When Hay House opened its doors to the public for the annual Christmas at Hay House on Friday, Dec. 1, few of the visitors were aware of the long, arduous months spent planning and implementing the design and decoration of most of the rooms on the first three floors.
In the early fall of this year, Suzanne Rogers and Brooke Merrill, co-chairs for Christmas at Hay House, were recruiting interior designers, artists, floral designers and other people with creative talent to transform Hay House into a holiday wonderland, before anyone had purchased the first Halloween pumpkin!
The task is not an easy one. Thanksgiving and Christmas are holidays that require professional people, in creative fields, to complete design projects that demand every waking hour. So, who are the willing participants for the ambitious and time crunching job of decorating a house museum that is considered the Palace of the South?
This year, there are 15 room designers, one of whom also works for Hay House, and one organization, Junior League of Macon, that agreed to sponsor the design of a room. Elliott James is a man Friday at Hay House – he serves as a docent, works the visitors’ desk and is always available to help anyone who asks.
This year, James decorated the Old Kitchen, a large room that now is used as a meeting location for the board of directors and for committee meetings. The tables look like old kitchen work spaces; at one end are cupboards that once housed kitchen utensils.
Keeping in mind the simplicity of the room, James used natural materials for wreaths, handmade ornaments for trees and little ivy trees adorned with tiny bows for the tables. Between his duties as docent, and sandwiched into the little time he had to decorate, he was helping other designers solve the myriad problems that arise during such a hectic time at the house.
Rummaging through the relics of past Christmases
Lee Mangum, events coordinator on staff for Hay House, handled the logistics of warehousing decorations, of scheduling times for designers to be on site and of helping with the hauling of numerous boxes of archived decorations from the fourth floor to the first, second and third floors. It is apparent these guys get in their 10,000 steps a day and are in fit condition.
In early November, Mangum opened the fourth floor storage area, by appointment, for designers to rummage through the upstairs room and select the antique ornaments and other objects they would need to complete their rooms. After attaching name tags to each box, and promising to protect them from poachers, he stored them until the start date for decorating.
Many of the designers add new ornaments that Hay House can keep or they lend their own to the house for the month of December. Dina Deason, a painter that has studios in Macon and in the North Carolina mountains, selected Laura’s room, on the third, or bedroom, floor for her first decorating project for Christmas at Hay House. With fond memories of her own childhood nanny, whom she considered a guardian angel, Deason painted several large canvases with angels and continued the theme with feathered accessories and cozy places to sit and to sleep. The room’s marble mantel and large windows make it a light-filled room that the children of former owners surely enjoyed.
Aubrey Newby, Hay House board secretary, has been involved with Christmas at Hay House since 1995 and is familiar with the collection of old ornaments available each year to the decorators. In the Secret Room, once used as a linen closet, Newby used an old tree decorated with ornaments that possibly were used in the very first Christmas at Hay House in the 1980s.
In the Green Parlor on the main floor, interior designer, Jennifer Leontopoulos, decorated one of the largest artificial trees in the stored inventory for a room that was used as an intimate living room by past owners. Rescuing pendant ornaments from the fourth floor storage, she created a mantel befitting the Italian provenance of the house.
The handrail of the grand stairwell from the main floor to the third was festooned with a combination of artificial greenery, found in storage by designer Brooke Merrill, combined with fresh cedar and fir, and delicately accented with vintage ornaments hidden for years in the cardboard boxes.
Decorative artist Susan Raza and I were responsible for decorating the dining room this year. The theme for the space was elves in a winter forest, featuring the fictitious little creatures that help Santa Claus deliver the goods and that flit among the decorations to the delight of the youngest visitors.
After securing the elves and boxes of decorations from a good friend in Atlanta, the next step was plundering through the trees and decorations left from past years to have on hand enough to create the fantasy we had envisioned. Raza’s collection of Indian sari silk was used to drape the table prior to completing the display.
Not all of the designers took advantage of the storage rooms; however, by the end of the assigned week in early November, the inventory was sparse. The size and proportions of the rooms at Hay House require decorations that are in proper perspective to the spaces. Rarely has anyone said a room was overly decorated.
In the double parlor, Collin Holder, director of events and merchandising for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and David Quakenbush, director of sales for the local Marriott City Center, honored the 40th or ruby anniversary of Hay House being a part of the Georgia Trust, with dried ruby red grapefruit and with other dried citrus slices. The labor intensive ornaments glowed like stained glass against the peach walls of the parlor, prompting questions from admirers about the time involved to create the unusual ornaments.
Crunch time for designers
On the day after Thanksgiving, when most people take time to digest the overindulgence of the day before, designers began arriving early to unpack the boxes and to decorate the assigned rooms. As visitors tour the house for the next few weeks, they will not know the hours Rogers spent hauling planters and garden furniture into the center hall. They will rave over the real roses and other live greenery that require daily tending from Rogers and Barbara Woodward, owner of Mossy Corner Nursery and Country Market, in Smarr, who supplied the plant material.
For the week after Thanksgiving, Hay House kept late hours for Merrill to complete the main floor reception room and for Lizzie Odom to drape the walls of the master bathroom with swags of greenery. At the midnight hour, the day before the Patrons Party on Nov. 30, Canaan Marshall was creating his floral designs that seemed to float above the marble mantle of the music room and to dance on the French consoles flanking the statue of Ruth, the centerpiece of the room.
At the last minute, the tall ladder needed to decorate her Christmas tree was removed from the northwest bedroom where Priscilla Esser transported visitors to another time and place with diaphanous fabrics and luscious textures covering the furniture and surrounding the bed.
Next door on the bedroom floor, Jennifer Hayslip, another newcomer to Christmas at Hay House, was the first designer to complete her room. The ruby themed room, a nod to the 40th anniversary, features red twinkle lights on a snowy white tree and red accessories on the frilly little girl’s bed.
Renewed appreciation for Christmas at Hay House
To be behind the scenes, witnessing the organizational skills of 15 or more people with the same goal in mind, is to appreciate anew the efforts of talented volunteers to deliver each year a new Christmas experience for visitors from Macon and from all over the world. With the accommodating dedication of the staff at Hay House, led by senior director of properties for the Georgia Trust, Jonathan Poston, Christmas at Hay House will continue to surprise and entertain for generations.
Katherine Walden is a freelance writer and interior designer in Macon. Contact her at 478-742-2224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BEHIND THE SCENES FOR CHRISTMAS AT HAY HOUSE