December 5, 2008

The most beautifully decorated tree in Racine

Emile Mathis and his Christmas tree (Photos by Jason Madson)

For some of us, the toughest decision we make at Christmas is this: a live tree or an artificial one?

But for Emile Mathis, owner of the Mathis Gallery and Frame Shop at 328 South Main St., that decision is easy (artificial, fire retardant, as required by law for retail stores). The hard decision is where to put each of his hand-blown glass ornaments.

He has more than 3,000 ornaments ... a collection that's taken him 50 years to amass.

Now, for the first time, they're all on a tree. Not at home -- "That one will be all family ornaments I remember from my childhood," he says -- but on a 15-ft. tree in his gallery.

"We used to sell ornaments," Mathis said, recalling his former gallery on Center Street. He even met Christopher Radko, the most familiar name in glass ornaments, at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, the year after Radko made his first glass ornaments. "They cost considerably less then than they do now," Mathis said, and were more "traditional, less hokey."

(A quick glance today through eBay finds 3,504 Christopher Radko ornaments for sale -- ranging in price from $399 -- for one! -- down to the more reasonable.)

Mathis bought his big artificial tree five years ago, but never found the time to put it up and decorate it. He fondly remembers back in the '70s, when live trees were still allowed in retail stores, going down to Wes Hansche's house in Mount Pleasant, having coffee and pastry with Wes and his wife, and then picking out a spruce tree for his store. "One of Wes' employees would cut it down and we'd set it up. One year we had a 17-ft. tree, with a spread of about 12-ft. -- it took us three hours to get it through the door!"

Mathis also remembered who decorated that tree, some thirty years ago, an employee named John Nowicki. "He did a spectacular job... and this year I finally got the guts to call him and ask if he'd like to do it again. And he did."

Nowicki spent about 40 hours hanging the ornaments on Mathis' tree ... with some "help" from Mathis. "We had a nice time doing it," Mathis says.

I had to ask: "And how many ornaments dropped and broke during the process?" Mathis laughed ruefully. I never got a number, but he did describe the breaking of "a sorta special ornament, a replica of an Austrian Chapel I bought at a huge ornament shop in Frankenmuth, Michigan, the largest Christmas store in the world (Bronner's Christmas Wonderland). I'll get another one!"

We'd guess that Emile Mathis' tree is the most beautifully decorated in all Racine -- if not all Wisconsin. If anyone would care to nominate another, we'd love to see it.


  1. Good work Emile.

  2. WOW! THAT is one stunning display. I am in awe all the way from Washington State (tiny, Charming Snohomish to be specific). How lovely and generous of you to take the time to assemble something so beautiful. And, so very special! I'll bet every one of those ornaments has a story. I really enjoyed reading this and think Racine sounds like a very special & joyful place. Merry Christmas!

  3. Thanks, Allison and Jackie ... but I have a question for you:

    How did you happen upon our site from way off in Washington State? P.S. Racine IS very special (and doesn't have Seattle's hills.)

  4. Oh, and very nice looking tree. Kudos.

  5. i have know both emile & john for over 30 years & what a perfect st. nicholas day present to wake up this morning to find this story on my computer - it truly is the most beautiful tree and the photos of it are stunning also. thank you so much & happy happy christmas!

  6. W00t! I know John Nowicki, too, and he told me about this the other day, but I haven't made it to Mathis Gallery to look at the tree yet. Btw, John is one of the best watercolor artists in the nation. He's been doing it for decades, turning out stunning work for select clients. I can think of a few other artists in this town, too, who have worked away for years and years w/o the pimping, pretension, and phoniness that surround "THE ARTS" in this town. Pretenders strut around downtown proclaiming, "I'm an artist!" while real artists like John quietly spend hundreds of thousands of hours perfecting their talents and creating masterpieces. Thank you for a beautiful holiday gift to the Racine community, John!

  7. P.S. Some of John's work is on display at Salute Italian Restaurant in downtown Racine.

  8. Beautiful Tree! Will you leave it up all year round? It seems like a shame to ever take something so beautiful down... Merry Christmas.

  9. Hello Emile Mathis. I also am from Washington State, Pt. Ludlow. I am a watercolor painter and am also a Mathis! Would love to see some of your work. Beautiful Christmas Tree. Marti Mathis