Sections Travel and Tourism

Wistariahurst Museum Brings the Past to Life

Steeped in History


Kate Preissler says she wants history to come alive for Wistariahurst visitors.

Throughout its history, the property now known as Wistariahurst Museum — which draws guests for myriad events and individuals who simply enjoy stepping into the past — has been referred to as one of the “showplaces in Holyoke.” The museum’s director says she wants to make history fun, and the visitor count — up to 14,000 annually — suggests she’s succeeding at her goal.

Throughout its history, the property now known as Wistariahurst Museum has been referred to as one of the “showplaces in Holyoke.”

Indeed, during the holidays, the former home of silk manufacturer William Skinner and his wife, Sarah, is truly a sight to behold with its enormous curved stairway draped with holiday garland and Christmas trees twinkling throughout its 22 spacious rooms where lofty ceilings and elaborately detailed architecture speak to a bygone era.

Tickets were sold out weeks in advance for performances of “Nutcracker & Sweets” staged by the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet, which ran Dec. 11-13. The annual event captures the magic of the holidays in the spacious Music Room that Belle Skinner, daughter of William and Sarah, built to house a collection of musical instruments after her parents’ deaths.

“This season’s performance of the Nutcracker was set in Holyoke, rather than Russia, and there were references in it to the city’s history. The father figure was cast as William Skinner, and his daughters Belle and Katharine were also depicted,” said Museum Director Kate Preissler.

Although the event is extremely popular, December is actually a quiet time for Wistariahurst, which stages a plethora of programs throughout the year that appeal to children, families, adults, and people of varying interests.

“The Nutcracker is our biggest holiday event, but we’re owned by the city of Holyoke, and our mission is preserving the history of Holyoke and inspiring an appreciation of history and culture through educational programs, exhibits, and special events,” Preissler told BusinessWest, adding that, over the past decade or so, those events have shifted from museum tours and formal affairs to a wide variety of offerings.

For example, last month Holyoke Wellness Coordinator Julia Wilkins began holding strength-training classes for city employees in the Music Room, while a few weeks later an elegant event called Winter Festivitea 
was held in the same space, and guests sat at elegantly decorated tables and sipped tea while they were entertained by live music.

“We are complex and use the physical space to provide as much value as we can,” Preissler said, as she conducted a tour through two of the home’s three stories, including a visit to the Leather Room with its leather wallpaper, a noteworthy library, Belle’s bedroom, the conservatory where a stained-glass peacock window is believed to be a Tiffany original, the dining room next door with two fireplaces, and the grand, sweeping staircase Belle added to the home.

Kate Preissler
Kate Preissler says Wistariahurst, donated to the city of Holyoke by the Skinner family, has become a real community asset.

“We hold a wine tasting here in February, and our annual gala takes place in June in the gardens,” Preissler noted. “It’s our primary fund-raising event, and people come outfitted in period dress and dance to live music in Belle’s Music Room. Last year it was held on a beautiful night at sunset, and you could see people throughout the garden in ’20s clothing who were probably imagining what it would have been like when the Skinner family lived here.”

The museum greets 12,000 to 14,000 visitors a year, and most come for events, rather than tours of the home. About 15 wedding ceremonies take place in the Music Room each year, and some couples hold their receptions in tents on the manicured grounds.

“We’re an exclusive venue for people looking for a historic place to get married in; Wistariahurst offers an intimate and beautiful setting,” Preissler said, adding that photos are often taken on the grand staircase, and harpists, classical guitarists, and pianists have been hired to play before and after ceremonies.

There are also seasonal holiday teas and a Mother’s Day Tea, which Preissler said give people an opportunity to have fun in the museum.

“Last fall we held a Mad Hatter Tea which was really popular. It attracted a lot of people who had never been here before, and many came in costume,” she noted. “They enjoyed a formal tea in the Music Room, played croquet on the lawn, and did crafts. It was a multi-generational event that was meant to be a way for kids and families to relax and enjoy themselves here.

“There is always the feeling of being in a historic home where Belle Skinner entertained her guests, but it’s important for our visitors to have fun,” she went on, repeating the word that she used frequently to describe what goes on inside Wistariahurst today.

Links to the Past

Curator and City Historian Penni Martorell said William Skinner emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1874. “He was a skilled silk dyer and established a silk-manufacturing and dyeing business on the Mill River in Haydenville,” she noted.

Penni Martorell

Penni Martorell says Belle Skinner took a real interest in the gardens of Wistariahurst and added a rose garden and Japanese tea house.

The business was destroyed when the river flooded following a dam breach in 1874, and Skinner relocated the operation to Appleton Street in Holyoke. He also relocated his Haydenville home, which had been designed by William Fenno Pratt, who also designed Northampton City Hall and other noteworthy structures. “Skinner had the home dismantled and moved to Holyoke,” Martorell said.

His second wife, Sarah, was an avid gardener, and although photos from 1875 show the home surrounded by barren grounds, her letters and diaries are filled with references to the plantings and trees she established on the site, which include the renowned wistaria vines that still bloom profusely every May.

They became widely acclaimed for their beauty, and their flowering was reported in local papers, which eventually led to the home’s name.

After William and Sarah died, their two unmarried children — Ruth Isabelle (“Belle”) and her brother William — inherited the home and used it as a summer residence.

“They entertained quite frequently, and Belle added onto the home,” Preissler said, including the addition of a sweeping staircase so she could make a grand entrance at parties, as well as the magnificent Music Room to house her collection of antique musical instruments.

“Belle’s collection was well-known and contained a spinet reputedly owned by Marie Antoinette and a Stradivarius violin,” Preissler added. “It was donated to Yale University and resides there today.”

The home and grounds remained in the family until 1959, when Katharine Skinner Kilborne, the youngest child of William and Sarah Skinner, and her heirs donated Wistariahurst to the city of Holyoke for cultural and educational purposes.

It operated as a museum under the auspices of the Holyoke Public Library for many years, but today a private foundation called Historic Holyoke at Wistariahurst supports its programming, events, and communications.

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“The annual operating cost is $200,000, and the city pays $170,000 of that amount, while the remainder comes from fund-raisers, membership programs, and donations,” Preissler said, adding that the facility has two full-time employees, three part-time employees, and a large, dedicated staff of volunteers.

Martorell said a lot goes on behind the scenes.

“We have a docent program, and the collections we house are an important part of Holyoke’s history. They include letters, photographs, records of businesses, the Skinner family’s collection of correspondence, and records for Skinner and Sons Manufacturing, as well as the Carlos Vega Collection of Latino History in Holyoke,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the Vega collection was established in 2012 and is significant because nearly 50% of Holyoke’s population is Latino.

The museum also houses a textile collection containing many Skinner silk and satin wedding gowns and period clothing, and the archives are used by the Five College community and local genealogists.

“We want to use the past to inspire residents and visitors and give them new perspectives on life,” Preissler said. “History doesn’t have to be boring. People understand it better when it is presented in a way that allows them to be active participants, and our goal is to have them leave feeling that they want to come back and experience more.”

To that end, a Pumpkin Glow was held in October. Teens from the city and professional artists carved faces and designs on a large number of pumpkins, which became an outdoor exhibit that was viewed by about 250 people.

“The pumpkins were lit in the gardens at dusk, and a lot of families and people who had never been here before came to see them,” Preissler said. “It’s the combination of activities that gives us our identity, and we try to provide opportunities for different interests. For example, we hold a historical lecture series as well as Family Fun Days.”

Concerts are staged inside and outside Wistariahurst on its beautiful grounds that have been restored over the past decade. “They provide a lot of green space that is open to the public at no charge from dawn to dusk,” Preissler continued. “The gardens were inspired by designs created by Sarah Skinner and the three acres contain a beautiful rose garden, an azalea garden, 53 types of trees, 43 types of hosta and our signature wisteria, which was planted in the 1880s and grows up the side of the house. People come here to read books or walk the grounds; families bring picnics and we have had kids playing tag in the roses. It’s a particularly magical place for children where they can run around, feel safe and have fun.”

Martorell said the museum also houses a gallery that exhibits works by local artists that change every two months. In 2016 the facility will host a landscape show staged by Holyoke Art League and a spring program titled ‘Nuestras Abuelas de Holyoke,’ which is Spanish and translates to “our grandmothers.”

It will include photos and oral histories of residents and will be put on by curator Waleska Santiago and invited guests, she noted. “There will also be an exhibit by students from Holyoke Community College and a Rotary collection that will put on display from our archives.”

Preissler noted that Wistariahurst wants to become known as a premiere cultural venue, so it strives to hire exceptional musicians and performances.

“We’re planning a curated music series for next year and have brought musicians here that have a distinct sound that is new and fresh in the area,” she said, adding that performers have included jazz musician Michael Sheridan, gypsy music from the Roma culture performed by The Bohemian Quarter, and banjo music played by Cynthia Sayer.

“We are supported by the community, so it’s important for our programs to improve the quality of life and involve things that people can enjoy and respond to,” she added.

Bright Future

Preissler said the programming at Wistariahurst has evolved in conjunction with events held at other historic homes and museums. “There is a realization that we need to have more participatory experiences where visitors are actively engaged,” she noted.

Next year a member of the board of directors, a grandson of Katherine Skinner and the last living descendant to live in Wistariahurst as a child, will give a number of guided tours. In addition, there will be plenty of fun-filled events to round out the agenda.

“We will continue work to engage our audiences in new ways,” Preissler continued.

Which is exactly what Belle Skinner did when she built rooms in Wistariahurst to house her collections and entertain guests in a grand style.

So, the tradition of transforming Wistariahurst to bring it into the present will continue long after the holiday season is over in a home resplendent with history that sits quietly right in the heart of Holyoke.