Riverside has not one, but two, picturesque Victorian gothic water towers – at least for the rest of the month – courtesy of Joe and Betty Sharp, who would like you stop by their North Delaplaine Road home and snap a selfie, maybe even the family photo for your Christmas cards.
While you’re at it, you might want to have a seat under the tree in the front yard and get your picture taken with Santa Claus or walk next door to the house where Sharps’ daughter and son-in-law – Laura and Rich Duff — live and climb aboard a full-size sleigh pulled by eight lighted reindeer and get a photo there.
It’s Christmas Town in Riverside, partly the result of an obsession with decorating for the holidays and partly the result on the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sharps’ display is a new one, rolled out in 2020.
“We thought it was good because it gave people sort of a destination,” said Joe Sharp, who was putting some finishing touches on the display on the front lawn of his home at 144 N. Delaplaine Road last week. “They’re not going to the mall with their kids to get Santa pictures anymore, so we put a Santa out here for them and they can get a picture with that one.”
And so people have. With Delaplaine Road being one of Riverside’s busier thoroughfares, the Sharps see cars slowing down for a look with their driver’s stopping, putting on the flashers and hopping out for a quick picture by Santa, the sleigh next door, the water tower or one of the five other Christmas Town “buildings” on the Sharps’ lawn.
“It’s just so much fun to see kids coming through and playing and petting things,” Sharp said.
While the elaborate outdoor display is new – the sleigh originally went on the Sharps’ lawn as a solo feature – Betty Sharp sets up a Christmas display of ceramic buildings inside the home every year. In 2020, with the pandemic prohibiting indoor visitors, the Sharps decided to look outward.
“We realized nobody was coming over to see [the indoor decorations], so Betty came up with the idea of let’s so something in the front yard,” Joe said.
So during the summer of 2020, Joe began making five Christmas Town buildings – all about 4- to 5-feet tall — out of plywood. The original buildings included a toy factory, Santa’s house, a clubhouse for Santa’s elves, a toy store and a reindeer barn, which proved to be the most popular with kids.
“We talked to parents and noticed where kids were going last year, and the factory and reindeer barn were the things they really played with,” Joe said. “Kids would come up and pet the reindeer.”
The displays in front of both houses are meant to be interactive, and visitors are encouraged to walk up on the front lawn to get a closer look and take photos. There are even signs saying so for those who might feel funny having the kids touching the displays.
Both houses also sport a little child-height mailbox where they can grab a treat or prize – sometimes there are candy canes, sometime pencils – for themselves.
“That’s what we want [kids] to do,” Joe said.
One of this year’s additions to the display is a soft toy factory, which has lighted windows displaying stuffed animals and doors that open and close, revealing the elves who make the toys. The building is a little bigger than the others, which has proven a bit of a problem in high winds (which also have temporarily sidelined a dancing Grinch next door), but some more secure staking has it firmly rooted.
And then there’s the pièce de résistance, the replica Riverside water tower, which has pride of place in the center of the display atop a platform to give it the necessary height and emphasis.
Unlike the rest of the buildings, the cylindrical tower was fashioned from, suitably, a rain barrel. Wrapped in a textured plastic skin that gives it a brick-like surface and painted to mimic its model’s Victorian gothic arches, the replica tower is topped by an aluminum roof – its paint peeling a bit like the one on which it’s modeled.
The roof was fabricated by cutting out two circles of aluminum and forming them into funnels. The pointy top itself is made from an old oil-change funnel.
“Unlike the town, I thought it’d be nice to put a star on top,” said Joe, who also has set up a projector that displays the words “Seasons greetings” on the shaft of the tower at night, just like the real one downtown.
“It’s not an exact duplicate, but it’s close enough,” Joe said.
The display has been such a hit that Joe Sharp says it’s likely to continue in the future.
“It’ll probably grow again by a couple houses next time around,” he said. “Maybe we’ll build the center of town.”