Thousands of observers have asked. In fact, it's the first thing they ask when they see Kevin Lynch's magnificently illuminated Christmas house, the undisputed centerpiece of an otherwise nondescript block in the Whitestone area of Queens. Eighteen years after the now-retired New York City firefighter began lighting his home during the holidays, it's a mystery that endures. But here, standing on his front porch on a cold December night, with Christmas carols blaring from the nearby speakers, Kevin Lynch offers to finally answer the question: how much is his electric bill?
"I'll gladly get it and show it to you," Lynch says, grinning mischievously. "But if I get it, you'll have to pay it."
As long as that stipulation is in place, the sum is destined to remain a secret. Fortunately for Lynch, he'll have some help paying it this year. Last week, he won a $50,000 cash prize on the ABC show The Great Christmas Light Fight. His house was judged the best of four finalists from across the country. But the tight construction schedule set by producers left Lynch worried he wouldn't meet his usual standard this year.
"It usually takes me six or seven weeks," Lynch says. "This year, because of the show, they had rulesyou had to decorate in three weeks. So I was out every day from 8 [a.m.] to 1, 2 in the morning decorating." Despite the long hours, and the assistance he received from his wife Tina, his three children, and friends (professional help was forbidden), it's a wonder that Lynch completed the job in time. It's a modest-sized property, but nearly every inch of it is covered with some kind of decoration.
Start with the front yard and the plastic figures. Snowmen, reindeer, and "wooden" soldiers, anywhere from six inches to three feet tall, are particular favorites. The lawn ornaments are placed in such a way as to allow for easy movement through the yard. Lynch says this is crucial to the design. "You're part of the display. Get involved with it," Lynch tells his visitors. "Little kids runnin' around. They'll come up here, take a picture. People use it as their Christmas card. Every year, I get Christmas cards from people I don't even know!"
On both sides of the front steps leading up to the two story home, there are cases filled with stuffed animals and collectible porcelain figures. More dolls and stuffed animals (Looney Tunes characters are out in force) placed in the first floor windows directly above help the cases integrate seamlessly with the house proper. Though some of the figures date back to the 30s and are quite valuable, according to Lynch, the ex-FDNY man wouldn't dream of stashing them away. The figurines are there to be enjoyed.
"(People) can't believe I keep (the figurines) out here, in a box in the rain and the snow. People collect these things in boxes, and keep 'em in the attic. And they say 'Look what I got?' Who cares?"
And then you have the lights. Oh boy, do you have the lights. Hundreds of thousands of them. Red ones, green ones, blue ones. Some of them are patternedthe ones on the roof depict children on a seesaw. But mostly, from the front steps to the roof to the approximately 10-foot tree that sits on the far right side of the property, there are just lights.
The presence of all those lights means that the house can be seen for blocks. It can even be seen from the air, Lynch says. "Two years ago, I had two guys come here. They were pilots. They saw the house as they were landing at LaGuardia. So on their layover, they said they were gonna find this house. And they found the house, and they came here."
What the pilots found was an exquisitely decorated home in pristine condition. But it isn't always that way. Had the pilots arrived at one particular point earlier this season, they would've found a portion of the home unlit, due to rainwater shorting out the circuit. Indeed, the threat of rain keeps Lynch awake at night.
"Rain is my enemy. If one wire gets a nick, and that nick gets gets a drop of water, it shorts out the whole section. I (have) to come out and unplug everything to find out what (the problem is)."
Wind is less of a problem. At a glance, the tiny lawn ornaments would appear particularly susceptible to a stiff breeze. But Lynch says that's not the case. "See, everything is staked down. Other displays you go to, you'll see things blowing over. Not one thing will blow over hereeven Hurricane Sandy didn't blow anything down," the retired fireman says, with no small amount of pride.
[Anthony Gurino's house in Queens.]
Hurricane Sandy served as a badge of honor not just for Kevin Lynch, but for all those in the Christmas decorating game. As the Lynch display proved stronger than the storm, so did the breathtaking Gurino family home, four miles down the road. Their nearly block-long collection of lights and ornaments remained undisturbed last year.
"Everything survived," said Anthony Gurino, whose grandfather, also named Anthony, is the driving force behind this magnificent home. "We had everything on the roof. We survived the winds, everything. That was a big feat."
The Lynches and Gurinos have become friendly neighborhood rivals, though they've never met. Lynch refers people who are interested in looking at other beautiful houses in the neighborhood to the Gurinos.
"For me to say that a house is nice…it's nice," says Lynch, an understandably tough critic.
Three blocks away from Lynch home, the Gurino house sits on a fairly steep hill. If this makes the decoration more difficult, you wouldn't know it from the finished product. According to the younger Anthony, the family decorating tradition has gotten progressively more complex of late.
"It's accumulated over the years, to be honest. It started getting more and more (intense) the past, I would say, six or seven years."
Unlike the Lynch display, where "more" is the sole mandate when it comes to lights, the Gurino approach to lighting is more focused. The Gurinos' go-to color for random lights is light blue. But there aren't many lights in this showcase that aren't contributing to some kind of arrangement. Text is prominent. A red and green sign tells visitors approaching from the bottom of the hill that "Christmas Rocks!" And a modest "Merry Christmas" sign sits in the center of the facade.
The crowning achievement of the Gurino house, though, is the roof. There's more text here that reads "Peace On Earth" in all red. But it's the approximately 15-foot-long train on the right side of the roof that catches the eye. Positioned nearby are Ferris wheels, seesaws, and swingsets.
Not surprisingly, this roof is what gives the family the most trouble. "We try to tackle that first," young Anthony Gurino says, as the chorus of "Here Comes Santa Claus" blares in the background. "We get a lift, and we have people go up there."
Comparatively speaking, the rest of the setup is a piece of cake. The lawn ornaments are much taller than the ones found at the Lynch home, with many appearing to reach six feet. And Santa is out in greater force here. But no single component of the ground display proves more problematic than any other. The hardest part, says young Anthony, is visualizing the labyrinth before construction begins. "I think it's the overall planning of where everything goes every year that becomes difficult. But the actual application of it...I mean, it gets tricky, but you get used to it."
The Gurino setup encourages, and even demands, significant engagement on the property. According to Anthony, his grandfather wouldn't have it any other way. "The people don't bother us. They're pretty thankful. Everybody's pretty respectful. My grandfather takes the risk of having people on the property. But that's okay. We enjoy it."
[A close-up of Lynch's house.]
This "come on in" attitude is embraced by Kevin Lynch as well. One particular design element, which Lynch says is an innovation for a display of this magnitude, makes his setup particularly user-friendly. He buries all of the electrical cords underground, allowing visitors to walk around the front yard without having to worry about tripping.
"I designed it so that people could walk around. Could I put more? Yeah. I could put more on the lawn. I could put a gate around here. But I didn't want it to be a zoo, where you're standing out thereya gotta take a picture from out there."
Lynch, who speaks with a heavy New York accent, is not afraid to tell you that he thinks his house is great. And he's not afraid to tell you that he thinks his house is important. He recalls Christmas 2001, where he, while still in the employ of the FDNY, spent a great deal of time at Ground Zero in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks. That year, he didn't feel up to decorating. But he says that pleas from neighbors, friends, and family caused him to reverse course and put up the lights.
"After 9/11, I'm down at the World Trade Center, workin', workin', workin'. All of a sudden, now it comes time, end of September, to start decorating. And I wasn't gonna do it. But people came up to me and said 'You know, you have to do it. For the community.' There are thousands and thousands of people from all over the world that come here."
"They'll come up here, take a picture. People use it as their Christmas card. Every year, I get Christmas cards from people I don't even know!"Kevin Lynch
The inclination to dismiss this grandiose statement is tempered by a look at the dozen or so people that are gathered here on a Monday night, with Christmas still nearly three weeks away. Lynch says the crowds will grow exponentially as the big day approaches.
It is clear that this is what drives Kevin Lynch. He loves the attention. Loves the crowds. Loves the holiday. Kevin Lynch has a strong case for having the prettiest Christmas house in New York. He has an even stronger case for having the most Christmas house in New York. It embodies the season perfectly in that it is flashy and excessive, but primarily, it is festive and cheerful.
"I'll go out here, have a couple of glasses of homemade wine. Cheer with [people]. Laugh. Take pictures. It's nice."
And as far as Kevin Lynch is concerned, it's worth every penny of that electric bill—whatever it is.
Reporting by Joe DePaolo