Thursday, December 02, 1999

Estate true to holidays of past

Historic home part of Christmas tour

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        AURORA — Historic Veraestau estate has no twinkling lights this holiday season, no Christmas tree or tinsel. Neither greeting cards nor gifts are around. And that's how it should be.

        Volunteers are spending long hours decking the halls in their original pre-Victorian style. There are pine cones and holly, candles and apples, and signs of true extravagance: pineapples and pomegranates.

  • What: The annual Christmas in Aurora tour of Hillforest, an 1855 Victorian mansion at 213 Fifth St.; and Veraestau, an early 1800s country estate on Veraestau Lane off Market Street.
  • When: 1 until 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
  • Cost: Adults, $10; ages 7-18, $5; ages 6 and younger, free. Discounts for members. Free shuttle service provided from downtown Aurora.
  • For more information: (812) 926-0983 or (812) 926-0087
        Hundreds are expected to visit during the annual Christmas in Aurora celebration 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. They also will tour the 1855 Hillforest mansion just down Fifth Street, where more “modern” trimmings can be seen.

        “People don't get "simple.' I'm afraid people who come through here will say, "They've hardly decorated at all.' But if they say that, then we've done our job,” said Dean Coe, a restoration consultant and historic decorator from New Orleans.

        A graduate school friend and colleague of Veraestau manager Michelle James, Mr. Coe came to Aurora for a week to help with holiday plans.

        Veraestau, its name derived from the Latin words for “spring,” “summer” and “fall,” is 427 feet above Aurora, about 28 miles west of Cincinnati. Standing at the crest of its hill, next to Indiana's second-oldest burr oak tree, visitors can gaze across the Ohio River and into Kentucky.

        The home was built in 1810 by Jesse Holman, who platted the town of Aurora. Allen Hamilton, a framer of the state constitution, added on to the home when he bought it in 1838; and additions were added in 1913 and 1930.

        Cornelius “Cobb” O'Brien II, president of Peoples National Bank and the A.D. Cook Pump Co., bought the home in 1933 and began making changes. One of the nation's earliest champions of historic preservation, he filled it with antique furniture and planted more than 100,000 trees to replace those cleared by early settlers.

        It was his “gentleman's farm,” used for raising horses, growing orchards and passing leisurely summers and weekends.

        Now it is owned by the Cornelius and Anna Cook O'Brien Foundation, run by his daughter, Mary O'Brien Gibson.

        Veraestau is managed by Ms. James for the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, the oldest statewide preservation organization in the country.

        And it is rarely seen by the public.

        Veraestau is open to tours by appointment and can be rented for functions. But its restoration is still under way, and the house awaits a much-needed coat of paint and work to stop water damage.

        The estate cannot be seen from town, and many residents do not even know it is there.

        That's what Ms. James hopes to correct.

        “Just the site really, really captures people's hearts when they see it,” she said.

        Eighty volunteers — adults, teens and Scouts — will introduce visitors to the estate this weekend and guide them through its history.

        “I think that's very important, to make people aware of our heritage here. Because so much of our heritage is overlooked or destroyed,” said Lawrenceburg resident and retiree Sally Polk as she helped decorate Wednesday.

        She will be on hand during tours, stationed not far from a roaring fire and string musicians.

        “It's very rewarding and energizing,” she said. “It gives you a sense of history coming alive.”


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