Hernando’s Banks House gets all dressed up for Christmas
Story by Robert Lee Long
Photos by Casey Hilder
Food | December 2015
There is a special holiday magic that envelopes the century-old Banks House decked out in glittering hues of green, red and gold, along with splashes of deep aqua, bright turquoise and colors of almost every hue of the rainbow.
After all, the Banks House is home to the DeSoto Arts Council which houses revolving exhibits of exquisite art painted from the palettes of local artists.
The walls literally come alive with rich, vibrant paintings and photographs, including hand-painted masterpieces of wildlife, blues and gospel artists and still-life photographs.
Another masterpiece looms underneath the sparkling crystal chandelier in the main foyer of the grand house.
It’s the painstaking creation of Lula Whittle of Hernando. Her “masterpiece” is a gingerbread house that claimed the top prize in the recent Gingerbread House Art Contest sponsored by the DeSoto Arts Council. Whittle is somewhat of an expert “builder” and creator of gingerbread houses.
“Back in the 1980s when ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine was holding their contest, I was one of the 250 fifth-place winners nationwide,” said Whittle, a soft-spoken, salt-and-pepper gray-haired woman with radiant eyes and slender fingers that fold neatly into her lap.
Whittle said the special ingredients of constructing a gingerbread house is mostly five parts whimsy and imagination and one part hard work. “Basically, it consists of working the gingerbread dough into a dry mixture and then you add molasses and milk and butter,” Whittle said. “You have to keep working it. Then, there is the Royal icing which is made with meringue powder and confectioner’s sugar and buttercream if you are going to eat it.”
Whittle said she often made gingerbread treats to hand out to co-workers. Her former employer was almost as synonymous with Christmas as the North Pole.
The Memphis State University graduate went to work at one of the world’s largest gift wrap manufactures, Cleo Wrap, which was based in Memphis for decades.
“We made all the wrap that was sold across the nation,” said Whittle, who received a master of Fine Arts degree from Memphis State, now the University of Memphis. “If you got some of the wrap in a store, chances were that you saw one of my designs.”
Whittle’s creations and those of other designers more than likely graced Christmas presents wrapped and placed underneath Christmas trees throughout the world.
Cleo Wrap closed its doors in 2011 and suddenly Whittle found herself without a job.
“Fortunately, my severance was good enough that it took me to that following January when I was at my full retirement age.” Then in October of 2012, Whittle was dealt another blow. “I was diagnosed with colon cancer,” Whittle said, reflecting on that difficult period in her life. “When the company I worked for closed and then I got cancer, that kind of hit me in the face.” Whittle began treatments at West Clinic and began to receive encouragement from friends and family to aggressively fight the disease and be of good cheer.
“I would cry and then smile,” Whittle said.I went through chemo and radiation. It was an everyday thing. As my illness went on, by Thanksgiving, I was not feeling very well. I had surgery in February of 2013 and then following that, I began to feel better. I had done some cross-stitching but I really had not done anything else creatively. When I heard about this gingerbread house contest, it was the spark that helped me get going again. I believe things happen for a reason.” Constructing a gingerbread house is not unlike drawing up plans for a real house, according to Whittle.
“You have to cut out the pattern and then bake your gingerbread. You will have problems, just like with a real house. This part and that part might not fit together. When I was putting together this gingerbread house, I started to throw it away. Then the little bears took over,” Whittle said, describing small hand-crafted bears that represented cancer survivors like herself.
“I wanted to show support for people going through a health problem like cancer,” Whittle said. “Then, I said, ‘I have to finish it.’ The ideas began to come again.”
All in all, there are between 20 and 50 bears — all wearing different colored ribbons — to show support for people who have gone through cancer treatment. One bear doesn’t have a ribbon, and that’s for everyone else. The bear with the dark blue ribbon is for colon cancer, pink is for breast cancer and then there is the lavender ribbon which represents all cancer.” The Gingerbread House was Whittle’s present to herself and the public at large. Her “little house” became an expression of hope and joy. “It got me back into the frame of mind that I wanted to be in,’ Whittle said. “A lot of tears, a lot of prayers and a lot of friends have been a part of that journey.”
Whittle’s gingerbread house and a host of yuletide decorations and creations are now on display at the Banks House, located at 564 West Commerce Street in Hernando.
“Everyone says it’s the best Christmas decorating that we’ve done, ever,” said Margaret Yates, Executive Director of the DeSoto Arts Council. “We have the most incredible volunteers and artists. They showed up to decorate the windows and the doors. We have colorful ribbons running down the fence with candy canes and gingerbread men. Our artists have been working since August on the idea that we would decorate it like a gingerbread house. All of our artwork was homemade. It looks just like a giant gingerbread house but you just can’t eat it.”