fireplace hearth with a large cascading wreath filled with ornaments, bows, and fabrics

A Place of Family

By Jessica Whitehead, on

There’s nothing like home for the holidays—especially when home happens to be a grand mountain retreat dressed in towering Christmas trees, a 14-foot dinner table with a breathtaking suspended arrangement, a dramatic garland draped over the fireplace mantle, and furniture from Longwood founder Pierre S. du Pont’s personal collection. You’ll find all of those (and much more) in this year’s A Longwood Christmas Music Room display. Even with all its grandeur, however, our Music Room scene still feels intimate, cozy, and welcoming … and that’s the exact sentiment we’ve set out to achieve in this spectacular fireside lodge setting, from design conceptualization, to fabrication, to installation. Follow along as we share how we brought this year’s Music Room scene to fruition.

Each year, the Music Room is the very first space we decorate for A Longwood Christmas, and it’s a not only a beloved element of the overall Christmas display that helps tell the story of that year’s theme, but also an important space with a lot of history. When du Pont opened the Longwood Conservatory in 1921, one of the Conservatory’s primary uses was as a place of grand entertainment of family, friends, and the community. The Music Room, located at the north end of the Conservatory’s Exhibition Hall, was built in 1923 as a smaller, cozier place for the du Ponts to host more intimate gatherings. From the start, it’s been a place of warmth, of cheer, of family. Fast forward to today, this year’s Music Room display is all about a feeling of warmth, cheer, and family … and the team who put the display together can truly be described as a family of our own.

Senior Horticulturist Jess Whitehead (left), along with Senior IPM Technician Beth Pantuliano (center) and IPM Manager Rachel Schnaitman (right) are among the many staff who brought this year’s Music Room display to life. Photo by Steve Fenton.

The Music Room display is a large undertaking with many details to coordinate, from both the aesthetics and design elements to the fabrication and installation details … and I couldn’t be more grateful for our horticulturists to our carpenters to everyone else involved in bringing the display to life. This year served as my first time leading the design of the Music Room, following the retirement of former Senior Horticulturist April Bevans after she led the design for nearly a decade. April was so generous relaying her knowledge and sharing all of the tips and details she’s gathered throughout the years as we set out on this year’s display.

Beth Pantuliano helps prepare the tablescape during the Music Room installation. Photo by Steve Fenton.

When we set this year’s overall Christmas theme of fire and ice, I immediately thought of the concept of a lodge for the Music Room. For me, a lodge setting always brings up feelings of warmth and good memories with family and friends. I love that the Music Room design always revolves around a scene, such as Christmas morning or a festive family gathering. When thinking about the lodge concept and how much I personally love entertaining and hosting parties, I wanted to design something evocative of the home, yet elevated (quite literally, given the suspended arrangement atop the dining table!).

Jess Whitehead steps back to analyze the elements of the suspended arrangement, looking for balance and flow. Photo by Joe Hare.

When designing the space, I first decided on which elements I wanted to serve as the stars, and which should play a supporting role. The stars of the show this year are the asymmetrical fireplace mantle (which we hope is the first element guests notice when they enter the room), as well as the 14-foot dining table set for Christmas Eve dinner, and two 16-foot Fraser firs that flank the Music Room patio door, dressed in red, gold, copper, and birch bark accents.

And what stars they are. Our fireplace garland, crafted of preserved and faux plant material, envelopes the side and mantle of the fireplace. Along with IPM Manager Rachel Schnaitman and floral design instructor Nancy Gingrich Shenk, we figured out the mechanics of the garland and created it ahead of time. Using chicken wire and bamboo stakes, we created a frame that we zip-tied garland to. After that, we added lights and a variety of balls in different sizes and colors, as well as faux red magnolia garland and sparkly beaded ribbon. It took the three of us two days to create the two pieces of the garland, including the vertical piece and the horizontal piece with the swoop at the end. During installation, we put the vertical piece in place first, and then the horizontal piece. We added some finishing touches once it was in place, editing out some of the red magnolia and adding more balls and sparkly elements.  

The mantlepiece is intended to be like a plume of smoke coming out from the fireplace and drifting up into the room. Photo by Becca Mathias.

Our suspended arrangement floats above an elegant table set for a festive family fete. Our metal shop and carpenters were instrumental in creating this look, building a truss that could be bracketed to either end of the table to support the arrangement. We placed our beautiful tablecloth (custom-made by Special Occasions & Queen Street Linens of Lancaster, PA) atop our table, and then bracketed the metal truss on top of the tablecloth. After the table and truss were in place, we tied the branches to the truss and then added faux greens in an asymmetrical, loose style. We added sparkly elements such as pendulous gold sprays, and then the hanging orbs with battery-operated candles (which feature moving “flames” to create the most real and safest look) from the arrangement. We wanted the hanging elements to be close to the other elements on the table so they, along with the tabletop garland, the table itself, and the overall suspended arrangement would read as one.

On our table, all of the glassware and plates are gold rimmed and the flatware is hammered gold, chosen to play up the warmth and richness of the room. The tablecloth brings just a hint of “ice” into the room as well and plays well with the birch arrangements. We added a fun touch with the placecards, which feature the names of the kids, grandkids, or pets of everyone who helped decorate the room (I kept this as a secret surprise for the team!). Photo by Becca Mathias.

We had to create the suspended arrangement there in the Music Room during installation; the fact that we couldn’t make it ahead of time was nerve-wracking, but a welcome challenge. It took me about two days to create the suspended arrangement; I was intentionally the only person to work on it, so it looked like one hand had created the piece. My biggest tip for creating something like this is to step back a lot and look. Asymmetry can be challenging to achieve because you want it to look and feel balanced but not uniform. So if an element adds visual weight on one side of the garland (like the sparkly ferns), then you have to add a different element on the other side to match that visual weight, such as the lichen branches. Also, it’s important to remember to step back (or down) and view your arrangement from the angle that your guests will be seeing it. The arrangement looks very different when I was standing on the table with my face inches from the piece versus on the ground from several feet away where guest will be actually walking and looking up into the arrangement.

Using branches and birch harvested onsite at Longwood, the table is set for a formal, yet intimate Christmas Eve dinner. Photo by Becca Mathias.

From there, it’s our hope that our guests then move onto noticing and exploring the “smaller”, complementary details of the room. Past our towering trees of slow twinkling lights, the Music Room patio features cut trees lit in cool white lights to help evoke a chilly winter evening outside. Brown leather furniture, as well as several pieces of furniture from Mr. du Pont’s original collection, such as a humidor, help cozy up the space. The wreaths and additional garland in the room help draw the eye upwards and fill the grand space of the Music Room with light. Longwood staff and volunteers wrapped the presents featured throughout the room. We also worked with local glassblower artist WGK Glass to create the beautiful handblown glass ornaments on the bookcase, as well as the moose antler by the loveseat.

A winter wonderland of cool twinkling lights waits just outside, evoking our A Longwood Christmas fire and ice theme. Photo by Becca Mathias.

From our grand elements to our cozier touches, the Music Room sings with a true feeling of warmth and comfort this year. I’m so honored to be a part of it and to share it with all of you—our cherished Longwood family.

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