Evergreen House Christmas Tour Decking The Halls With Drama

December 15, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Everybody came to Evergreen House.

Except at Christmas.

Between foreign ports of call, diplomat John Work Garrett and his wife Alice filled their home, Evergreen House, with friends -- including luminaries in the world of society, politics and the arts.

From 1920, when the Garretts inherited the house from his mother, to 1952, when Alice Garrett died, the mighty and the talented came to pay their respects. Conductor Leopold Stowkowski visited, as did violinist Efrem Zimbalist and his wife, soprano Alma Gluck. Russian theatrical designer Leon Bakst was in residence for a couple of years.

Tart-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a friend, and journalist Walter Lippman a frequent visitor. Billy Baldwin, later acclaimed the "dean of American designers," credited Alice Garrett with giving him his start. Socialite Linda Porter was a close chum, and her husband Cole certainly played the piano in the Evergreen parlor.

During the holidays, though, the usual festive clamor was stilled.

"Christmas Eve was their wedding anniversary, and they always celebrated it alone. They never had Christmas guests," says Jane Katz, assistant director at Evergreen, which is now owned by the Johns Hopkins University. And although the mansion has extensive gardens and greenhouses, there are no records of how Evergreen's halls were decked for the holidays during the Garretts' tenure.

The staff is not discouraged, though. A year after its reopening to the public following an extensive four-year renovation, the mid-19th century Italianate estate has received a splendid holiday makeover, filling its halls and rooms with flowers, swags, greenery, baskets and a Christmas tree.

One inspiration, says director Lili Ott, came from accounts of the couple's wedding in 1908. Washington's Evening Sun newspaper described the scene in the Warder household when Alice Warder married John Garrett, grandson of the founder of the B&O Railroad:

"A Christmas decoration prevailed throughout the entire house and concentrated in the splendid hall, where a profusion of holly, making panels or frames for clusters of poinsettia blooms added new beauty to its graceful outlines. It was in front of the broad fireplace on the west side . . . that the couple stood to be married. The carved stone mantel was entirely hidden behind a massing of ferns and holly, this background holding a shower of annunciation lilies in place. From the ceiling were suspended half way down the sides curtains of asparagus [fern] tied back with broad white ribbons and showing a cluster of Christmas bells."

"It's sort of in that spirit that we've decorated the house," Ms. Ott offers.

The hall-decking was done by Silent Women, a three-woman floral styling firm based in Monkton. Talkative partners Jeannie Whitin, Eleanor Oster and Betty (DeeDee) Phillips -- who take their whimsical company name from a Maine inn whose sign features a woman without a head -- provided decorations for the exterior, the downstairs rooms and a separate wing that holds a theater designed by Leon Bakst and showcase spaces for Alice Garrett's paintings and John Garrett's Oriental art.

The decorations, which will be on view through tomorrow, are for sale.

The splendid 19th century architecture, enlivened by the couple's vibrant 20th century taste in art, proved inspirational to the women, who also drew ideas from rooms' bold colors and eclectic collections.

"The house almost speaks to you," Ms. Oster says. "I think it was Alice's flair for drama."

Although the women had some of their decorative items in stock, many were made from fresh greenery collected on the Evergreen property, and from natural materials that they gather throughout the year and dry. To protect the precious collections, all materials were treated by security manager Jesse Pate to make sure they were bug-free.

Although few of us have a mansion to decorate, we can borrow the Silent Women's techniques. All it takes is the raw materials (gathered or store-bought), a few purchased items from the florist or craft store and some taste and imagination.

Inviting visitors into the scarlet front hall is a long swag which hangs over the entrance. It is made on a base of an artificial spruce wreath (one of the few examples of artificial greenery in the house), which the women opened up and fleshed out with pine cones, dried pomegranates, gilded oak and maple leaves and other findings.

On a table in the hall is a collection of miniature topiaries, each made from a plastic foam cone or ball set on a natural branch stem, and secured in a clay pot with Oasis florist foam. The cones are covered with such materials as fresh moss, Spanish moss, small gold pine cones and dried rosebuds, celosia and hydrangea. (They were applied with a glue gun, an invaluable tool for decoration-making.) The pots were washed with color, then sponged with gold paint -- a luxe version of the mossy look.

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