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Fresh from the 1930s

It’s Christmas in the Adamson House kitchen. A bright yellow Bauer Pottery bowl sits next to a typewritten recipe for a holiday cake. A rolling pin, its handles painted glossy red, lies next to star-shaped cookie cutters and vintage tart pans. On a kitchen counter decorated with a red-and-gold holiday wreath, a pan of gingerbread men awaits icing.

It feels as though Rhoda Adamson, for whom the graceful Spanish Colonial Revival house was built in 1930 as a wedding gift, has just left the room. And that’s exactly the effect that the docents doing the decorating on this blustery day are after.

“The intent is to be in keeping with what the Adamson family had and did during the holidays,” said Sandy Underwood, the docent who takes the lead in decorating the house each year for Christmas. “We use a mix of things the Adamsons actually owned, and decorations we believe preserve the spirit of the era.”

The 4,500-square-foot Adamson House and its grounds make up the Malibu Lagoon State Beach, one of the jewels in the crown of the state park system. The house, filled with priceless Malibu Potteries tile, is the sole historic residence in the system where visitors are allowed to walk through all of the rooms. The home is full of the family’s furniture, the shelves lined with its books. The closets are filled with the dishes and appliances, clothes and linens and incidental items the family owned.

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During the Christmas season, the docents decorate. The table is set with red and green crystal; a large green vase stands in the living room, holiday cards from the Adamson collection are displayed on a ribbon board. In the bedrooms, mannequins in fancy fashions offer a glimpse of how the family may have dressed for holiday gatherings.

Friday and Saturday evening tours are added to the regular schedule. It’s a once-a-year chance to experience the house as the family did, in the silence and solitude of the Malibu night. The tours, which begin with holiday refreshments and end with each guest receiving a hand-crafted tile as a gift, take place on Dec. 10, 11, 17 and 18. (Details below.)

According to family lore, Mrs. Adamson hung a Della Robbia wreath -- evergreens festooned with oranges, lemons, pomegranates and other fresh fruit -- on the front door each year. Although state regulations today don’t allow anything to be hung from the front door, visitors will see a nod to the Della Robbia tradition in the kitchen.

Another family tradition is revived in an upstairs bedroom, where a pink Christmas tree stands.

“We have a tape of Sylvia Adamson giving a lecture years ago where someone had asked about the Christmas celebrations,” Underwood said, referring to Rhoda’s daughter. “Sylvia mentioned the year that Mrs. Adamson put up a pink tree in the 1950s. My guess is that at the time, it was a very modern thing to do.”

For those longing for the simplicity of Christmas past, there’s plenty to see. The house, which still has its original wiring, is quite dim in the evenings. Docents use faux garlands and trees and wreathes (living plant materials are not allowed) strung with twinkle lights to give a bit more brightness to the rooms.

When docents first began to decorate the Adamson House, after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, they used the decorations they brought from home. Now, the volunteers scour EBay and discount stores for affordable decorations in keeping with the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the years the family lived in the house.

“If someone comes on the Christmas tour and falls in love with the house, or even takes away an idea for decorating their own,” Underwood said, “then we’ve done our jobs.”

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home@latimes.com


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