2014-11-20 / Front Page

Getting Ready for Christmas on a Grand Scale

By Pat Blakeley


The Breakers' attic has been bustling with activity in recent weeks, as decorations are readied for placement throughout the mansion. (Photo by Andrea Carneiro) The Breakers' attic has been bustling with activity in recent weeks, as decorations are readied for placement throughout the mansion. (Photo by Andrea Carneiro) Many of us are near panic with the holidays approaching, but if you think you have a lot on your plate, consider getting ready for several thousand guests – many of whom show up before Thanksgiving. That’s the scenario facing the Preservation Society of Newport County as they prepare to welcome a record number of visitors to tour The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms from Nov. 22 through Jan. 4. How do they do it? With a lot of help, says Communications Manager Andrea Carneiro, from both staff and volunteers.

Jim Donahue has worked for the Preservation Society for 10 years and has been with the decorating crew since he began. Currently serving as the Curator of Historic Landscapes and Gardens, he is widely regarded as the “Chief Elf” among the staff, notes Carneiro. Donahue’s landscape design and planning background gives him the perspective of scale and design needed to maximize impact of the decorations, but the flair is all his.


A life-size Santa greets guests in the breakfast room at The Breakers. A life-size Santa greets guests in the breakfast room at The Breakers. “At The Breakers, you have to go bold,” Donahue says. All three houses absorb so much, due to their inherent grandeur, he explains, that “it is hard to make things pop.” But he does.

Standouts at The Breakers this year include a working model of the New York Central Railroad, an homage to railroad titan Vanderbilt originally shown at the Newport Flower Show in June. Another surprise is a near-lifesize Santa figure in the breakfast room, where the family took most of their meals.

While you may have to “go bold” to create a dramatic effect in a setting that is in itself ornate, Donahue also has a knack for incorporating nuanced elements into a design, the significance of which might not be readily apparent to the casual observer. At The Breakers, the Vanderbilts’ signature acorn motif finds its way into many details, while at The Elms, many components involve flora and fauna, adding to the French hunting lodge theme. Displays at Marble House reflect the various styles of the “near movie set” rooms, says Donahue, with holiday accents enhancing the period decor.


Becky Bonnenfant works on an ornate arrangement on The Breakers' loggia. Much of the decorating takes place during the tour day, to the delight of visitors. (Photos by Andrea Caneiro) Becky Bonnenfant works on an ornate arrangement on The Breakers' loggia. Much of the decorating takes place during the tour day, to the delight of visitors. (Photos by Andrea Caneiro) The biggest challenge? “Getting it all done in time,” Donahue laughs. Teams begin right after Columbus Day, although he plans for months in advance. He has dozens of volunteers and says it would not be possible without their help.

Newport Garden Club member Deborah Kelsey, a longtime volunteer for both the Flower Show and Christmas, loves the holiday project – and working with Donahue.

“He incorporates so many natural aspects with the storebought decorations in the trees that he creates a completely different effect.”

The more cumbersome work downstairs gets done before guests arrive, but most takes place during the tour day in cordoned off areas. It can’t all be done behind the scenes, says Donahue, and guests enjoy seeing the process. On any given morning, the crew can be found quietly trimming trees, staging treatments, or adding embellishments in preparation for the start of holiday tours.

Activity upstairs in The Breakers’ attic is a bit more chaotic. Decorations are strewn about the floor and tables, stacked and in boxes, with trees lined up awaiting attention. “We do the work up here for the more constricted spaces,” Donahue says. Ready hands work on various designs, and they transport the finished products down in the elevator for public placement.

Donahue credits much of the program’s success to his volunteers, but they swiftly deflect it right back to him. “We can make a tree look pretty good,” Kelsey admits, “but then Jim comes over, moves a few things and adds a couple more accents – and voila, it’s really magical.”

Although most of his creations are dramatic, Donahue’s favorite tree this year is in The Elms ballroom, a relatively simple beauty adorned with blue hydrangeas grown at Green Animals. The crew made a hydrangea tree for the first time last season, but this year were able to “kick it up a notch,” he says. The quiet elegance of the tree in comparison to the grandeur of many others is impressive.

Donahue is quick to point out that his role in the decorating effort is one of many. While he oversees the artistic design and styling of the room interiors, the Garden and Grounds Department handles all the live plants and pieces made with primarily natural greenery.

Gardens and Grounds produces the several thousand poinsettias, amaryllis, azaleas and paperwhites needed for the season. Director Jeff Curtis notes they grow almost 4,000 poinsettias annually in their greenhouses – and use more than 3,000 decorating for Christmas. “It takes two days just to move them to The Breakers,” he laughs.

The 15-foot-high poinsettia tree in The Breakers’ Great Hall is made of 150 individual plants. It is broken down weekly to give each one a good soaking – and the entire tree is replaced three times during the holidays.

Once Christmas tours begin, the work by Donahue’s crew is finished – not so with Curtis’. His staff constantly rotates through the properties, looking for a faded leaf or wilting bloom – and is at the ready with replacements. Plants in all the mansions are changed throughout the season to keep things fresh. “The decorations have to look pristine every time visitors walk in, whether it’s the first day or the last,” observes Curtis.

The final elements to be incorporated are white candles in the windows. Although they will be in place for the opening, Curtis says, “We do not turn them on until December 1, the official start of the Christmas in Newport celebration.” We can’t wait.

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