Decorating the White House, 2015-Part 2

Silk ribbon garland inscribed by a calligrapher with messages from military families on the Blue Room tree
Silk ribbon garland inscribed by a calligrapher with messages from military families Blue Room tree

Decorating the White House for over 68,000 guests is a mammoth task. An army of volunteers along with countless White House staff work feverishly to create a magical experience for all visitors. My volunteer assignment this time was the Blue Room which has the largest tree in the White House, topping off at 18 feet and one inch. Volunteers were scattered all over pitching in where needed, clambering up scaffolding and ladders to get every ornament and wreath hung in time. To read about my first time at the White House in 2011, go to Decorating the White House for Christmas . Check out Decorating the White House, 2015-Part 1, if you missed my first post for this year.

A pom pom Bo sitting on the entrance security desk at the White House in 2011
A pom-pom Bo sitting on the entrance security desk at the White House in 2011

Volunteers start working in a warehouse a couple of days in advance of working at the White House where I was assigned to the “bow team.” I can make bows in my sleep and I am always surprised by people when they have trouble with this task. It was a pleasure working with the sumptuous ribbon to create bows and garlands for all the sixty-two trees and assorted mantels in the White House. My team created multi-layered bows and garlands for two straight days before going to the White House to start decorating the rooms. Boxes of wired ornaments and other decorating items were delivered to the White House in hundreds of carefully marked boxes the morning that we started.

The Red Room tree wore a ribbon garland that I worked on at the White House
The Red Room tree wore a ribbon garland that I worked on at the warehouse

 

State floor room locations-Wikipedia
State floor room locations-Wikipedia

East Room

Continuing our tour of the White House, from the ground floor you ascend steps to the main State floor which includes the historic East Room, the largest room of the White House. Greeted by four imposing fir trees covered in frosty icicles, shimmery white and silver ornaments and dancing reindeer, the whole room sparkled. Displayed against one wall is the ornate historic crèche or nativity scene made of terra-cotta and carved wood. Fabricated in Naples in the eighteenth century, the crèche was donated to the White House in the 1960’s.

The beautiful shimmery white and silver ornaments of the East Room
The beautiful shimmery white and silver ornaments of the East Room
Flying reindeer on the East Room's mantel
Flying reindeer on the East Room’s mantel

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Green Room

The Green Room was probably my favorite decorated room (besides the Blue Room which was my team’s job!), because of the peacocks adorning the mantel and trees. Jewel tone ornaments were coordinated with the emerald silk covered walls. A historic meeting between first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart took place in this beautiful room. Teal, emerald-green, and purple colors dominated this room.

Mantel of the green room with peacocks
Mantel of the green room with peacocks
Close up of the mantel's peacocks
Close up of the mantel’s peacocks
Details of the ornaments in the Green Room
Details of the ornaments in the Green Room

Blue Room

I spent several days working in the Blue Room as my assignment and I was “star struck!” Stars were the overall theme in the room-wreaths, tree, and even the stanchions that surrounded the tree had stars. Holding the largest tree, at eighteen feet and one inch tall, the Blue Room tree comes from the famous Bustard’s Christmas Tree Farm in Lehighton, PA, only about a two hour drive from me in Maryland.

The red, white, and blue Christmas tree in the Blue Room
The red, white, and blue Christmas tree in the Blue Room

An oval room, the Blue Room is primarily used by the President to receive many of his guests. Ornamented with a beautiful 6 inch wide silk ribbon overlaid on top of large gold stars, the tree is a shimmering display of red, white, and blue, inspired by the U.S. flag. It took our team a full three days to completely decorate this monster tree, using ladders and scaffolding and lots of patience.

Families of the military were asked to write messages to their loved ones and the messages were beautifully inscribed on a wide silk ribbon that wound around the tree. After Christmas, when the decorations are dismantled, the families will receive the snippet of ribbon with their note.

Messages were inscribed by a calligrapher on the silk garland
Messages inscribed by a calligrapher on the silk garland

I helped design and construct the three star wreaths that hung in the Blue Room windows. Up high on a ladder, I wired the large stars in place and suspended stars from ribbons on the wreaths.

Star wreaths in the blue Room windows
Star wreaths in the Blue Room windows

Red Room

In 2011 when I was part of the team to decorate the Red Room, I really enjoyed the color scheme and rich decorations for this ruby colored room. In 2015, I was interested in how the decorations would change. Cranberries were still used in the wreaths and in topiary trees elsewhere in the room-no surprise there! This year though, different shades of red and gold were interwoven into the tree and mantel and the beautiful striped garland was striking. Magnolia leaves were also a nice addition to the mantel. The cardinals on top of the tree were perfect.

Red Room Mantel
Red Room Mantel
This is the Red Room color scheme in 2011 when I designed it-the mantel had more gold and copper added
This is the Red Room color scheme in 2011 when I designed it-the mantel had more gold and copper

 

Cranberry wreaths in the windows and cardinals on top of the trees in the Red Room
Cranberry wreaths in the windows and cardinals on top of the trees in the Red Room

white house

State Dining Room (Nutcracker Heaven!)

The first Christmas party in the State Dining Room was hosted by President John Adams and his wife in 1800, so like the rest of the White House, there is a lot of history here. Seasonal delights, such as the imposing gingerbread house with Bo and Sunny perched in front, is probably the star attraction. Close to 500 pounds, the gingerbread house has more than 250 pounds of gingerbread dough, 150 pounds of dark chocolate, 25 pounds of gum paste, 25 pounds sugar work, and 25 pounds of icing. I liked the small groupings of snow people on either side and there was a small White House garden to one side.

Nutcrackers flank the door of the dark chocolate gingerbread house
Nutcrackers flank the door of the dark chocolate gingerbread house
Close up of the nutcrackers on the gingerbread house
Close up of the nutcrackers on the gingerbread house
A gathering of snow men outside of the mammoth chocolate gingerbread house
A gathering of snow people made out of gum paste arrayed in front of the chocolate gingerbread house

Nearby, a large gumball machine full of treats is on display along with the many nutcrackers and toys, sure to delight the younger children who visit.

Gumball machine full of treats
Gumball machine full of treats

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Nutcracker tree
Nutcracker tree

white house

A giant nutcracker on the State Dining Room table
A giant nutcracker on the State Dining Room table

Grand Foyer

The Grand Foyer held my favorite designed trees, which flanked the Blue Room. Imposing fir trees arrayed with giant glass balls and stars arranged with a very heavy gold ball garland positively glowed with color. The use of ball garlands used in several areas of the White House created a rich layered look and each one was wired in by hand so that they stayed put.

Grand Foyer trees with giant ornaments in jewel tones
Grand Foyer trees with giant ornaments in jewel tones

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Volunteer Reception

To finish off my week at the White House, all volunteers with one guest received an invitation to a special evening reception with food and entertainment. Tables in the Dining Room and East Room were laden with all kinds of food and drink. The dessert table was especially appealing with iced cookies, sticky pudding with caramel sauce, yule logs, cakes, macaroons and other special treats. Smoked salmon, crab claws, carved roast beef and ham, and the famous mac with cauliflower and cheese were enjoyed by all.

Early in the evening the dessert table was empty but quickly became jam packed
Early in the evening the dessert table was easy to get to but quickly became jam-packed
The sublime egg nog was served by an employee of the White House who has been there since the Kennedy administration
The sublime egg nog was served by an employee of the White House who has been there since the Kennedy administration

white house

A choir serenaded the volunteers
A choir serenaded the volunteers

The First Lady welcomed all the volunteers and graciously thanked everyone for all their efforts in making the White House a magical place.

I met lots of new people, learned some great tips on decorating in a grand manner, and had some of the best food of my life. I will never forget this Christmas!

I loved how these translucent ornaments shone in the dark
I loved how these translucent ornaments shone in the dark

 

Next: How to decorate you own mantel like the White House!

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Decorating the White House, 2015 -Part 1

Floral arrangement in the library
Floral arrangement in the library

Decorating the White House is every designers dream come true. I had a second chance to take part in this one of a kind volunteer event again in 2015! Read about my first time in 2011 at Decorating the White House for Christmas. Anyone can apply by going online to https://www.whitehouse.gov/, filling out the form and add a short essay with pictures of your work and by October you will find out if you made the cut. I’m sure that the White House Social Office gets thousands of applications from all over the country and it must be tough to choose the lucky people.

When I opened the acceptance email from the White House Social Office, I couldn’t believe my luck in participating again!

This season’s theme A Timeless Tradition, inspires visitors to celebrate deeply rooted Christmas traditions while also creating new memories. Combining the old with the new was the trademark this year. From my time working in 2011, the decorations just keep getting more elaborate and over the top with stunning displays of creativity. Sixty-two firs fill the White House with over 70,000 ornaments to create the magic.

Work, Work, and More Work!

It takes tons of volunteer hours to make the magic happen. I spent a week in D.C. starting on Thanksgiving evening in a hotel a couple of blocks away from the White House. Everything is at my expense- hotel, transportation, time, and most meals (the White House fed us very well at lunch). Taking on this task is a real commitment of time and money but well worth it. Everyone who accepts the challenge knows that this is a chance of a lifetime. Getting up early to meet at 6:30 AM every morning isn’t my idea of fun normally, but when you’re on a mission to decorate the White House, everyone is so psyched that you jump out of bed ready to go! Five days of decorating later, the White House treats you and a guest to an evening reception with such a fanfare of food and entertainment that you gasp as you see everything in place.

My daughter and I in front of the Blue Room tree which I helped decorate at the volunteer reception
My daughter and I in front of the Blue Room tree I helped decorate at the volunteer reception

Tour of the White House-Ground Floor

Ground floor of the White House, from Wikipedia
Ground floor of the White House, from Wikipedia

A giant penguin family greets you as you enter the East Visitor Entrance. When you visit the White House, there are layers of security to go through. I had a gorgeous formal invite as a keepsake but did not need that in hand to enter. Standing in line for two plus hours until the gates opened ensured that I was close to the front of the line to get an early peek and take some memorable pictures before it gets too crowded.

Giant penguins greet you at the visitors entrance
Giant penguins greet you at the visitors entrance
Baby penguins perch in a giant sled
Baby penguins perch in a giant sled

DSCN6282

As you enter the East Landing, a sea of snowflakes shimmer overhead. Each of the fifty-six states and territories are represented with a dangling snowflake suspended from chicken wire. Your wintry stroll continues along the whole length of the East Colonnade until you tear your eyes off the ceiling and glance to the left into the East Colonnade garden. There, an army of snow people gaze in at you. I stopped to take pictures of this magical constellation of unique frozen snow people with the traditional smiley faces and scarves.

The East Colonnade is lined with framed photos of all the first families
The East Colonnade is lined with framed photos of all the first families

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Smiling snow people are scattered in the garden
Smiling snow people are scattered in the garden

Again, there are fifty-six snow people representing all the states and territories. The snow people were extremely heavy and awkward to move around in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. Redesigned in the Kennedy Administration with Littleleaf linden trees and Kennedy saucer magnolias bordered by low hedges of boxwood and American Holly, events and parties are frequently held in this semi-formal garden.

Military tree decorated with air mail letters, stuffed with card stock, folded, and stapled to make garlands and wreaths
Military tree decorated with air mail letters, stuffed with card stock, folded, and stapled to make garlands and wreaths

Dedicated to serving members of the military, and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, the East Landing greets you with a gorgeous tree and mailboxes. Visitors are invited to pause and send a message of thanks to our troops with the array of mailboxes and air mail envelopes. Volunteers spent many hours making garlands and wreaths out of the airmail envelopes by stuffing them with card stock and stapling them together.

Garlands made out of air mail envelopes
Garlands made of air mail envelopes

DSCN6295 DSCN6537

East Garden Room

A place for the furry residents is next. Sunny and Bo, the First Pets, are both Portuguese Water dogs. I pet and admired the dogs during my time at the White House. The dog-themed tree, giant dog bed, tennis ball wreaths and trees were the perfect accessories for them. Constructed of over 55,000 feet of black yarn that was wound into 7,000 pom-poms, larger-than-life Sunny and Bo greeted visitors to the White House. These pom-poms were the result of many hours of work by volunteers!

Dog area had tennis ball trees
Dog area had tennis ball trees

dog

The Night Before Christmas poem hung on the wall, altered to reflect the antics of the First Dogs.

Twas the holiday season inside of these walls, 

And the first Dogs were prancing, playing fetch down the halls.

The First Lady was bustling with holiday cheer, 

Decorating for visitors soon to be here.

Bo and Sunny were snuggled quite deep in their beds, 

While visions of tennis balls danced in their heads. 

So sleepy were these Portuguese Water Dogs, 

The pups fell asleep much like the giant yule logs.

When out on the South Lawn there arose such a clatter, 

They ran to the West Wing to see what was the matter

through the West Colonnade they both flew like a flash,

Pushed open the doors, to the Rose Garden they dashed.

They barked the alarm, but to their relief,

‘Twas the return of the Commander in Chief.

Up high in the sky they saw Marine One, 

They knew what this meant-a night of great fun.

With a gleam in his eye, POTUS greeted his pets, 

Knowing holidays with friends is good as it gets.

The First Lady joined them as they gazed at the snow,

What a magical moment for Sunny and Bo.

To all the guests who are headed this way,

The family sends warms wishes for the best holiday!

Library

Containing works of fiction to first-hand accounts of important moments in our Nation’s history, books dominate the library’s walls. Gold covered books were added to the shelves to add a holiday touch and decorations placed on the tables to make the library a festive place. A holiday forest of Christmas trees were arrayed and decorated to celebrate the American story.

Scenes from the library
Scenes from the library

Vermeil Room

Displaying a collection of gold-plated silver, the Vermeil Room or sometimes known as the Gold Room, displays several First Lady portraits and contained one of the most striking Christmas displays. Patchwork stuffed teddy bears, both large and small, with beautiful shell trees and miniature scenes were whimsical and creative. Originally, the Vermeil Room was used as a staff work room for polishing silver and storage.

There are lots of mantels in the White House to decorate and this is one of the most charming interpretations with patchwork teddy bears
There are lots of mantels in the White House to decorate and this is one of the most charming interpretations with patchwork teddy bears
Heaps of wrapped packages decorate the hearth
Heaps of wrapped packages decorate the hearth

White House

 

White House

China Room

Used to display Presidential china in built-in cabinetry against a bright red background, the China Room is one of the most beautiful and memorable rooms in the house – without any decorations. The china collection is arranged chronologically beginning to the right of the fireplace on the east wall.  A good portion of the china goes back to the early nineteenth century.

The China Room has one of my favorite portraits at the White House; This one is of First Lady Grace Coolidge with her beloved white collie Rob Roy
The China Room has one of my favorite portraits at the White House; This one is of First Lady Grace Coolidge with her beloved white collie Rob Roy painted in 1924
The China Room's dramatic mantel trimmed in silver
The China Room’s dramatic English neoclassical mantel trimmed in silver

 

Diplomatic Reception Room

The Diplomatic Reception Room is one of three oval rooms in the White House and located next to the China Room. Used as a reception room for foreign ambassadors, the most interesting feature is that a previously unused chimney was opened up in 1935, and a new mantel and fireplace installed for Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats.” The room has four doors leading to the Map Room, the Center Hall, the China Room, and a vestibule that leads to the South Lawn.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had the room papered with antique French scenic wallpaper produced by Jean Zuber et Cie in Rixheim (Alsace), France c. 1834. The Zuber wallpaper, titled Scenes of North America, was printed from multiple woodblocks, and features scenes of Boston Harbor, the Natural Bridge in Virginia, West Point, New York, Niagara Falls, and New York Harbor. The sweeping panorama on the elliptical walls provide a sense of space negating the lack of windows.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had the room papered with antique French scenic wallpaper produced by Jean Zuber et Cie in Rixheim (Alsace), France c. 1834. The Zuber wallpaper, titled Scenes of North America, was printed from multiple woodblocks, and features scenes of Boston Harbor, the Natural Bridge in Virginia, West Point, New York, Niagara Falls, and New York Harbor. The sweeping panorama on the elliptical walls provide a sense of space negating the lack of windows. From wikipedia
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Here I am with my daughter who was my guest for the party in the Diplomatic Reception Room
Details of the mantel decorations in the Diplomat Room
Details of the mantel decorations in the Diplomat Reception Room
Details of the ornaments used
Details of the ornaments used in the Diplomatic Reception Room
When you enter the center hall in the lower level of the White House, the atmosphere is magical with all the hanging silver bells
When you enter the center hall in the lower level of the White House, the atmosphere is magical with all the hanging silver bells arranged on the historic vaulted ceiling
I took this photo of a framed picture of Obama entering the central hall of a past Christmas
I took this photo of a framed picture hanging the the White House of President Obama entering the central hall a past Christmas

white house

Next up: Entering the historic upper level of the White House -East Room, Dining Room, Red Room, Green Room, and Blue Room and the volunteer reception with the incredible gingerbread house

 

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Christmas at the White House-Part 2

A Bo in Every Room!

Decorating at the White House
Decorating at the White House

While working at the White House, we were very excited to see Bo, the presidential dog, run through the hallway one morning.  He was leashed up to go for a walk and we were delighted to see the most famous dog acting like a normal dog, prancing and ready to run!

So of course Bo is depicted in many materials throughout the house.  There is one in nearly every room and it is fun to try and find them all – both for kids and adults. The library has the largest rendition where Bo is made of black and white recycled trash bags.  I call him ‘Trash Bo’! There is one perched outside the beautiful gingerbread house in the state dining room made out of liquorice, also one from buttons, and one from pom-poms out of spun wool.

Mr Liquorice

But I guarantee that no one will find the one in the East Room.  This is the largest room of the White House located on the first floor.  I worked there for two 12 hour days decorating. Sitting on the floor, I hot glued dozens of itty, bitty, pine cone scales onto a resin base replica of Bo for 3 hours straight.  Then he was sharpied in black ink and placed in a moss garden under a window.  He is only 3 inches high so I doubt that anyone will find him!

Pine Cone Bo

The gingerbread house was a masterpiece of 400 pounds of white chocolate made to represent the White House in detail with crazy candy trees.

Gingerbread House with Trees

The East Room

I headed to the East Room the next day which is the largest room on the first floor of the White House.  There were 4 very large fresh trees set up to be decorated that already had hundreds of tiny white lights.

Our task was to place hundreds of feet of chartreuse green cedar garland around the trees with out toppling the trees. The garland was extremely heavy and had to be laid carefully on the branches and wired in. Then, thousands of 2 to 3 inch high real rock crystals were dangled all over the trees to give them a shimmery effect.

I also climbed ladders and scaffolding to add magnolia leaves, white pine, and cedar to the garlands that were draped over all the mirrors. It is scary to climb up on those shaky structures! We were always losing a ladder when we left it for a few minutes and someone came in and grabbed it.  Ladders were at a premium.

Mirro Garlands in East Room

Rock Crystals on East Room Trees

I started on the moss gardens at the base of the windows when the room designer asked for someone with gardening experience. Hello!!! Waterproofed bases that were made ahead of time to fit into the embrasures of the four windows were set in place and we started filling them with soil and ‘mood’ moss which is simply mounding moss to give dimension. I quickly filled them up and started to mold the moss into hills and valleys to give the gardens a three dimensional look.  Then boulders were artistically added and made to look part of the landscape by sinking them into the moss. Next we planted paperwhite bulbs, White Hellebores, and some blooming paperwhites.  With all the bulbs at different stages of bloom, there should be a succession of fragrant flowers for weeks to come. These winter gardens were natural and fresh for the winter season when you need to see something growing, and I will definitely try to duplicate this at home.

Shine, Give, Share

The theme of Shine, Give, Share was used to honor all military families and to pay tribute to our troops.  There were present  ‘American Gold Star Mothers’ who are mothers who have lost a son or daughter in the service of our country.  The official White House tree was located in the Blue Room and was covered with purple hearts, military ribbon wreaths, medals, and patches from all the military branches. The ‘Gold Star’ tree was located on the East Landing and had memorials from servicemen and women who have died in service. I talked to two of the Gold Star mothers.  One had a small picture of her son around her neck and came all the way from Kansas to work on the tree.

Gold Star Tree

Blue Room Tree

Gold Star Tree

White House Basement

The last day we were working we were led downstairs into the basement to visit the White House gift shop which is actually a closet.  It was stuffed with merchandise with the Executive Seal imprinted on it and I picked up a few shirts, jackets, and an apron.  I was fascinated when one of the guards pointed out to us that the lintel over the door to the basement showed burn marks and bullet holes that were still there from the war of 1812, when the White House burned down.  That is certainly a piece of history that not many people see.

Basement Opening with Burn Marks

All the utilitarian offices are located in the basement, such as the carpentry shop, the groundskeeper’s office, the florist shop, cold storage, housekeeping office, and the laundry.  I never found the famed bowling alley! But I was interested in the florist shop where the florists come up with their beautiful designs and they magically appear upstairs. I was even interested in their piles of beautiful containers and supplies.

Arrangements to Go Upstairs
Florist Shop at White House
Arrangement in Progress
Floral Containers

 State Dining Room 

I kept peeking into the State Dining Room as the decorating progressed and this ended up being my favorite and most beautiful room.  The ornament combinations were breath-taking in the texture and colors.  Jim Marvin led the team for this room and he designed a lot of the ornaments that we used at the White House. The trees were adorned with a collar of beaded fruit in vibrant colors.  The garlands over the door and mantel repeated the theme.

State Dining Room Mantel
State Dining Room Tree

 The colors of the State Dining Room were rich and wonderful. The beaded fruit was wired with bay leaves and seeded eucalyptus to give a natural but lush sophisticated look.

The ribbon used everywhere in the White House was extraordinary.  I think that the quantity and quality of the ribbon really added to the look, but I shudder to think of how much all that ribbon cost. But we weren’t focusing on the cost, only how to get the most dramatic and striking effect with it.

Ribbon in the Red Room

 Opening Reception 

The most anticipated evening of my life was here!  Here, all the hard work and planning that went into this endeavor was revealed. All the volunteers with guests started to line up on the street at the southeast entrance to the White House in a chilly wind in their best holiday finery.  We progressed through the security checks slowly, anxious to start the reception.  The White House staff had cleaned and made everything spic and span for the onslaught of visitors.  We were greeted by a school choir and a five piece military band playing Christmas music.

Carolers in the East Wing

I was already anticipating excellent food from my experience the previous several days, but the reception cuisine was extra special.   There were raw oysters, a carving station, petite multi-colored potatoes, smoked salmon, shrimp, and crab claws.  I just took a bite of each.  Decadent desserts prevailed; there were even iced cookies in the shape of Bo, as well as honeybees.

We were all expecting Michelle Obama to appear as there was a podium set up and people started to gather in anticipation.  Mrs. Obama descended from the residential floor and, since I am too short to see anything, I relied on my taller husband.  All I could see was everyone’s cameras held aloft with her image. But my husband somehow got in front and shook her hand along with many others.

Before we knew it, it was time to go.  The White House staff doesn’t just throw you out though.  They go room by room and shut the doors so no one can go back in and the people already in there just trickle out.  It is done very unobtrusively, so you really don’t feel rushed, but people gradually meander out.

Bo in Library

Decorating the White House was huge fun for me.  Surprisingly, when I asked other volunteers if they would apply next year, most reponded that one year was enough.  They remarked about the expense, the time, and the hard work involved, and thought that would be it.  But I am already thinking about next year!

Copyright Claire Jones 2011

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China Room