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Victorian antiques window to Christmas past

In his many years as curator of the Vander-Ende Onderdonk House in Ridgewood, Richard Asbell has worked to bring the past to the people of today. With his latest exhibit at the house, “Victorian Christmas,” Asbell is doing it with his own collection.

“It’s a lovely exhibit, it’s really a very pretty exhibit,” Asbell said.

The new exhibit at the Onderdonk House, at 18-20 Flushing Ave., features about 28 holiday pieces, most of which are from Asbell’s private collection of antiques, which he has been collecting for years. The exhibit began Dec. 5 and will be on display until the end of January.

Asbell, who is 70, is a former singer at the New York City Opera, and said his passion for antiques began back then. The first item he ever bought was a Victorian chair at a secondhand shop on Third Avenue in Manhattan, which he still owns.

“Every time I left the stage I’d run for the nearest antique shop,” Asbell said.

Many of the items in the exhibit include toys from the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as trains that belonged to Asbell’s father and a cast iron fire truck that belonged to his grandfather. Asbell also has two dolls designed by German doll company Armand Marseille, which he said have been a favorite with adults that visit the Onderdonk House.

“They’re fully antique,” Asbell said of the dolls. “They have French glass eyes, paperweight eyes.”

The Victorian Christmas exhibit also features many holiday items, including Santa dolls, a display explaining the history of St. Nicholas and a Nativity scene. The Christmas tree in the Victorian room is decorated with many antique Christmas ornaments. The exhibit also includes a 19th-century sleigh found in a Ridgewood house that was about to be destroyed and was donated to the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society.

“It’s just a lovely old sleigh, it’s just terribly old,” Asbell said.

The Onderdonk House, which is landmarked on the state and national levels, was built by Dutch farmers in 1709. Asbell said he first became the curator of the Onderdonk House 14 years ago. He left for four years for another position, but returned two years later and has been curator ever since. The house, operated by the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society, is currently raising money to repair its roof.

In the past, the house has held exhibits on whale oil and the Boy Scouts. In the future, it plans one on schools.

Asbell said he enjoys sharing his collection with members of the community.

“I just love to be down there because they have such interesting questions for me,” Asbell said. “It really just makes my brain start reeling a little bit.”

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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