Magazine staffs garb Blair House, State Department rooms in holiday finery

As part of an effort to highlight the furnishings and art of Blair House and the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms, State invited six lifestyle magazines to decorate for Christmas and hosted receptions for loved ones of those serving in places considered too dangerous to take their families.
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

While the Obama holiday elves were refurbishing ornaments and harvesting roots from the garden to hang on the White House trees, across the street at Blair House and in Foggy Bottom, a high-voltage Christmas decorating frenzy was on.

With just two weeks' notice, editors from a half-dozen lifestyle magazines, including Martha Stewart Living, This Old House and Traditional Home, created trees hung with quartz crystals and wrapped in red "Truman Family" tree skirts for Blair House, the president's guesthouse; and at the State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms, they swagged greenery (very, very carefully) around $100 million worth of American antiques. Their deadline was a reception Monday night at the State Department to honor families of government employees currently serving unaccompanied tours overseas in places considered too dangerous to bring family along.

Called "Diplomacy at Home for the Holidays," the event was reminiscent of the high-profile gigs that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall pulled off at the White House a decade ago, when one was first lady and the other social secretary. Marshall contacted the Magazine Publishers of America for design help and, despite tough times in that industry and minuscule end-of-year budgets, the six publications (Better Homes & Gardens, Mother Earth News and Natural Home were the other three) volunteered to do holiday makeovers on 17 historic spaces.

"Hillary Clinton has a passion for our country's history and fine arts," Marshall said. "This is part of her soul." Marshall added that there are plans to raise private funds to restore and enhance the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

"These are challenging times for our industry, but our magazines are still the arbiters of fashion, taste and design. They are cool," said Howard Polskin, MPA senior vice president for communications. "They had very little time to do this, but since these magazines compete with each other, they went all out."

At Blair House, Traditional Home magazine called in Virginia designer Barry Dixon to dress up the Lee Dining Room, where he staged a table of monogrammed Blair House linen napkins mixed with colorful china and gift packages at every place setting and lots of magnolia leaves and persimmons.

For the Truman Study, editors called the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum for goodies and unearthed a 1951 list of Christmas gifts President Truman had received. They tried to find as many of them as they could on eBay and other sources and came up with versions of the hand-knitted socks, vintage razor blades, a 1948 Life magazine and a soundtrack from "Paint Your Wagon." They framed old photos of Truman, who lived at Blair House while the White House was being renovated, with various dignitaries and hung them on a tree. Three stockings, embroidered Harry, Bess and Margaret, were hung at the mantel. "This was great for staff morale," said Scott Omelianuk, editor of This Old House. "We had everyone in our office making ornaments -- no one was spared."

In the Lee Drawing Room, editors from Martha Stewart Living created ornaments based on the stylized birds on the 18th-century green Chinese wallpaper and hung them on gilded branches that made an archway across the room. "We wanted the look to be whimsical but in keeping with the great architecture of the house," said Stewart. The Stewart crowd also did the coral-and-green Blair Dining Room in a candy theme, which included lollipops, a pink feather tree hung with ribbon candies and a gingerbread Blair House.

In the State Department's John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room, Mother Earth News placed a bowl of Thomas Jefferson's favorite heirloom apples under an 1816 portrait of the first secretary of state.

The State Department hopes to make the decoration process an annual event. Says Polskin, "Who knows, next year we could get Sports Illustrated to do a room or get Wired magazine to do a space."

Taking a special tour of Blair House Monday were families of government employees stationed overseas, including the Murphy family of Falls Church -- Seamus, 11, Meghan 9, Gillian, 6, and mother Kathleen. Murphy's husband is serving with the State Department in Iraq. "The State Department is doing a great job taking care of us," she said, as Meghan admitted she was tempted to eat some of the decorations.

In between festivities Monday, Martha Stewart was given a two-hour tour of the White House, which is decked out for the holidays. "Everything looked beautiful," she said. Stewart, who designed a giant oak leaf wreath with gilded acorns for one of the Clinton White House Christmases, said she would serve again if asked. "I would do anything for our country," she said.

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