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Parlor style is collector's passion

John Herrmann's delicate Christmas trees could almost get lost among the large gilded mirrors and imposing paintings in Tampa's Henry B. Plant Museum.

The trees, trimmed with goose feathers and antique ornaments, project fragile elegance. How proper for a Victorian Christmas display.

"I'm sort of drawn to things from that period," says Herrmann, a noted collector and dealer from San Antonio. "I feel more comfortable in an old life."

Herrmann lends his trees each year to the museum's Victorian Christmas Stroll, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

You'll find his seven trees in the Garden Room. Goose feathers make up the "needles" on the sparse branches, an early version of artificial trees.

One is a lush royal blue, decorated with silvery glass garland and ornaments of sparkling pinecones and walnuts.

Another, a petite pink tree, looks almost fluffy, with bird and bell ornaments hanging off its branches and fragile tinsel strewn around its girth. Both were made in the late 1930s, Herrmann said, mimicking the Victorian style.

The centerpiece of Herrmann's display is a 7-foot-tall green tree he purchased in Pennsylvania Dutch country about a decade ago. It took two people 76 hours to craft it by hand, replicating the style of the late 1800s. Authentic trees of that size are rare, Herrmann said.

He decorated it with small candles, glass balls, jewel-tone garland and lithograph ornaments depicting nativity scenes, children playing in the snow and angels.

The lithographs, he said, are another rarity.

"People threw these away because they didn't think they were valuable," he said.

In the business for more than 30 years, Herrmann and a partner used to own an antique store in Ybor City that attracted the attention of museum officials looking for new finds to diversify the Christmas display.

His first offering, about 15 years ago, was an old Florida tree hung with ornaments of pinecones, oranges and flamingos. "John has been just a wonderful friend of the museum. He's a fabulous collector," said museum spokeswoman Sally Shifke.

This year, his items give the Victorian-themed event its authenticity. Herrmann's trees will be displayed among an eclectic array of setups arranged throughout the museum's ground floor.

There's a tree of solid red poinsettias, one adorned with china teacups, another celebrating Tampa's cigar industry and even an Alice in Wonderland homage with life-size puppets of the characters.

Shifke said 25 years of the Victorian Christmas Stroll was cause for a little extravagance.

"We're really trying to go over the top," she said. "We're just trying to make it as spectacular as we can."

They have a devotee in Herrmann, whose particular passions are religious memorabilia and Florida relics, as well as holiday treasures inspired by happy memories of Christmases past.

"I'm a big believer in museums, in saving things," he said. "And it doesn't happen alone. Someone's got to do it."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at (352) 521-6521 or moorhead@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

What: 25th anniversary Victorian Christmas Stroll

Where: Henry B. Plant Museum, 401 W Kennedy Blvd., on the University of Tampa campus

When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, Dec. 1-23

Cost: Admission is $10 for adults and $4 for children 12 and younger. Mondays and Tuesdays are discount days, with adult admissions $6 and children $3.

Information: (813) 258-7302

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