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Behind the scenes with holiday decorator at the Newport mansions

In Newport, the foyer at Marble House; Jim Donahue decorates Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom at The Breakers.

THE PRESERVATION SOCIETY OF NEWPORT COUNTY

In Newport, the foyer at Marble House.

NEWPORT — For five weeks each fall a sheen of glitter covers Jim Donahue’s hands. It’s an occupational hazard for the holiday decorator-in-chief for three Gilded Age mansions owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County (www.newportmansions.org). Now that Donahue, who is also horticulturist at the society’s Green Animals Topiary Garden, has worked his magic, The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House are decked out for holiday tours through Jan. 1. 

Q. How do you even begin to decorate these ornate mansions?

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A. It is difficult. We try to stick to focal points and to not obscure any architectural details. We couldn’t possibly cover every surface. I look at the tour that the visitors follow and figure out where their eye falls as they turn a corner. But there is an awful lot, especially with all the fresh plants.

Q. Do you aim for historical accuracy?

A. These houses were never decorated for Christmas because they were summer houses. So we are not restricted that way. We don’t really do a strictly Victorian Christmas. Over the five or so years that I have been doing this, we have been trying to build a theme at each house. Usually it’s based on the decor of the rooms. There are certain elements that we use over and over again. At The Breakers it would be acorns, because that is the Vanderbilt family symbol, and trains because they founded the New York Central Railroad. The Elms has a lot of nature items — stags and pheasants and butterflies and dragonflies — because it’s sort of a hunting lodge setting. Marble House is very over-the-top ornate, so we do a lot of blingy things there, lots of silver and gold and glitter.

Q. When do you start planning?

A. I go on a buying trip the first week of January. Things arrive over the summer and get allocated to the various houses. Then we start decorating five weeks in advance of opening. Visitors say, “It’s not even Halloween yet.”

Jim Donahue decorated the mantle in Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom at The Breakers. (

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

Jim Donahue decorated the mantle in Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom at The Breakers.

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Q. What is the hardest part of decorating?

A. It’s not the decorating itself. It’s the logistics of getting everything to the house it needs to be in and getting up and down the tiny, tiny elevators or the back stairwells. These places really weren’t planned for Christmas decorating.

Q. The big rooms and tall ceilings must be great for Christmas trees.

A. The Breakers has seven or eight trees. There are two 15-footers in the great hall. Most are seven to 10 feet. They all have different themes. In the library it’s like Santa’s workshop. The music room is all cherubs and musical instruments. The morning room has platinum walls so we do snowflakes and icy things. The great hall has damask fabric angels. The breakfast room is gingerbread.

The biggest tree is in the foyer of Marble House. It’s 16 feet tall. They are all artificial. We are not allowed to have [cut] live trees because of fire regulations. We do bring in [potted] live blue spruce trees and shrubbery. One of the big draws is that we have standard poinsettias which are tree-like — four, five, or six feet tall. We also have a major, live poinsettia tree in the Elms ballroom. It’s about 15 or 16 feet tall. Hundreds of poinsettias are stacked to make a Christmas tree.

Q. Do you have a favorite house or room?

A. The Gothic room at Marble House is hard to make Christmas-y. That’s a fun one to do. We have a beautiful tree in there with all sorts of Gothic-style ornaments — Madonna and Child, triptychs, things that look like the queen’s jewels, fleur-de-lis. I don’t like the standard red and green Santa. If the room has some challenge to it, I enjoy it more.

Q. Can you share any tips for home decorators?

A. We find that more is more here. If you think it takes five, it will take seven, or eight, or nine. Stick to focal points. Don’t try to decorate an entire room, every window sill, every empty space. Where your eye naturally falls is where you should put your emphasis. It will be OK. Don’t necessarily stick to traditional colors. Try to find something in the room that is unique and go with that.

Q. Is Christmas your favorite holiday?

A. Not really. I love Halloween. That I could do something with.

Q. How long does it take to remove the decorations? Are you sad to see them go?

A. It comes down fast, less than a week. It always amazes me. My full-time job is at Green Animals and in January you start thinking about spring. We start the greenhouse season when we do all of our growing and seedlings and stuff. So I look forward to that. It’s good to get past Christmas to get to that.

Interview was condensed and edited. Patricia Harris and
David can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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