As one enters the home of Barb Fulton and her husband, Paul Rossberger, on Knollwood Drive SE, the sights and sounds of Christmas waft over one with a warm, comforting feeling, reminding one of an old-fashioned Christmas.
Brilliant red poinsettias flank the staircase in the foyer to greet the arriving visitor. In the adjacent living room a blazing fire in a paneled fireplace gives out the familiar snap, crackle and pop of wood logs. The mantel is encrusted with evergreen boughs tufted with “snow” and adorned with twin ceramic Dalmatians wearing perky red hats just like Santa’s.
An elegant platter of cookies awaits on a coffee table. They are not only a treat for the tummy, but for the eyes: There are dark chocolate fudge balls, white Russian teacakes, gingerbread men with squiggly frosting and sugar cookies in the shapes of winter jackets and ice skates. One’s admiration for the beauteous treats does not overcome the call of the taste buds, however.
Dozens of little houses in ceramic villages sit on blankets of cotton snow on the wide, deep sills of three windows facing the front grounds. The villages are Department 56 creations and harbor 34 houses and a bevy of little shops, collected lovingly since 1995 by Fulton.
The Christmas spirit continues into the spacious dining room. It’s furnished with a castle-worthy table decorated with three red pillar candles ringed in evergreens. Ornate chairs with fancy open fretwork on the backs, reminiscent of the Chippendale design, complete the table ensemble.
A double doorway leads to the expansive 30-by-30 foot family room, comfy cozy with a burgundy leather sectional, another fire flaming away in a gas fireplace, and an 8-foot balsam fir Christmas tree. The tree is fat and looking “fab” with a collection of glass ornaments collected over decades. In another corner is a game table; a wall of cabinets covers a 55-inch rollout TV. Windows galore look out on a neighborhood of handsome homes also sporting holiday finery.
Fulton is a fan of the old and the old-fashioned. She likes old houses (theirs was built in around 1915), old things (everything from inherited dishes and furnishings to estate sale finds) and old family recipes, some dating from her great-grandmother, such as the Russian teacakes, a childhood favorite of hers. “Baking is one of my holiday traditions,” she says. “I bake tons of cookies at Christmas, and share.”
While Fulton is deep into doing, husband Paul, on the other hand, is deep into admiring — and not so much into personally choosing or helping with the decorating (exception: outside lights) and thus is very happy with the comfortable ambience his wife has created.
And she admits that “I’m a Christmas person. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday.” Generally speaking, for both holidays and year-round, she will tell you that “I’m just interested in the things that work for our family. I’ve always cared more about making it comfortable for the family rather than having a house that’s magazine worthy.”
Fulton, 51, a former American Airlines flight attendant, and Paul Rossberger, 49, vice president of sales and marketing for Lil’ have several siblings and say their favorite thing about Christmas is getting the far-flung families together. Says Fulton: “Seeing my three sisters from three different states is fun. We usually get together at somebody’s place during the holidays.”
Rossberger chimes in that their house is perfect for such gatherings. There’s enough space for everyone (it’s 4,730 square feet; 11 rooms, including five bedrooms plus 3 1/2 baths) and Christmas is particularly fun for family members from New Mexico, Georgia and Virginia when it snows. Rossberger says “Everything looks so festive, and when it snowed in the past, the people who aren’t used to that really felt like it was Christmas.”
Fulton and Rossberger have two children, Reid, 18, a freshman at the University of Michigan, and Caroline, 17, a senior at Washington High School.
Fulton has some intriguing decorating practices for the holidays. She spray paints real fruit — apples, pears, walnuts and pineapples, and this year even a pumpkin — gold and places the fruit on an oak built-in buffet in the dining room and among pine boughs on the family room mantel.
“I’m from Virginia and they decorate a lot with fruit,” Fulton says. “I just use shiny gold spray paint from Michael’s.” An apple looks like it’s encased in spun gold, so flawless and smooth is its surface. The fruit keeps perfectly all season.
Fulton’s collections of Department 56 villages and glass tree ornaments are joined by her third love: nutcrackers. In all sizes and occupations, the little nippers decorate the mantel on the family room fireplace and raised hearth. Occupations? You didn’t know nutcrackers came in more than soldierly gear? They do.
There’s the chef nutcracker, outfitted in pristine white, holding aloft a luscious-looking chocolate cake. And there’s the band leader, the Scotsman, the Alpine skier and the ship’s captain — he, complete with the ship’s wheel.
These and the glass tree ornaments are Fulton’s longest quests, each having been started in 1985. The ornaments make quite an array: Santas and harlequins, a log cabin and a red double-decker bus, a teddy bear and snowshoes, and a plethora of sports symbols.
Numerous ornaments have special meaning: The Washington monument reminds Fulton of her Virginia roots. There’s a Sept. 11 memorial heart, a poignant remembrance of that fateful day when she was working at American Airlines. A glass basketball was autographed for Coach Rossberger by his middle school players. And of course — there are miniature nutcrackers.
The spacious family room with fireplace and tree is painted hunter green, with warm maple crown moldings 10 inches deep, which accomplish their mission: setting the room off.
The venerable house has seen 10 owners and many Christmases — and events that weren’t all happy. The home was sadly lost by its owners in the Great Depression. At another point it was sold for $23,000. Rossberger estimates that with the improvements the couple have added, it would now be in the $500,000 range.
And so it stands proudly today, all its oak floors burnished to the classic “golden oak.” The rooms are gloriously spacious (the living room is 24-by-16 feet and the dining room, 17-by-15 feet) and there’s lavish use of oak woodwork, including six sets of beveled glass French doors. One only can salivate over these architectural features.
Striking is the grand built-in buffet in the dining room, Fulton’s favorite room. The buffet lends an aura and convenience not often found today. Fulton loves the room’s lavish use of natural woodwork. “We use the dining room a lot, not just for special occasions,” she says. The couple even have extended the supersized table with another small table at each end — then seating 21 people at it.
A lot of furniture was left to them by Rossberger’s grandmother and Fulton jokes that “We often say his grandmother furnished our living room,” so replete it is with those cherished pieces.Rossberger says when he thinks of “home” he thinks of “family and holidays and some place that everybody comes back to, where everybody feels comfortable and safe.”