Imagine a cavernous subway station filled with buckets and boxes of flowers -- 300,000 of them, give or take a few thousand, packed thick on the floor -- and you have the basement of the D.C. Armory. The overhead lighting is yellowish, the floor is wet everywhere. The flowers are red and white -- red and white only.
Roaming seriously through all this are the presidential inaugural committee folks with ID tags around their necks and walkie-talkies in hand. And 105 florists who've flown in (at their own expense) are saying with great anticipation, "It's never been done this way."
It's as if they restarted the Manhattan Project.
Only the project this time involves floral designs for the nine inaugural balls, the inaugural galas and the inaugural parade.
There's nothing pastoral about the scene that includes a meadow of boxes of shiny red anthuriums from Hawaii, mums from California, carnations from California and Colorado, buckets of white gladioluses with tight buds. The 20,000 red roses from Bogota' aren't here. They were flown in dry and cold, rushed to a floral warehouse where they were put in 90-degree water, which allows the liquid to shoot up their stems like an injection into a vein ("It's like cutting them fresh from your garden," says florist Tom Powell). Then they were put in refrigerators.
"In one hour and 15 minutes we made 1,050 centerpieces for the balls," says Powell, floral consultant to the inaugural committee and head designer of this operation, whose job here and half-moon reading glasses make him seem rather like the Hal Prince of this floristic extravaganza. "In less than an hour we did 76 nosegays that are going into the Pension Building."
The owner of the Flower Gallery here, he's worked every inauguration -- flower-wise -- since John F. Kennedy's. Powell, who has spent three weeks choreographing his floral ballet, is on retainer. The other designers, selected from across the country, are working as unpaid volunteers. The inaugural committee asked the Society of American Florists to coordinate the logistics of the event.
"We're doing the largest number of flowers ever," Powell says. He estimates it would cost half a million dollars if the inaugural committee paid for everything it's getting. But since some supplies were free, the florists' labor gratis and the flowers either donated or sold at cost, Powell says he has no idea of the actual cost. "I'm a designer and not a cost accountant," he laughs.
The florists say they're proud to have been selected.
"It has nothing to do with politics," says Norwood Leet of Louisville, Ky., a Reagan supporter. He adds, "We're supporting the people who support us -- the flower industry."
"I came just for the experience of doing something different," says Lester Anthony, from Savannah, Ga., who adds that he is the only black florist here. He's also a Reagan supporter. "I knew," he says of the inauguration, "it would be something I wouldn't witness for a long time."
The florists are also confident that the flowers sitting on the floor of the Armory on Friday morning will, with proper care, last far beyond Monday's festivities. The flowers have been put in preservatives -- a mixture of dextrose, citric acid and a bacteriacide -- and their stems cut only after being placed in water of the right temperature. "If you cut this flower," says Leet, holding up an anthurium, "it's sucking like a vacuum cleaner. If you cut it in the air, it sucks up the air and that creates an air pocket. Then when you put it in water, the water can't shoot up the stem as fast."
Surely these flowers will get an earful of talk during the balls -- but no florist would swear by the adage that it's good to talk to flowers. "It keeps us happy," laughs florist Harriett Miller of Louisville. "I don't know about the flowers."