A Once In A Lifetime Experience – Decorating the White House

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While most islanders spent their Thanksgiving holiday noshing on turkey, watching football and enjoying the camaraderie of friends and family, Carol Kolar was boarding a plane bound for the White House – off on an adventure that most people have never heard of, decorating our nation’s highest office space for Christmas.

“I never knew about any of this, but there are lots of opportunities to volunteer at the White House and this is one of them,” Kolar told us. “You go online and fill out an application. From my understanding, they try to pick someone from every state with a total of 100 being selected out of 2,500 applications. This year, eight of those could not make it, so we ended up with 92 volunteers representing 35 states.”

So what made Kolar, a retired English teacher who moved to Fort Myers Beach two and a half years ago, decide to apply for the decorating job?

“Since I got out of teaching, I’ve tried a number of different things but one thing I really like is ‘staging’ rooms. I’ve always liked decorating and changing – when my parents passed (both of Kolar’s folks are known to islanders – her father was deep sea charter captain and local musician Russ Griffin, and her mother, Gladys, was the longest serving employee in Santini Plaza – having worked there for 30 years), I moved down here to their house and redecorated it. I also bought a condo at Windward Point that I spent a couple of months rehabbing.”

A Once In A Lifetime Experience – Decorating the White House
Thousands of hand-cut paper snowflakes give an ethereal feel to the East Colonnade

Carol thinks it’s this experience that earned her a trip to Washington, where ‘volunteer’ means just that – all who are chosen must pay their own way to D.C., and pay for their own hotel rooms and necessities – except for lunch, which is served to them by the White House chef.

So 92 people sounds like a lot? According to Carol, they could have used quite a few more.

“When we first got there, they had a meeting with us at our hotel, where the company chosen to oversee everything divided us into teams,” she said. “The planning company was Bryan Rafanelli of Rafenelli events, who was all hyper because this is the first year his group was chosen for this project. He said the Obama’s knew him because he’d done some state dinners for them, and that he wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”

The volunteers were divided into teams. Some of them were sent to what Carol called ‘the warehouse’.

“This place is like something out of ‘Raiders of the Last Ark’ – there are literally mountains of ornaments and decorations that these people were put in charge of sorting,” she said. “I was so glad I wasn’t sent there.”

Instead, Carol’s team – which included a man from California who decorates for Macy’s – spent the first day climbing 10-foot scaffolding in the ‘East Colonnade Hallway’, where they hung precariously while attaching thousands of tiny paper ‘snowflakes’ to chicken wire hung across the ceiling.

“That was the hardest day,” she said. “We worked from 6:30 in the morning until nearly 7pm, but we got it done. When the electricians hooked up the lights, it was so magical. This is the first room visitors on the White House Christmas tour come into, and at the end of it is this huge Christmas tree.”

All in all, 37 Christmas trees were installed in various rooms throughout the White House – varying in height from 10 feet to more than 30 feet. This year’s theme is ‘A Timeless Tradition’.

“Each team worked on a different room,” Carol told us. “I spent two days in the Diplomatic Room and one in the Oval Office, which ended being redecorated 4 times until it was perfect.”

Kolar says she is especially proud of the work she did in the Diplomatic Room – which is where the Obama’s have their family picture taken.

“That room is absolutely amazing,” she said. “On the walls is this special wallpaper that Jackie Kennedy brought from France and had installed – it depicts scenes from early America and we had to be very careful not to touch it.”

Another room Carol loved working on was the Vermeil Room.

“There are three rooms after you go through the East Colonnade that Michelle Obama gave to her dress designers to decorate,” she said. “One of them – the China Room – went to Carolina Herrera, the library went to Kenzo and the Vermeil Room was given to a famous designer from London, Duro Olowu. He asked for help and I volunteered. He did it very African, with these hand sewn little bears from Nicaragua. I also took pictures of the work Kenzo did to maybe use as ideas for our own library.”

Also near the eastern visitor entrance was a room called the ‘East Landing’, featuring a tree surrounded by iPads that visitors can use to message family members serving in the military overseas. The tree is hung with gold star ornaments added by families of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Carol said that an estimated 60,000 people will go through the White House and see her and her colleagues’’ handiwork.

“I never had any idea how much work goes into getting the White House ready for Christmas – every room has so much stuff in it, it literally is ‘eye candy’,” she said. “And I was very fortunate because I had access to pretty much the entire building besides the private residence. I got to see Joe Biden’s office – his tree is a tribute to the military – and even saw the Obamas a couple of times but didn’t actually meet them.”

All of this work was completed by December 4th, and a lavish party was thrown for all 350 volunteers who’d worked at the White House throughout the year.

A Once In A Lifetime Experience – Decorating the White House
3 of the beautifully decorated trees in the Library Room

“The party was in the Estate Dining Room, which was loaded with tables full of amazing food, and champagne flowed for all of us,” she said.

While Carol told us she definitely had the time of her life, the decorating trip will remain a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her.

“Some of them, they volunteer every year,” she said. “But, while it was a lot of fun, it was a lot of work. You’re up at 5 every morning, than you have to walk 25 minutes to get to the staff entrance, go through three security checkpoints and work until 4:30 in the afternoon. The older you are, the harder all of that is  – it took me a week to recover!”

For those thinking of applying, Carol suggests making contact with their state representative and extending their trip to include a day of sightseeing.

“Curt Clawson called me while I was up there and asked if I’d like a tour of the Capitol Building but I didn’t have time,” she said. “I wish I’d known to contact him beforehand – your state representatives can get you into places that no one else can and they’re very sweet.”

So who takes all the stuff down when the holidays are over?

“White House staff, and they are given just eight hours in which to do it,” Carol said. “That’s why they need volunteers at the warehouse every year – to sort through it all once again.”

A crew from HGTV was filming as Carol and her fellow volunteers were working. To see a spread of photos of their efforts, go to their website: www.hgtv.com, and look for White House Christmas Tour 2015 pictures.

Keri Hendry Weeg