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Day Tripper Discovers the Details Behind the Decorations at Hartwood Acres Mansion

Holiday embellishments and candlelight tours mark the holiday season at the historic mansion.

The holidays bring a variety of seasonal activities, and one of my favorite holiday traditions is visiting the Hartwood Mansion at Hartwood Acres.

Every year, volunteers decorate the mansion for the holiday season. A few weeks ago, I had a sneak preview of this year’s adornments. It is a must visit for history lovers as well as for those who enjoy the holidays.

Hartwood Acres, which is in Indiana and Hampton townships, is part of the Allegheny County Park system. The mansion was once home to John and Mary Flinn Lawrence. Mary was the daughter of William Flinn, a Pittsburgh construction baron in the late 1800s.

Even without the holiday ornamentation, the mansion is beautiful. The Lawrences commissioned architect Alfred Hopkins to incorporate aspects from a manor house they had seen and loved in Oxfordshire, England. The 31-room home was constructed in 1929 on the 629 acre lot.

In the 1970s, the county bought the estate, including the mansion and surrounding land, and established a public park. Open year round, the house is transformed during the holidays thanks to volunteers who spend many hours creating and decorating for the holiday tours.

Amber Bierkan is one of the volunteers. She led our tour through the mansion's rooms while explaining the themes and decorations. Bierkan has volunteered at the park for years, and she spends hundreds of hours throughout the year planning for the dining room, which she is in charge of decorating.

Before we made it to the dining room, we walked through the main room, the library and the hallways to admire the decorations throughout the home. Susan Hass, a professional decorator, designed the main room, and she incorporated Kwanzaa and Hanukkah into the theme along with Christmas.

“You can tell that she is a professional because she uses wonderful materials that aren’t available to others," Bierkan said. "Her attention to detail along with the materials she uses makes these decorations just outstanding."

Bierkan and the other volunteers take a week to decorate the rooms, but as I mentioned, Bierkan works on her decorations all year. Soon after the holidays end, she starts researching a theme for the next season.

This is Bierkan’s eighth year of designing a room. For it, she chose a Russian theme to pay homage to Russian immigrants in the early days of Pittsburgh.

“Wilkinsburg was named after William Wilkins who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia in 1834 to 1835," she said. "This is just one example of our Russian ties."

Once she chooses a theme, she begins to design the decorations and collects materials. In a journal, she adds drawings and pieces of materials and articles of interest to help her with her designs. Bierkan and her husband split their time between Hampton Township and New England, so she searches Goodwill stores, second-hand stores and other shops in both areas, plus she makes trips to New York City for treasures and materials.

The results are exquisite.

Bierkan created a room this year with a variety of displays. When you walk into the room, the Christmas tree in front of the window might be what first catches your eye, but there also is a miniature horse-drawn sled to the left – perfect for little ones.

“I created this with children in mind so they can just stand here and see it at their eye level,” Bierkan said.

There is a decorated dining table in the middle of the room, a sidebar with three miniature Santas that Bierkan created and, my favorite, a wall-hanging above the fireplace that Bierkan created and a professional seamstress put together.

The tour continues to the upper level of the mansion, where even the closets are decorated for the holidays.

Hartwood's tours of the mansion began Nov. 18. They are offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Fees are $6 for adults and $4 for senior citizens. There will be mansion candlelight tours Nov. 28-30 and Dec. 3, 5, 6, 7, 12, 13 and 14 for $6 per person. Reservations are requried for all tours and may be made by calling 412-767-9200.

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