Photography By UNCW/Jamie Moncrief
They arrive with greenery in hand, from their own yards or friends yards, or from the University of North Carolina Wilmingtons campus.
This year, the Friends of UNCW will decorate Kenan House, the chancellors home, and the Wise House, the alumni house, on December 3.
Karen Thompson, president of the Friends of UNCW, says, We decorate the houses right after Thanksgiving. Its a great way to get into the spirit of the holiday season. Claire brings her delicious apple cake; we amass all kinds of greenery, tie countless bows, adorn wreaths and have a great time!
About 20 people work all day. Each has an assigned task, often listed on an index card. Louise Gorham, lead decorator and lifetime honorary Friends of UNCW member, set up the system years ago. Each card details what kind of container to use, and what type of flower and greenery. Then the ladies pick a job and go from there.
They usually start at Kenan House, break for lunch and move on to Wise House. UNCW food service provides boxed lunches. Claire Stanley, director of events and donor relations, always bakes a Moravian apple cake for decorating day.
Kenan House and Wise House sit next to one another in historic downtown Wilmington on Market Street, where long ago, two sisters lived as neighbors. Today, the former home of Sarah Graham (Kenan) Kenan houses UNCWs chancellor, and the former home of Jessie Hargrove (Kenan) Wise serves as a venue for alumni functions. Both homes were bequeathed to the university by the families that owned them. The halls of both structures are already something to behold; the Christmas dcor further accentuates the beauty of each home.
Theres a real camaraderie among these women who say the decoration project has come a long way since its inception in December 2005.
The first year, we didnt have anything. We used pine cones. We had no tree skirts, so we used a sheet that we painted gold, Gorham says. The next year, everybody brought an ornament or two, and the collection has grown since then.
Walking into Kenan House, the great hall is flanked by a grand staircase and marbled columns beneath ornate molded ceilings. The warm yellow walls are brightened by a striking antique crystal chandelier, a gift to Sarah Kenan from the Flaglers, her sister, Mary Lily and her husband, oil and railroad mogul Henry Flagler.
The Friends of UNCW position the chancellors Christmas tree at the back of the entry hall where it shines as a focal point. The outside of the house is so stately that decorations are lost on it, Gorham says. The front door, which is decorated with a wreath and a garland, needs nothing more than the greenery adorned by elegant ribbon, holly and magnolia leaves, and perhaps a few other accents, she says.
The Friends apply this approach throughout both homes, incorporating the historic elements, keeping decorations simple where the interior needs little embellishment and adding more where the backdrop can handle it.
In Kenan House, garlands grace the staircase, accented only by the occasional ribbon or bow. The dining room boasts gorgeous floral arrangements, incorporating a beautiful antique epergne. Gorham says they like to use roses, greenery, lady apples and other fruits kiwi, perhaps. She loves to use Ambiance roses, yellow with red tips, which blend beautifully with the fruit, she says.
The homes antique silver wine coolers on the sideboard are also used as vessels at holiday time, and the mantel is typically styled to match the centerpiece.
Every year we try ... different arrangements. Sometimes we use flowers, but last year, we used palmetto palms, Gorham says.
As the residents of Kenan House have changed during the years, the dcor has changed as well. Kenan House became the chancellors home in 1969, and Dr. William Wagoner was the first to live there. Following the retirement of his successor, Dr. James Leutze, the house was renovated. With eight fireplaces, six bathrooms and more than a dozen rooms, the price tag reached $1.22 million. The Kenan Family Foundation and other donors funded the project.
New holiday decorations were created last year for the current residents, Dr. Gary L. Miller and wife Georgia Nix Miller.
The Friends of UNCW make our home sparkle during the holiday season, says Georgia Miller, and we appreciate the gift of their time and talents to make our home festive. We enjoy entertaining special guests at our home, Kenan House.
Louise Gorham says, We try to change it a little each year; we try to keep it fresh. We update the ribbon every year.
They refresh the decorations here and there, using many poinsettias and always white lights. Last year the Friends added some new touches of teal and Seahawk ornaments.
We try to coordinate colors with the rooms. In some rooms, silver looks better; in others, gold. We generally dont use bright red, except in the living room. We use maroon elsewhere, and we use teal, gold and white, Gorham says. They place wrapped packages under the tree, as well as around the baby grand piano.
Like those packages beneath the tree, the Wise House next door holds secrets one being a stage tucked away in the attic. You can almost hear the footsteps of children scurrying around up there, just as one of the Wise nephews once recalled from his childhood visits.
Here too, the Friends show restraint when decorating. The wreath on the front door is adorned with lemons and oyster shells. It says Wilmington and beach; its more casual, Gorham says, though she has always had a passion for flowers.
My mother used to grow flowers. I would go to church with her on the weekends where shed arrange the flowers. When I was a little girl, I stood on the steps of Temple Baptist Church next door and watched the people coming and going and I used to say, If I could just go in there. And now, here I am, she says, sitting in the music room of Wise House.
Bright yellow walls are complemented with many lemons both artificial and fresh in the music room. Pink poinsettias are placed in the parlor. In this house, the Friends have a little more fun because the decorations need not last as long as those next door. Wise House functions take place early in the month, while Kenan House hosts celebrations throughout the season.
The Wise dining room is already embellished by wallpaper that was hand-painted in France. The ladies design elegant floral displays to complement the blues and greens of the intricate hunting scenes depicted.
The tree bears more UNCW mementos than Kenans, topped by an impressive copper seahawk, created by Louises son Dumay Gorham, III, a well-known local metal sculptor, who has been commissioned for several works around campus.
The ladies replace the flowers and fruit as needed during the month. Housekeeper Sandra Rowell, employed since 2004, waters the arrangements. Sandra holds everything together, Claire Stanley says. Shes the glue.
Personally, I feel fortunate to work with great decorators like Louise, who can visualize and create amazing flower arrangements and centerpieces, Karen Thompson adds. We all learn so much from her and everybody on the committee brings a certain flair. We all inspire each other, and the results are really beautiful.
Louise Gorham's Tips
Vary your leaves. Vary the shape of the leaves as well as the shade of green. This adds more interest to the arrangement.
Cut long branches of greenery. You can always cut them back. Id cut at least 18 inches, and 36 inches if you can.
Use berries. Nadinas red berries are great for Christmas decorating. Though the berries dont have to be red, any berries will do.
Vary the height of the stems. With a mixed arrangement, you want the flowers to vary in height.
Use pine. Many folks like the short leaf pine for decorating, but most of what we grow here is long-leaf. Just take the scissors and whack it off. It makes a nice filler for arrangements.
Try corkscrew willow. This is wonderful in an arrangement to give it some movement. Just place it up over the other greenery and everything wont look so stiff, Gorham says.
Use cooking spray if you dont have plant shine spray. Just spray lightly and wipe with a paper towel. This removes dust and evens out the spray. When the light catches that shine, it gives it a little life, Gorham says.
Use fruit. Gorham chooses lady apples, green apples and lemons. I also like to cut pomegranates and kiwi so the seeds show. The kiwi has to be replaced more often, but the pomegranate will last at least a week or more. There is no need to treat the cut fruit; simply cut and display. Gorham also suggests artichokes and pineapples. If possible, she likes to use the small ornamental pineapples ordered from a wholesaler. They are light green and pink and arrive on the stem.
Try floor wax to preserve apples. Yes, floor wax. Put the apples on toothpicks and dip into Future floor wax and let dry. Do not use on citrus fruit. It will ruin the fruit and cause it to mold quickly.
Choose flowers that have longevity. Gorham likes chrysanthemums and Fuji mums. They last a long time and look wonderful with the berries. Star of Bethlehem is also a good choice. It lasts up to two weeks.
Condition your flowers and greenery. Recut the stems on a slant and leave in water overnight. If possible, use oasis or water in arrangements.