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The Splendor of a Victorian Christmas in Wilmington

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December 06, 1986|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

The year could have been 1869, a good one for Phineas Banning. The first transcontinental railroad had been completed with the final golden spike joining the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific at Promontory, Utah. Banning had also finished building a rail line of his own, one that ran from the harbor at San Pedro to downtown Los Angeles.

Now at Christmas, his palatial Wilmington home was the setting for a traditional celebration that brought guests from throughout the Southland. The sound of laughter mingled with the murmur of voices as guests arrived to be ushered through the entrance hall into the spacious parlor by Banning's three sons. Servants would lead the horses and carriages to the coaching barns.

There was a rustle of taffeta and brocades as women ascended the staircase to leave their wraps in an upper room, their gloved hands gliding along the polished banister. Gentlemen wearing double breasted cut-away jackets and high wing-tipped collars sipped Madeira, moving into the family living room to admire the tree. The glow of candles from crystal and etched glass sconces that lined the wall illuminated a room filled with happy people who had come to enjoy a festive evening with a renowned host and his family. Banning had arrived in California penniless in 1851, and by 1864 when this mansion was completed had become the leading citizen of Los Angeles.

Later the guests would gather at his long mahogany table for the evening repast. Servants carried steaming dishes from an ornate walnut and marble sideboard; champagne was poured into long-stemmed crystal glasses. After dinner, an orchestra played as couples danced Virginia reels and waltzes in the hall. It was a Victorian Christmas and a night to remember.

Victorian Splendor Again

Sunday, more than a century later, the historic Gen. Phineas Banning Residence Museum will recreate that Victorian Christmas celebration in all its splendor. The entire 23-room house, which has been restored and refurnished to its early elegance, will be decorated with period ornaments. Choral groups will sing holiday carols on the front porch and an organist will play in the family room. Visitors will be able to sample the plum pudding being baked in the kitchen, and there will be guided tours through this state historic landmark, considered the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in Southern California.

Entering the house one notes, on a silver tray, the calling cards of some of Los Angeles' most prominent men of the latter part of the 19th Century. Banning enjoyed entertaining. Washington's birthday and the Fourth of July were other occasions to celebrate, just as they were in his native Delaware. In California, however, they became fiestas, and included Mexican dishes. Steers were barbecued and beans were cooked in a pot so huge they had to be stirred with a shovel.

Visitors are always fascinated by the Banning house kitchen. On a counter are the culinary gadgets that were considered time savers in their day; apple pealers, cabbage graters and bean slicers. There is also a Garland wood stove. What excitement there must have been in this household that day in 1881 when Banning had gas piped into the house and the stove was converted. There is an icebox on the porch. This was a luxury. Ice was brought from the northern Sierra, transported to San Francisco by steamer where it was loaded aboard a ship, probably Banning's, that was bound for San Pedro.

Hand-Carved Mantel

One follows the guide through other areas of the house. There is the family room where a marble table brought from China, strewn with books and photographs, catches the eye. The mantel over the fireplace is a hand-carved work of art, and in one corner is an English piano that traveled around Cape Horn. In the evening, there might have been a musical. One of the general's sons, Joseph, played the flute, his brother, Hancock, the cornet. The room is silent now, but its inherent warmth lingers.

Banning's office is on the second floor. There is a walnut and mahogany roll top desk from which he supervised his many business enterprises. It was the workplace of a pioneer whose ambition and determination brought progress to the Los Angeles that had been a dusty pueblo of 1,600 persons when he arrived in 1851.

After working as a driver bringing freight and passengers from San Pedro to Los Angeles, Banning acquired a partnership in a stage line that was ultimately to expand its routes throughout California, Arizona and to Salt Lake City. It was said that Banning could drive a six-horse stage faster and over rougher roads than any driver who had ever cracked a whip. He was soon affluent enough to purchase the acreage where he founded Wilmington, named after the city in his home state.

Always Called 'General'

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