Mad dash to prepare mansion for public

Governor's home open for holiday

December 06, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Upstairs in her private quarters at the governor's mansion, Maryland's first lady, Kendel Ehrlich, has been ordering a few last gifts. Lands' End and Bloomingdale's had no idea she was calling from the governor's house from the address she gave: 110 State Circle, Annapolis. And if you walked around the mansion midweek, you'd find it no different from many people's homes this time of year - a mess. There were pine needles in the carpet, pieces of cellophane wrap from ribbon rolls stuck to tables, and in the kitchen, the remains of a fallen gingerbread house.

It was Wednesday, four days before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife were to open the mansion's doors to offer the season's greetings, and the decorating for tomorrow's public holiday party was only 65 percent finished. Not only that, the State House wasn't half ready; Kendel Ehrlich had placed an early-morning call to the secretary of the Department of General Services to complain. Where were all the lights? The wreaths? The red ribbons?

On Tuesday evening, driving home along Rowe Boulevard, she had been shocked to see the beautiful building in utter darkness, and she got her husband's OK to try to get people "to bring things up to speed."

Outside the mansion, state workers blanketed the shrubs with tiny white lights. Somebody thought to put giant candy canes on each of the double doors to highlight this year's Christmas-decorating theme: "The Joy of Toys."

Anyway, around 11 a.m. Wednesday, in the entrance hall, house manager Sandy Rose, her assistant, Carol Stevens, and a friend of Kendel's known to all as "Aunt Mimi," sat on the floor winding white lights around 300 feet of garland. By day's end, the garland had to be coiled around the three-story banister in the grand hall.

The Douglas fir in this room, temporarily renamed "Santa's Workshop," was newly trimmed with toy drums, horns, sleds, basketballs and tiny elves.

An elf perched on a ladder to the tree, as if he had put up those ornaments; really, Scott and Keyes Chappelear, owners of the Christmas Spirit on Main Street, lent and installed them.

On a nearby sofa, there remained some oversized elf slippers to be stuffed with tissue paper. This was a job claimed by the Ehrlichs' son, Drew, 4, who was still at school.

In the kitchen, chef John Leszczynski was on his second gingerbread house. Pieces for the new one lay drying on baking trays. This time, he cut the fat and added flour and reinforced the 24-inch-high sides and roof with foam boards on the inside. The stained-glass windows and doors he made from crumbled Jolly Ranchers. When Drew returned, they would decorate it with colored candy canes, meltaway mints and gum drops.

Only 150 pounds of brownies remained to be baked. For three weeks the smell of chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, white chocolate and sugar cookies wafted through the house, attracting suited state troopers into the kitchen more often than usual.

Leszczynski kept a plate around even as he filled 40-odd Utz pretzel tins in the pantry with goodies for the open house. But Sunday night, while he was off, a couple of state troopers sneaked into the kitchen to ask where the cookies were stored. They were back today, young men in dark suits, in and out, munching cookies.

The gingerbread house and heaps of cookies were destined to flank a mirrored ice rink laden with dancing snowmen that swept down the center of the white-topped table for 22 in the state dining room. The tree behind it, too, was covered with snow people.

Beyond, only partly visible through a 12-foot archway into the conservatory, a Douglas fir shimmered with white and silver ornaments. There has never been a tree in this large yellow room with Palladian windows on three sides, and now there's a 17-footer dressed in tiny white lights. Like all the trees in the public rooms, it was donated by Watson's Garden Center of Lutherville and brought into the house in a net.

Covered with spinning silver balls, glittering white roses and butterflies, crystal icicles, snowflakes and silver metal tinsel, it represents a "Winter Wonderland." The only thing amiss in this room was a 12-foot ladder and mounds of pine needles, which were being whisked away by staffers with brooms.

Hanging out in the vestibule downstairs with state troopers and the receptionist, the governor's visiting father, Robert Sr., in sweat shirt, jeans and sneakers, plopped down on a sofa and counted his blessings. Not only is his son good to him, he said, but his wife, Nancy, does the holiday shopping.

What was in store for Drew?

"Like he needs anything," the grandfather said. "All the stuff he's got and some kids don't have a thing."

Kendel Ehrlich is getting her husband something big. He came through for her this year on their 10th wedding anniversary - a diamond necklace - and now, it's his turn. Besides, she says, she doesn't need anything. And being six months pregnant, she especially doesn't want to pick out clothes.

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