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‘Back to Greystone’

Mahoning Valley Historical Society welcomes visitors for holidays

YOUNGSTOWN — The Mahoning Valley Historical Society imagines how Olive F. A. Arms might have decorated her historic Wick Avenue home with its 13th Memories of Christmas Past exhibition.

The title “Back to Greystone” refers both to the name Arms gave to the house she designed and the fact that visitors will be able to come back for the holidays after a hiatus last year caused by COVID-19. For the society, it was major loss in revenue.

“It hurt us quite a bit,” said Anthony Worrellia, buildings and grounds supervisor with the society and designer of Memories of Christmas Past. “Being a nonprofit, you’re always looking for that revenue (source). We also do the cookie table fundraiser in February and lost that. It was a double whammy.”

Before the first Memories exhibition in 2008, the Arms museum used to put up a few decorations and attracted a couple hundred visitors during the holidays.

“We had 1,500 the first year I did it, and the highest is 8,000,” Worrellia said. “It’s become a Youngstown family tradition.”

Worrellia, 59, draws upon a life-long fascination with Christmas decorations and more than 30 years of collecting vintage holiday items from the 1800s until the 1950s.

“My mom worked at Strouss’ for 30 years in downtown, and dad worked at Wean United downtown,” he said. “I grew up in Smoky Hollow. Downtown was my playground. Every time my mom worked, I was down there on her break — she would get me a malt — and at Christmas time it was just a magical store. Every year had a different theme.”

The family even acquired some of the old decorations from Strouss’ when they would sell them off every few years, but Worrellia no longer has them. His mom got rid of them when she started acquiring newer, mass-produced decorations.

Worrellia now builds his personal collection from items that others are discarding. He finds them everywhere, from estate sales and thrift shops to eBay and collectors’ conventions. And some of those decorations, like Santa Clauses handcrafted in Germany in the late 19 and early 20th centuries are worth thousands of dollars.

He draws upon his own collection and items from other collectors to create the display, which is different every year.

“It’s never been repeated in 13 years,” he said. “You might see some of the same pieces, but it’s always in a different vignette or different design element.”

Sometimes he comes up with ideas years in advance and then tries to find the pieces to make them a reality. Extensive work starts in September to prepare for the November opening, but it’s really a year-round process, he said.

To create this year’s theme, Worrellia didn’t have much help in the MVHS archives and collection. He didn’t have photos of Greystone decorated for the season as a guide or old Christmas decorations to use. Instead, he relied on his research and knowledge on the kinds of decorations available at the time as well as research on Mrs. Arms’ taste.

“Being an artist herself, she would have done things probably over the top,” he said.

The first floor rooms are filled with lavish displays. Some rooms rely on flowers, greenery, fruits and berries — all common decorations in the early 20th century, he said — but he didn’t limit himself to those items.

“When it opened in 1905, the house was equipped with gas and electric,” Worrellia said. “With her wealth, she could have had the first electric Christmas lights. And in the sitting room are C6 lights, the earliest lighting when they first started producing them commercially … If one goes out, they all go out. It’s a nightmare.”

Many of the serving pieces that Wilford and Olive Arms would have used for holiday entertaining are on display, along with several of her gowns. The silver serving pieces that look like pheasants that are part of the dining room table display with a 25th anniversary gift from Wilford to his wife.

There also is a display case featuring Christmas cards they had saved, including a 100-year-old card from industrialist William Browning Pollock II.

“This truly fits our mission of preserving and educating,” Worrellia said. “These are one-of-a-kind pieces that you just don’t see in this area … Everyone has their own memories, they own way of telling the story of their Christmas., but it does trigger an emotion here. I’ve had people walk in who lost a mother or father, who told me, ‘We didn’t decorate this year and it was hard for me to come, but it made me feel good.’ I’ve had grown men come in with a tear in their eye at the end of the exhibit.”

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