Pennsylvania Avenue Displays Exude Christmas Cheer
Longtime Coldwell Banker employee Phyllis Jane Young understood the potential of the four large first-story bay windows that line her company’s Capitol Hill office.
The windows, which front a bustling commercial stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, boast the qualities the broker and Hill resident values most: location, location, location.
In other words, they are prime real estate. And for a long time, they went unused.
“It used to drive me nuts because the windows were bare — all these kids walking around and nothing to catch their eyes,” she said.
But a decade ago, while visiting an antique and Christmas shop going out of business, she was inspired.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is our chance to fill the windows,’” Young said.
Luckily, the store’s manager had marked down the prices of the antique Christmas décor. “I left the store with the car packed to the gills.”
Now the Coldwell Banker bay windows are decked with mini ceramic villages and smiling townspeople walking amid cotton snow. The holiday window display has become a Hill tradition, stuffed with Young’s collection of Christmas lights, hundreds of knickknacks and a remote-control train.
The glimmer is enough to make passers-by stop and stare.
One window features the North Pole and kids’ favorite holiday characters. Santa is taking a bubble bath with yellow rubber duckies in one display, and a basket of duckies labeled “sinkers” sits beside the tub. There’s a ceramic Rudolph’s Misfits Store. Mrs. Claus hands out cookies and milk, and a gumball factory entices passing elves.
“Every time you look, you see something new, and the more you look, the more stories you’ll see,” said Amy Herbert, co-principal of Aesthetic Answers, the design company that has arranged Young’s collection for the past three years.
Herbert staged another bay window to resemble favorite spots in D.C. A miniature African-American family stands before a Lilliputian Capitol, representing President Barack Obama and his family, she said. The Jefferson Memorial sits behind a row of ceramic shops and businesses that have been renamed for Hill shops and landmarks, including Riverby Books, the Folger Shakespeare Library, Hill’s Kitchen and Montmartre.
The window closest to Sixth Street Southeast showcases several moving objects. There’s the Santa Express, a toy train that circles a track. There are skiing, sledding and snowboarding children, and a ski lift that moves up and down a snow-covered mountain.
Above the mini villages, large glass ornaments of gold, silver, red and green hang from the window ceilings amid Christmas lights. Sparkly snowflakes the size of dinner plates rotate slowly.
“It’s a joy to see the kids plaster their little noses on the glass in awe,” Herbert said.
But it’s not just children’s eyes gravitating toward the windows. Curious pedestrians passing the street corner fixate on the flashy windows.
“I am a real believer that commercial blocks must be colorful and eye-catching, but sometimes it takes somebody to jump-start a display,” said Young, whose favorite holiday is not Christmas but Halloween. “Those windows just needed to be done.”
Herbert arranged the windows during the first week of December, working three 15-plus-hour shifts. Each light-up or moving knickknack requires one or two plugs that must be routed to a power cord and hidden from view.
Each year the displays are constructed differently, Herbert said, but the train and moving ornaments are the centerpieces.
Young, a Capital Community Foundation board member, has seen her stash of Christmas decorations expand since she began collecting in 2001. And although she paid for nearly all the pieces herself, other Christmas décor enthusiasts have helped her maintain the collection.
Several Amtrak employees savvy about large-scale and toy trains have helped Young fix broken train engines and motors, “the most cumbersome part of the collection,” she said. Friends call her when they spot sales or items she might like, or they contribute their own finds.
“Now anybody I meet, I ask them what they know about trains,” she said with a laugh. “And I’m always looking for new pieces.”