Volunteering at the White House for Christmas is a bucket list item for many people, and I have posted on this blog about how to apply and the best way to get accepted at Decorating the White House 2015. I have participated twice, in 2011 and 2015, and to my delight discovered others have applied after reading about my experiences and been accepted.
How to Apply to The White House
Work on the White House decorations starts at least six months in advance by designers at Rafanelli Events and consulting with Michelle Obama via sketches and concepts for each room. During the preceding summer volunteers can apply online from April to August to decorate the White House by going to WhiteHouse.gov. Learning if you make the cut in October, there are about 85 to 90 people across the country selected to take part. Explaining why you want to volunteer in a short essay and sending pictures of your work are requirements on the application.
As a volunteer you do not receive any compensation and you pay your hotel, transportation, and most meal costs for a week after Thanksgiving, so this isn’t an inexpensive proposition. But the experience of working at The White House is exhilarating and so much fun, that everyone is really excited, even if you are just wiring up ornaments and moving boxes!
I have applied every year since 2010, and been accepted twice in that time and each time I decorated has been different. It seems that each year, the decorations get glittzier and more elaborate. But I see many ornaments and props being reused and only ten percent are new this year. Even re-purposed things like the snowmen that sat outside in 2015 are lining the Lower Cross Hall this year.
Since I was not accepted this year, some of my pictures are from Mandy Barkley who worked at The White House last year and did all the mantels this year, and Linda Vodney who was accepted for the first time and decorated the Cross Hall of the White House this year.
For a great article and more pictures of this last Christmas for the Obamas, themed “The Gift of the Holidays”, go to Daily Mail.
The mantel below in the Vermeil Room, which has seven First Lady portraits on the soft yellow walls and features a collection of “vermeil”, which are gilded silver items or “dipped in gold”, glows with pinks and yellows and a ballerina theme. The colors complement the beauty of the Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson portraits that are among the First Lady’s portraits in the room.
Volunteers with a love of decorating are accepted every year, but it helps if you have floral/interior design experience or people-centered work, like volunteering, teaching or nursing. I have worked with lots of people at the White House who were teachers or people in the education field and Gold Star mothers. Regardless, you work with a cross-section of people from all walks of life and all age ranges.
A Little History
Working in the White House which is a “living museum”, is so interesting that you realize the tremendous stories and history of the place. Just glancing around, you are surrounded by hints of what took place in the past. When I spotted the gorgeous full length portrait of Grace Coolidge, I was intrigued and was inspired to find out more about this remarkable woman. The wife of Calvin Coolidge, President from 1923-29, she was voted as one of the 12 most remarkable living women of 1931. One of the most popular hostesses of the White House, she adored her white collies and Rob Roy was the first dog that appeared in an official White House portrait. She even kept a pet raccoon at the White House briefly!
Tragically on June 30, 1924, sixteen-year old Cal, one of Grace’s boys, played tennis on the White House courts, and developed a blister on his toe which became infected. Blood poisoning set in. In a day before antibiotics would have cleared his system of the spreading infection, Cal died at Walter Reed within a week.
Another nugget that I uncovered about Grace, was her famous meeting with Helen Keller and companion Anne Sullivan in a silent newsreel clip. Fascinating stuff from looking at a White House portrait!
Constructed by the White House pastry chef, the gingerbread house is always my favorite decoration. A tradition started in 1969, it seems that each year, it becomes more elaborate and detailed.
The gingerbread house in 2015 was again modeled after the White House and designed by Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison, and made with 250 pounds of gingerbread, 150 pounds of chocolate and another 75 pounds of sugar and gum paste. Covered with dark chocolate, this whopper weighed in at almost 500 pounds! This 2016 season’s house, created also by Pastry Chef Susan Morrison, is made of 150 pounds of gingerbread, 100 pounds of bread dough, 20 pounds of gum paste, 20 pounds of icing, and 20 pounds of sculpted sugar pieces.
This year’s theme, ‘The Gift of the Holidays,’ was chosen to reflect the joy of giving and receiving, along with such gifts as service, friends, family, education and good health. For the official White House tour book for an explanation of each decorated room, go to 2016 White House Tourbook which everyone gets a copy of when touring the White House.
A volunteer reception is held at the conclusion of all your decorating efforts on the last evening and you get a formal invitation from the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Allowed to bring one person with you to see the “big reveal”, which is the culmination of all the decorators hard work in its full glory at night is a huge treat.
Next year I will apply again with the new administration. It will be interesting to see what happens!
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.
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!
The gingerbread house was a masterpiece of 400 pounds of white chocolate made to represent the White House in detail with crazy candy 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.
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.
Blue Room 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.
Arrangement in Progress
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 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.
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.
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.
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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