Decorating the White House- Past and Present

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I decorated the Blue Room Christmas tree in 2015; the garland had messages  inscribed to members of the armed forces from their family
The Blue Room tree had sayings from the Constitution on the garland, picture from Linda Foley Vodney
The Blue Room tree in 2016 had a “We The People” theme on the garland, picture from Linda Vodney

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.

Mandy Barkley did all the mantels of the White House this year
Mandy Barkley did all the mantels of the White House this year, picture from Mandy Barkley
Linda Foley Vodney was accepted after reading how to apply from my blog
Linda Vodney was accepted in 2016 after reading how to apply from my blog, picture from Linda Vodney
Gold and silver tree in Cross Hall, picture Linda Foley Vodney
Gold/silver tree in Cross Hall 2016, picture Linda Vodney

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.

Waiting in line with other volunteers for the reception
Waiting in line with other volunteers for the reception in 2015
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I am posing on the left with other volunteers in 2015

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!

Michelle Obama greets and thanks all the volunteers at the volunteer recepetion
Michelle Obama greets and thanks all the volunteers at the volunteer reception in 2016, picture from Linda Vodney

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.

Snowmen that were placed in the Kennedy Garden outside are inside this year
Snowmen that were placed in the Kennedy Garden in 2015 outside are inside this year

Green Room mantel done by Mandy Barkley, picture by Mandy Barkley
Green Room mantel done by Mandy Barkley in 2016, picture by Mandy Barkley

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.

Cross Hall tree
Cross Hall tree 2016, picture from Linda Vodney
Cross Hall tree in 2015
Cross Hall tree in 2015

For a great article and more pictures of this last Christmas for the Obamas, themed “The Gift of the Holidays”, go to Daily Mail.

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Vermeil Room in 2011

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.

The Vermeil Room with Lady Bird Johnson portrait was decorated with a teddy bear theme in 2015
The Vermeil Room with Lady Bird Johnson portrait was decorated with a teddy bear theme in 2015

 

A mantel decorated by Mandy Barker in the Vermeil Room
A mantel decorated by Mandy Barker in the Vermeil Room in 2016, picture from Mandy Barkley
Close up of the mantle of the Vermeil room
Close up of the mantel of the Vermeil room in 2016, picture from Mandy Barkley

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.

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The Gold Star tree was hung with mementos in 2011
 I was in charge of a team that made these cedar gold stars that hung in the East Wing in 2011

I was in charge of a team that made a dozen cedar gold stars that hung in the East Wing in 2011

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!

Grace Coolidge with her beloved white collie, Rob Roy
Grace Coolidge with her beloved white collie, Rob Roy in the China Room painted by the famous illustrator of the era, Howard Chandler Christy

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!

Gingerbread House

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.

Gingerbread house 2016, picture from Linda Foley Vodney
Gingerbread house 2016, picture from Linda Vodney

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.

Gingerbread house in 2015
Gingerbread house in 2015
Detail of the gum paste nutcracker on gingerbread house
Detail of the gum paste nutcracker on gingerbread house

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.

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I decorated the Red Room in 2011
Closeup of the Rded Room mantel in 2016 done by Mandy Barkley
Closeup of the Red Room mantel in 2016 done by Mandy Barkley, picture by Mandy Barkley
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East Room mantel decorated with a giant ferris wheel in 2016, picture by Mandy Barkley
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East Room mantel decorated in 2015 with reindeer
I help create these gardens in the East Room that had moss, hellebores, and boulders
I help create these gardens in the East Room that had moss, white hellebores, and boulders in 2011
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A pom pom Bo greeted people as they entered the East Wing in 2011
This Bo in 2011 was made out of trash bags!
Bo in the Library in 2011 was made out of trash bags!
Lego houses decorated the trees in the Dining Room
Gingerbread houses decorated the trees in the Dining Room representing the 50 states and 6 territories in 2016, picture by Linda Vodney

Volunteer Reception

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Giant nutcracker at the volunteer reception in 2016, picture by Linda Vodney
Myself and my daughter at the White House reception in 2015
Myself and my daughter at the White House reception in 2015

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.

Invitation to the volunteer reception
Invitation to the volunteer reception
the volunteer reception in 2015
Volunteer reception in 2015
The variety of iced cookies is staggering!
The variety of iced cookies is staggering!
Cheese tray at reception in 2015
Cheese tray at reception in 2015
I am in front of the Blue Room tree with my daughter which took 3 days to decorate in 2015
I am in front of the Blue Room tree with my daughter which took 3 days to decorate in 2015
The East Colonnade was decorated with snowflakes from all 5o states and 6 Pretecorates
The East Colonnade in 2015 was decorated with snowflakes from all 50 states and 6 territories to create a winter wonderland
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Group picture of all the volunteers in 2015

Next year I will apply again with the new administration. It will be interesting to see what happens!

2015 In Review

Outdoor Fairy Garden
Outdoor Fairy Garden

What Are Gardeners Reading?

I am always interested in what my readers are reading and using from my blog and sometimes I’m surprised. Blogging for four years means I have gotten a little better about what people are clicking on and what gets the gardening juices flowing. Looking at my archives and statistics, I see a variety of topics that are capturing people’s interests. Perennial(!) or evergreen blogs that capture readers interest turn up again and again and  I re-blog them with better photos and updated writing. Maybe I need to write a book using one of these topics!

Comments

Pink Zazzle Gomphrena
Pink Zazzle Gomphrena

The Garden Diaries blog was viewed over 110,000 times in 2015 with 58 posts and I have regular thoughtful comments from people. Thanks for all those comments! Keep them coming. Feedback and questions are welcome and help me become a better writer. Readers from over 166 countries read my blog. That just blows my mind! My most commented post was Plant Geek Alert-Pink Zazzle Gomphrena. Lots of interest in this plant and I continue to grow and love it.

Controversial

My most controversial blog was on Butterfly Bushes-Should you plant these? Or not? Picked up by Garden Rant it received lots of comments good and bad.

The Great Butterfly Bush Debate
The Great Butterfly Bush DebateHere are my top read posts overall for 2015

The News

It was a big year for me in the news. My White House experience appeared in The Baltimore Sun and one of my designs appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

1. Broken Pot Garden   16, 649 Readers

Yes, you read that right! This post from March 2013 has had an awesome 16, 649 readers this year alone. Picked up by different Home and Garden sites and one called “Woohome” that has funneled thousands of readers to my site bumps this post to the top of the heap. You can read it at Broken Pot Garden if you haven’t seen it yet.

Broken pot garden
Broken Pot Garden

2. Containers With Pizzazz    16,605 Readers

the garden diaries container
Containers With Pizzazz

One other post which is right up there with “Gnome Home”, with 16,605 readers is my container post “Containers With Pizzazz: Not Your Ordinary Container”. I have refined this post over the years, adding new pictures and techniques to create containers which stand out from the crowd.

3. Swarming of the Bees    4,078 Readers

bee swarm
Swarming Of The Bees

Whenever I do talks on beekeeping, this is the number one question that I get-Why do bees swarm? So, no surprise here with this being a top post. “Wrangling” swarms is something I do every spring and is fascinating and fun. Honey extraction is another beekeeping topic that people can’t get enough of at Extracting the Flavor of the Year-Honey.

Extracting the Flavor of the Year-Honey
Extracting the Flavor of the Year-Honey

4. Luscious Honey Scented Body Butter  3, 734 Readers

body butter
Luscious Honey Scented Body Butter

Surprise, surprise!  I had no idea until I started reading my stats, that this was a top 5! Easy to make with a few ingredients, honey is the unexpected ingredient to make a wonderful soothing body balm.

5. Miniature Garden-Whimsical Creations

3,155 Readers

miniature garden
Miniature Garden Creations

People love miniature gardens! The above mini garden I photographed at the Philadelphia Flower Show and the purple splashes of color and attention to detail makes it stand out for me. Read how to put one together for yourself.

Other Top Posts

Thanks to all my readers who are just visiting or follow my blog. Here’s to another “fruitful” and bee sting free year in 2016.

White House Christmas-2011
White House Christmas-2011
White House Christmas
Decorating the White House for Christmas, 2015
Monarch
Butterfly Watching
Amaryllis Primer
Amaryllis Primer

 

Plant These For The Bees
Plant These For The Bees
Making Of A Labyrinth
Making Of A Labyrinth
Salvia Amistad
Salvia Amistad
Magical Sunflowers
Magical Sunflowers

 

Shade From the Ground Up
From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade
Sex in the Garden
Sex in the Garden

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

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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

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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

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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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