A historic Oxford home comes to life for the Christmas season.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Anyone driving by 1003 Jefferson Avenue in Oxford this month will likely see red. And green. And every other color one might associate with the holiday season. No impulsive decision was made about how to decorate the historic Isom Place for Christmas. Rather, a meticulous and well-laid plan had been formulated by phone between two old friends, starting way back in early May 2021.
Sally Malone lives in Oxford and is an owner representative of Isom Place; Chris Williams lives in Austin, Texas, and is a director of training for a major company. Although they live 700 miles apart, they have Pocahontas, Arkansas, in common.
“I moved to Pocahontas to teach before he was born,” said Malone, 70.
Williams, 53, interjected, “Sally taught my older sister Vanessa,” he said. “And I met her when I was in fifth grade. I knew her as a teacher and later as a friend, and now Sally seems more like a sister. Through the years, the age gap seems to have grown smaller and smaller.”
The two talk often, but their phone conversations have increased since Malone called Williams earlier in 2021 to ask a favor.
“She said she wanted Isom Place to feel inviting and warm,” Williams said. “And she asked if I might help her. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Williams and his partner of 18 years, David Watson, visited Oxford several times before the week of decorating to have a clearer vision of what would be needed to decorate the large historic home.
No place in the 11-room house is without some sort of Christmas decor. Even the bathrooms are festive.
On weekends throughout the months leading up to the decorating, Malone and Williams would talk and do inventory to determine what they had and what was needed to turn Isom Place into a holiday house. And in August, Williams came to town and did a complete run-through, inch by inch, of how the project would go.
Williams has been decorating for 33 years, starting when he was in college dressing windows as an extra job. Later he did company displays and house stagings. He also loves landscaping. He and Watson have decorated six Christmas trees in their Austin home. Isom Place has four large ones, along with multiple smaller trees.
Recently, Watson suggested Williams get a hobby. So, Williams started painting. One of his first works was of the exterior of Isom Place decorated for the holidays.
“I painted it like it would look when we finished decorating,” he said.
There is both rhyme and reason for the choices made for the home that is now a venue for events, especially weddings.
The first thing in the house to be dressed was the staircase leading up to the room where brides dress for their special day. A bridal tree adorns the small room atop the stairs, decorated in whites and golds.
Lola Moorehead and Hayden Hopper will celebrate their wedding day at Isom Place on Dec. 12. Moorehead’s wish for Christmas trees at her wedding is granted.
“We wanted to bring old and new into the decorating,” Williams said. “And a touch of Oxford.”
The shout out to the city can be seen on the front lawn, lining the sidewalk. There are six wooden replicas of the iconic British phone booth that has been a fixture outside Oxford’s City Hall since 1995. The phone booths were the brainchild of Malone.
“I had seen a fondant table decoration at the mayor’s inauguration, and I started thinking,” she said. “These were a special part of the project. My idea, but design and proportions were done by Mary M. Smith of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“I built a cardboard prototype, then tried to find a person to transform it into the real deal. Finally, my friend and contractor Patti Stevens Baker rescued me, working so hard to make some thoughts come to life. Thanks to Mary and Patti, it was the start of something big.”
The Isom Place itself is a part of the history of Oxford and of the University of Mississippi. The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in the early- to mid-1830s by Thomas Dudley Isom, a Lafayette County physician, as a smaller cabin with two to three bedrooms. In 1840, the original construction was enhanced, turning it into what is seen today.
Sarah McGehee Isom, the daughter of Isom and his wife, was born in 1850 in the home and would later become the first female faculty member at the university. She lived in the family home until she died in 1905. Other families have owned the house through the years, and in the early 1990s, the Barksdale family restored the home. At that time, Susan Barksdale Howorth operated the house as a bed-and-breakfast. After her death, the Barksdale family gave the house to the university, and it housed the Barksdale Reading Institute for several years in the 2000s. The house then sat empty for several years before it was purchased in 2020 by SRM, LCC Properties based in Arkansas and opened as an events venue. A portion of the second floor of Isom Place houses the offices of Invitation Magazines.
“Over the course of the last year, much work was done on the infrastructure of the house,” Malone said. “A chimney had to be rebuilt, and a sprinkler system had to be installed to meet code. I wanted to make certain every T was crossed and every I dotted because I am interested in safety and in the preservation of the property.”
Isom Place shut down from July 29 to Sept. 5 in order to take care of the things that needed doing. Malone cannot say enough good about her contractor, Brad Grantham.
Just a couple of months later, the holiday decor went up. As friends and community members came to help decorate, Williams encouraged all to just have fun. Malone confessed she was already having some anxiety about taking down all the decorations after the holidays.
“Don’t worry,” Williams said. “I’ll come back and help you. This is just love; it really is. There’s no way you can walk into this lovely house and not feel at home.”