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Geneva History Center display a window to holidays past

A passerby admires dolls window. The GenevHistory Center Museum Genevhas 6 animated motorized doll-making figurines thgraced window Merra-Lee Shops 1960's

A passerby admires the dolls in the window. The Geneva History Center Museum in Geneva has 6 animated motorized doll-making figurines that graced the window of the Merra-Lee Shops in the 1960's and 70's on display in their windows on Tuesday, December 4, 2012. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Geneva rings in season Friday

With fresh lighted wreaths adorning the city’s streets and strolling carolers providing Christmas tunes, Geneva will ring in the holiday season at 6 p.m. Friday with the annual tree-lighting on the front lawn of the Old Kane County Courthouse.

There will be a multitude of other attractions, from candy cane-making to horse-drawn carriage rides, and of course, shopping.

“This festivity has been a part of Geneva’s tradition for more than 40 years,” said Laura Rush, communications coordinator for the Geneva Chamber of Commerce.

Santa Lucia, the Swedish symbol of the season, will arrive offering a traditional Swedish “wish” cookie to the gathered crowd. Once Santa Claus arrives on the scene drawing attention with his “ho, ho, ho,” Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns will ask the crowd to join in on counting down to illuminate the tree in front of the courthouse on South Third Street.

Santa will open up his Gingerbread House at the corner of James and South Third streets to hear the wishes of area children until 9:30 p.m. Third Street shops, already dressed in their holiday finery, will be open late Friday night.

The youth of Geneva Lutheran Church will present a living nativity from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. during Friday’s festivities. The 30-minute tableau-style scenes will run through three settings at 6:30, 7:15 and 8 p.m. Costumed young actors will be accompanied by live animals, background music and props on the front lawn of the church at Third and Franklin streets. Admission is free, and church members will provide free cookies and hot cocoa. Donations of canned food and cash will be accepted for a local charity.

St. Mark’s Church at Fourth and Franklin streets will present “Carols by Candlelight” from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

Geneva’s annual House Tour, featuring five homes, will be held on Friday and Saturday.

— Linda Girardi

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Updated: January 7, 2013 6:41AM

GENEVA — The elaborately detailed animated doll-makers on display in the window of the Geneva History Center just cry out “Nostalgia.”

The 18-inch-tall figures once were displayed during the holidays in the windows of major department stores in Chicago, and eventually found a home in the windows of the Merra-Lee Shop at the corner of State and South Third streets in downtown Geneva.

They were designed and produced by the Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company, founded in 1901 in Chicago by George Silvestri, a lawyer who left his practice to pursue his passion.

The company was known for creating holiday department store window displays for Marshall Field & Co., Wieboldts, Goldblatts and Carson Pirie Scott.

Terry Emma, executive director of the Geneva History Center, said she remembers seeing them as a young girl growing up in Geneva.

“There was one in each of the Merra-Lee windows and it felt like you were at the stores in downtown Chicago,” she said.

The late Sol Simon, a founding partner of the original five clothier stores that made up the Merra-Lee Shops in 1929, purchased the window art in the 1950s from the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

Emma said the Geneva History Center, at 113 S. Third St., acquired the figures and all of the accessories when the Merra-Lee Shops closed in January 2012 after 82 years of business.

Sol Simon’s son, Mike Simon, owner of The Little Traveler store at 404 S. Third St., invited Emma and the museum’s curator Jessica McTague to peruse the basements of the Merra-Lee Shops for items that might be of historical significance.

“I remember my dad say he wanted something that would stop children in their tracks because when the children stop their mothers will, too,” Simon said.

Simon said the handmade figures were refurbished about 7 years ago.

He said that while animated figures can be found in all the big box stores, none have the detail and character of these.

“In this day and age when everything is so high tech and electronic, finding something that takes you back to an earlier era where you appreciate the detail, beauty and simplicity is very special,” Simon said.

Simon, who serves on the museum’s board of directors, said they are on “indefinite loan” to the Geneva museum.

“If they can use them, we are happy for them to have a home,” he said.

Emma said collection mechanical doll shop figures have yarn for hair, painted facial expressions, and all of their doll shop accessories. Some figures were made as angels with wings.

One arm of each moves as though they are carving or hammering the wooden pieces of a doll together, while another set of dolls are sewing the doll clothes and a foot is tapping at a 1900s-era sewing machine.

Emma said the motor for an eighth figure actually needs work to make it operate again, and there is one other that sounds as though it is in need of attention — but otherwise, they are working perfectly.

“They said the display ran on a timer at night because they were too noisy to run during the day,” she said.

Because of the age of the pieces, the museum is running the holiday display sporadically throughout the day or on request.

Emma said the museum will run the dolls Friday night during Geneva’s annual Christmas Walk celebration.

Although there is an inscription on the labels, Emma said they have no idea where their original home was for the window art.

“We just find them very charming. We thought it would be fun this holiday to honor Merra-Lee and have some fun with some of the things from our collection,’ Emma said.

Emma is hoping Geneva residents who have an early photograph or a memory of seeing the dolls on display will post it on the Geneva History Center Facebook page.

“They have gotten a lot of attention from people just walking by,” she said.

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