Bill Dove created floral centerpieces the way an architect designs a building, employing an artistic mind with a critical eye for color, light, composition and materials. Perhaps his approach was a reflection of his earlier professional pursuits. A 1952 graduate of the University of Virginia, where he majored in architectural design, he was a practicing architect for four years in Washington, first with Roan & Poppelman and then with Marriott Corp.
But for reasons unclear to those who would later work for him, he left the corporate world of dark suits and pressed white shirts in March 1959 to open a flower shop on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. A short time later, the shop moved to the ground level of a five-story brownstone at 2300 Wisconsin Ave., a corner location that intersected with Hall Place, a gentle sloping residential street.
Today, the flower shop is gone, replaced by a Starbucks Coffee outlet. Gone, too, are the scents of petals and the brown canvas awning that extended to the sidewalk. "Dove" was emblazoned in white cursive lettering on the front of the awning.
Dove, who retired in 1998 at age 76, was revered for his innovative floral designs among the upper echelons of Washington's social scene.
He first made a name for himself during the turbulent years of the 1960s, when he began offering party decoration services and custom floral designs. He rebelled against the traditional approach that had been the standard of the time and in his view had rendered bouquets unexciting. He favored lavish party decorations that featured centerpieces with brilliant flowers, rich hues of green and distinctive glass containers, sometimes towering two feet into the air.
His clever ideas generated dinner conversations. Frequently, within a few days of an event, someone hosting a party would call and ask him to outdo the design she saw at a friend's home. One party led to another, and in a city where connections are paramount, Dove found himself in the thick of some of Washington's most prestigious social events. He provided the floral decorations for the gala opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Symphony Ball, the State Department's Diplomatic Ball and inaugural concerts at Constitution Hall. There were countless state dinners, high-priced weddings and soirees for charity organizations as well as working trips to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and the Drake Hotel in Chicago.
He emerged, as one colleague said, as Washington's dean of floral display.
It was an image advanced further when he was selected to decorate the White House for the 1974 Christmas season. It seemed like a straightforward request from first lady Betty Ford, for whom he had made floral decorations years before her husband became president. But there was a catch: With the country mired in an energy crisis, Mr. Dove was told that he couldn't use electric lights. So he relied heavily on flowers and glossy materials to reflect natural light.
"He was always up for a challenge," said a friend and former employee, John Parks, who went on to open his own shop, Floral Images. "He never bragged about his talent, but he had this kind of 'Bring it on' attitude."
For all his involvement in high society, his personal social skills were as prickly as a cactus plant.
"He would show up with a cigarette dangling from his lips, ashes dropping all over the rug," said Buffy Cafritz, one of Washington's leading socialites and a regular client of Mr. Dove's. "I would tell him what I wanted, and in that rough voice of his, he would mostly disagree with me on every point. And you know, most of the time, he was right. With Bill, you never had to worry. He produced on time when you needed it, and it was always beautiful."
He was most demanding at his shop, where some of those who worked for him said he complained loudly -- and in colorful language -- about everything from stories he read in the newspaper to the difficulties of earning a living in the flower industry.
"He was rough around the edges, no doubt," said Moira Hollenbeck, who worked as a designer at Dove Flowers for about five years until 1989. "He could be terrifying, but at the same time, he was such a character with this wonderful acerbic sense of humor that provided so much entertainment."
It was rare that a delivery van driver lasted more than a year working for Dove, who stood six feet tall and had pronounced jowls and heavy eyelids. One driver he hired disappeared with the van on Valentine's Day, emptied the cargo and abandoned the vehicle in Anacostia, Hollenbeck recalled. "There was a lot of swearing that day," she said.
Still, he developed a loyal following among his general managers and team of young designers who saw a generous side to him, respected his artistic judgment and viewed him as a pioneer.
Dove was a native of Alexandria and World War II Army veteran who received a Bronze Star for combat duty in Europe. For many years, he lived in an apartment above Dove Flowers. He usually ate his dinners at an Italian restaurant down the street. When his mother, Refa Leary, a former curator of the Woodlawn Plantation and one of his earliest employees, died in 1984, he moved into her Georgetown rowhouse four blocks away.
He sold Dove Flowers 14 years later and moved to Millsboro, Del., where he died at his home Dec. 22 of congestive heart failure. He was 80.