion, was the school's library. In 1983, Sister Mary Ann McManus began the tradition of Christmas in the Castle, inviting florists to decorate the rooms. But the tradition ended after a few years.
In 2006, Saint Francis moved the library to a new building, so for that year and the next, Christmas in the Castle was revived on the first floor only.
Then the building was closed in 2008 and 2009 for a major and “very accurate restoration of the house,” Patterson said. It reopened in 2010 for Christmas in the Castle, with all three floors open to the public. Since then, about 5,000 people have toured Brookside at Christmas.
While the Christmas decorations are impressive, the home itself is spectacular. Patterson believes a number of people take the tour just to “appreciate the beauty of the building.”
She's heard visitors to Brookside compare it favorably with Biltmore, George Vanderbilt's mansion in Asheville, N.C.
Biltmore opened in 1895; similarly, Brookside was finished in 1891. Bass, a successful businessman, ran the Bass Foundry and Machine Works, which covered 20 acres of land on South Hanna Street. Brookside was considered the family's country getaway; their city home was at West Berry Street and Fairfield Avenue.
In 1902, the original Brookside burned in a fire sparked by a gas explosion. By 1903, the home was completely rebuilt in stone, concrete and steel.
It has six bedrooms for family and guests and three for servants; 13 fireplaces; three staircases; and a ballroom on the third floor with a mural in the skylight depicting the nine dancing Muses of Greek mythology.
In 1944, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration bought the home for $60,000 to house St. Francis College, which had originally been in Lafayette. The house served as the college and living space for the sisters until 1948, when expansion began with construction of Trinity Hall.
Throughout the restoration of the home, the school took care to preserve the historic integrity of the building while modernizing it.
Visitors will get to tour all three floors. Many rooms and offices have trees and lavishly decorated greens around fireplace mirrors and mantels. Greenery and embellishments also grace the railings on the wooden staircases. Lush centerpieces are featured on tables throughout the building.
Most of the decorations are done in a grand scale that matches the magnificence of the rooms and architecture.