A Danish Christmas at the Petersen House in Tempe, Arizona

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(Last Updated On: December 2, 2019)

Every winter the historic Niels Petersen House in Tempe, Arizona, is adorned with Danish Christmas decorations and opened to the public. Now that the tree is decorated and the table set for a feast, it’s time to celebrate the holiday season while learning a bit about Tempe’s past.

red brick Queen Anne style Victorian house

Danish culture probably isn’t the first things that comes to mind when you visit Phoenix. However, one of Tempe’s founders was a Danish immigrant who became a prominent and wealthy farmer, businessman, and civic leader.

Now a house museum, the 1892 home of Niels Petersen preserves a bit of Tempe’s early history. And, at Christmas, it is filled with festive Danish Christmas decorations that reflect Petersen’s immigrant past.

  • A Danish immigrant in Arizona
  • History of the historic Queen Anne ranch house
  • A Christmas visit to the Petersen House
  • Plan your visit

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A Danish immigrant lives the American dream in Arizona

Arizona may seem like an odd place for a Danish immigrant to land. But Niels Petersen lived the American dream as rancher, businessman, and community leader in the Salt River Valley near Phoenix.

The life of a Queen Anne ranch house

In 1892 Petersen hired Arizona architect James Miller Creighton to design and build a home suitable for an eastern woman who was marrying a man of his wealth and social status.

Christmas at the Petersen House

In designing Petersen’s home, Creighton created a house that showed his client was a successful, forward-looking leader.

In choosing to design a Queen Anne Victorian, Creighton used the most popular residential style in America at the time. Queen Anne style homes were all the rage everywhere and building one showed good taste. But beyond being stylish, the Petersen House was constructed with modern materials. These included fanciful metal roof trim (now long gone) and newly available commercially-produced brick in place of handmade adobe bricks.

It was a large, beautiful house worthy of a man of Niels Petersen’s stature and wealth and built in a style that would be comfortable for Mrs. Petersen.

Local newspapers described it as the most elegant home in the Salt River Valley.

Exterior of a brick Queen Anne style house

Typical of Queen Anne homes, the Petersen house has multiple gables, dormers, chimneys, and balconies. Most of these are ornamental. However, carefully aligned windows, gables, and dormers help ensure cool breezes flow through the house. In addition, the home’s brick exterior and high interior ceilings helped keep it cool during the Arizona summer.

The house also features decorative shingles and a wrap-around porch. The original exterior decoration once included metal trim on the roof and additional trim along the porch

The kitchen and an enclosed porch are in a one-story wing along one side of the house. Decker’s two-story wood frame addition is on the other side.

Inside the Petersen house

While serving as the base for Petersen’s large agricultural operation, the house was likely also a gathering place for Tempe’s leaders. As such, it would have been furnished and decorated in fine style.

Today the home’s 13 rooms are decorated to reflect two periods in its history:

  • The main floor looks as it might have during the 1930s after the Petersen’s nephew, Reverend Decker and his wife, updated and expanded the house.
  • The upstairs reflects the Victorian period when Niels and Susanna Petersen lived there.

Inside, the house feels cozy without feeling small. Formal rooms open into each other through wide archways or double sliding doors. That makes the house’s many rooms feel larger and more open than they are. However, it still feels modest; not at all like a 6,000 square foot house!

The main floor has a foyer, study, parlor, dining room, bedroom, bathroom, enclosed breezeway, and kitchen.

living room or parlor with fireplace and Christmas tree with Danish decorations

Today, this part of the house is furnished and decorated much as it would have been during the 1930s when Susanna Petersen’s nephew, the Reverend Edwin Decker lived here with his wife.

For the holidays, Christmas trees take pride of place, the table is set with the finest china, and the pantry is well-stocked.

 

From the main floor, a beautiful narrow stairway leads to three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a sitting room on the second floor.

Victorian bedroom

While none of the furnishings apparently belonged to either the Petersens or Deckers, the house provides a sense of life in years past. And, while Tempe is no longer a dusty farm town of 1000 people, the house itself is still very much the building Niels Petersen had built for his new bride in 1892.

An old-fashioned Danish-American Christmas

Usually the Petersen House can only be seen as part of a pre-arranged group tour. However, each December the Tempe History Museum dresses the house up for Christmas and opens the doors to the public.

The Petersens held Christmas parties in their home. How they decorated and what sort of foods they served is unknown. However, as a center of the Danish community, it seems likely that Niels Petersen would have ensured there were at least a few Danish decorations and treats on hand to remind other immigrants of the home they left behind.

In that spirit, the History Museum uses Danish and other Scandinavian Christmas decorations throughout the house.

That includes festive Danish decorations on the Christmas tree.

straw and paper Christmas decorations on a tree

And a guest bedroom is filled with Danish nisse, a type of gnome or elf associated with the winter solstice and Christmas.

bedroom with Danish nisse (gnomes)

(Besides being a popular guardian figure from ancient folklore, Nisse is also apparently a nickname for Niels. That makes it a particularly apt decoration for the Petersen museum!)

No room in the house is left undecorated. Even the bathroom is ready for the holidays!

blue and white bathroom with Christmas decorations

There are even Danish Christmas cookies for guests. (Or, at least, there were cookies available in 2018.) However, while the dining room table is set for a Christmas feast, visitors must eat their Christmas cookies outside. But be sure to try one before you leave, as they are delicious.

Unexpected personal connections

I ended up at the Petersen house museum during an unusual December trip to Phoenix.

Having never before been to Phoenix at this time of year, I was searching for Christmassy things to do. At the same time, I was also searching for things that would interest my mother – the daughter of Danish immigrants who has now spent more than 30 winters in the Phoenix area. Surprisingly, in all those years she had never heard of the Petersen House. So, with the promise of Danish Christmas decorations and a Danish Christmas market, we decided to visit.

More surprises awaited once we arrived.

The Petersen House is about connections

For me, the Petersen House was an unexpected portal to another time and place: A time when Tempe was a dusty farm town surrounded by fields where a hard-working Danish immigrant made the American dream come true. It’s a story of a specific person, place, and time. But it’s also the story of immigrants across America.

At the same time, the Petersen House was rich with connections to the world today and back to my ancestors.

Sometimes it’s hard to see a place as anything other than what it is today. Christmas at the Petersen House is an opportunity to step into the past and consider both our relationship our history and how it shaped the world we know today.

Plan your visit to the Petersen House

The historic Petersen House Museum is owned by the city of Tempe, Arizona, and operated by the Tempe History Museum. The house is located southeast of Phoenix, just northeast of the Interstate 10/Highway 60 interchange.

Generally, the house can only be visited as part of a pre-arranged group tour. Tours are available for groups of 10 or more between October and May. A small fee is charged for each participant.

However, during December, the Petersen House is opened to the public free of charge every Saturday and Sunday up until Christmas. During this time the house features Christmas decorations with a Danish flair. Danish refreshments, a small market with Christmas ornaments and gifts, and a variety of activities were also available on the grounds when I visited in December 2019.

The Petersen House is the oldest Queen Anne brick house in the Salt River Valley and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Exhibits inside tell the story of Tempe’s founding and Niels Petersen’s role in that history. The house has been restored, furnished, and decorated to reflect how it may have looked during the Victorian period (when Petersen lived there) and the 1930s.

The Tempe History Museum also operates a full-scale museum about the region’s history. That museum is located a little farther to the east of the Petersen House. It features exhibits built around four themes: College Town, Building Our Community, Living Together, and Surviving in the Desert. It also offers temporary exhibits on a variety of themes.

Visiting Tempe

Tempe is part of the vast Phoenix metropolitan area. As such, it’s easy enough to visit the Petersen House from almost anywhere in the area.

However, Tempe itself has a lot to offer as a destination.

That’s especially true for urbanites seeking a lively nightlife with lots of bars and restaurants. It’s a youthful, energetic city filled with art, college events, and sports. But there’s something for everyone.

Resources and further information

To learn more about Niels Petersen and his house:

Straw Christmas ornament with text " The Petersen House: A Danish Christmas in Tempe Arizona"Discover other historic buildings in “Historic buildings in Tempe you need to see” on azcentral.com

Read a Brief History or Tempe on the city’s website.

Learn about other Danish settlers in the book Early Danish Pioneers: Southern Arizona Territorial Days, by Avis Evelyn Knudsen Jorgenson. You can get it at Amazon or other booksellers.

Exploring Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun

red brick Queen Anne-style Victorian house with text "A Danish Pioneer Story: The Petersen House Tempe Arizona"
Christmas table with text " The Petersen House: A Danish Christmas in Tempe Arizona"
Straw Christmas ornament with text " The Petersen House: A Danish Christmas in Tempe Arizona"
Straw Christmas ornament with text " The Petersen House: A Danish Christmas in Tempe Arizona"

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