December 18, 2013
Winners of holiday door-decorating contest share their secrets
By Toni Guagenti
D. Cash Arehart wanted to tell the story of the Charlton House when he created five original wreaths for the annual door-decorating contest in Colonial Williamsburg’s historic area.
Arehart’s front-door wreath – covered with four pomegranates representing north, south, east and west; red and green apples, magnolia leaves and dried wheat stalks – won one of six top spots in the contest.
And his four window wreaths helped complete the tale of Richard and Edward Charlton’s lively 18th-century tavern, each representing the idea of food, refreshments, music and Freemasonry.
For Arehart, a production associate for educational media at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the win marked his first entry in the contest as a resident of the historical area. Arehart and wife Kelly Arehart moved into the house on the south side of Duke of Gloucester Street in March.
Judges inspected nearly five dozen entries on Monday, Dec. 9; winners received their awards during a program on Wednesday, Dec. 11, in the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg’s Hennage Auditorium.
Keith Johnson, director of property management, guided the three-person judging team that scrutinized the decorations of private residences throughout the historic district. Criteria to win included originality, creativity, and overall balance and complexity of the decorations. All decorations had to be made by hand from all-natural materials or materials that are historically appropriate to the 18th century.
During a typical year, Johnson said, awards for two professional decorators and four amateurs are handed out. This year, out of 56 entries, the winners were five amateurs and one professional.
Katharine McEnery, an actor/interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg, and boyfriend Stewart Pittman, supervisor of the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums, settled on a hunting theme. They live in the William Lightfoot Kitchen on the south side of Duke of Gloucester Street.
The green wreath entwined with antlers sported turkey feet on the bottom, turkey and pheasant feathers, a powder horn, tomahawk and holly. Two huge turkey fans – the back tail feathers of a turkey – are situated at the top and behind the main wreath.
Although decorations may appear to be simple, making the antlered wreath provided McEnery and Pittman with some challenges.
“First, attaching the feathers to the top of the wreath was a challenge because we knew we had to hang it from the wreath proper because it was so heavy,” McEnery said. This made it tricky to secure the flattened turkey fans to the base, she said.
“The other challenge was figuring out how high to hang it,” she added. Because many of the wreath’s items are family items, McEnery said, they wanted to make sure it stayed secure so they hung it from a second-floor window. The couple also made a second wreath for their side door with antlers, pine cones and turkey feathers.
McEnery said she enjoys participating in the contest because of the friendly competition with neighbors.
“There’s an element of excitement when your friends and neighbors begin putting their decorations up and you compare yours to them,” she said.
Kim and Dale Van Eck have been involved with the contest for 15 years and have won several blue ribbons, “so there is some self-applied pressure to continue,” the couple said in an e-mail interview. Dale Van Eck is an education sales manager at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Much of their door-decorating inspiration over the years has come from William Waters, the gentleman farmer originally from the Eastern Shore whose name graces their Colonial Williamsburg historic district home on the north side of Duke of Gloucester Street. At the time of his death in 1767, Waters left a detailed inventory of his belongings.
The William Waters House’s southern exposure also dictates their creativity. “We pretty much have to go with dry materials,” they wrote. “Any kind of fresh fruit, etc. goes bad in just a couple of days.”
Kim Van Eck described the door decoration as “a bouquet of wheat tied with hemp roping [that] pays tribute to celebrating a bountiful harvest.” The couple tied it all together by mounting it on a backdrop of magnolia leaves and accenting it with rosemary, boxwood dock and pine cones.
For Don Moore, who lives in the Elizabeth Reynolds House on Nicholson Street, a theme relating to the home’s 18th-century matron didn’t seem festive; after all, her husband left her for another woman all those centuries ago. So he simply chose some materials he found appealing and thought visitors would like, and started weaving together his wreath.
Moore, who has lived in the historic district for seven years and has a handful of wins to his name, said weather played a role in his decoration. “The weather around here … can be 55 or 5” degrees, said Moore, director of planned giving for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
A wreath he calls “the Ralph Lauren Colonial Collection” because of its lively yellows and purples adorns his front door. It features blue larkspur, lotus pods, yarrow, thistles and a few oyster shells on a double wreath. Moore also created a window oasis and a wreath for outbuilding which used to be a kitchen during colonial times.
“It’s really a special experience to live in the historic area here,” Moore said.
Other winners included Lindsay Keiter and Bryce Bowman of the Scrivener Store on the north side of Duke of Gloucester Street in the amateur category; and Michael Rierson and Kay Lowe in the professional category. Their Benjamin Waller House on Francis Street was decorated by Maggie Chadwick.
The competition isn’t over; another round of judging of historic homes takes place on Monday, Dec. 23.
Two judges from Colonial Williamsburg’s Landscape Department review all decorations that are primarily organic, for freshness and adherence to the resident’s original decorative ideas. The panel will award four purple Decoration Upkeep ribbons.
The judges are “out in the historic area every day…looking at the decorations,” Johnson said. “They are the ones who know when things are not being kept up.”
Toni Guagenti is a Norfolk-based freelance writer.