Christmas Through the Years at the S. C. Governor’s Mansion

Posted On November 8, 2018

Columbia Garden Club’s Gift to the Holidays

By Warren Hughes     Photos: Courtesy of the Columbia Garden Club 

Holiday beauty is indeed in the eyes of an enchanted beholder, and for almost 40 years, the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion has shone through the talented hands of the Columbia Garden Club, whose members create a magical aura throughout the stately home for thousands of visitors during the annual Christmas Holiday Open House.    

“Since Hurricane Florence left its mark in the Carolinas, the 2018 season will be a time of reflection and remembrance,” said Peggy McMaster, wife of Gov. Henry D. McMaster, who led the state in preparing for disaster from Hurricane Florence in September. “We especially appreciate the Columbia Garden Club members’ giving of themselves in creating a beautiful, welcoming home of which all South Carolinians can be proud. May the spirit of Christmas touch every soul during this holiday of sharing.”

Garden club member and photographer Liz Roberts shares a gift of her own by providing a visual record of the annual mansion décor, with a new theme each year through the inspiration of the club’s decorating chairs and their legion of willing helpers. “I always look forward to taking pictures of the Christmas tree and other beautiful arrangements and decorations at the mansion. Every year is different and every year is wonderful,” says Roberts.

Joan Danforth, as a former CGC president and Trinity Cathedral flower guild chair, shines as one of the dedicated members who bring their expertise to the effort. Noting she has decorated each of the designated rooms more than once, she says, “My favorite room to do is the Library. We have so much fun and learn new flower arranging skills every year from each other.” Danforth’s modesty is becoming, since floral arrangers from across the country and abroad have benefitted from her knowledge. She has been involved in decorating the mansion each year except for the years when she and husband, David, lived in London.      

The 2018 mansion decorating chairs are Denice Degenhart and Pat Johnston, who are performing a welcome encore since they also have served previously in those roles. Many of the mansion’s visitors, beginning December 3rd, may be waiting to get ideas for their own homes once they see what awaits them, but for Degenhart and Johnston, their plans began in the spring.

Johnston says, “Denice and I have chaired this committee numerous times and have had the opportunity to incorporate ‘all things Southern’ on each occasion. We usually begin the planning and gathering process months in advance, as it gives us ample time to determine the theme and tone for each of the mansion’s gracious rooms.”

The historic South Carolina Governor’s Mansion, built in 1855 as officer quarters for Arsenal Military Academy, survived the burning of Columbia during the Civil War. In 1868, Gov. James L. Orr designated the building as the home for South Carolina’s chief executives. Since then, it has undergone several renovations, the one in 1999-2001 being the most extensive.

“The first lady and governor each have their own style for Christmas décor, so we typically meet with Mansion Christmas Coordinator Nancy Bunch, also a member of the garden club, during the summer to incorporate their taste and color preferences. Denice and I then begin the quest for determining design,” Johnston explained.

“This year, our theme is ‘Blue Willow’ as we will be using it and chinoiserie containers throughout the mansion. Ornate patterns of blue paired with simple lines was our elegant inspiration for this year’s décor. These containers will be on loan from our members’ personal collections and some from family and friends. We will be using both antique vessels and reproductions filled with majestic palms softened by greens and berries, mostly gathered from our members’ gardens. Seasonal white blooms in abundance, textured with hints of antique gold will complete the regal and elegant design we are hoping to achieve,” she said.

“Each year, Denice and I look forward to the opportunity to view the creative talents and inspirations of our members. This will be the 37th year the Columbia Garden Club has decorated the mansion,” she noted.

Chinoiserie is the French word from chinois for Chinese. First appearing in the 17th century, chinoiserie - as the style is called - became popular in the 18th century through trade with China and East Asia. It represented European imitation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the decorative arts. The English used the term “Blue Willow” to describe their interpretation of the Chinese tradition, typified by landscape designs.

Degenhart and Johnston are pleased some of the items on loan will be from the personal collection of Meredith Graves Rotko, former floral designer for Winterthur, who gave a presentation in November for the Columbia Garden Club. Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware is the fifth largest home in the United States. Constructed in 1932, the Georgian revival house was the home of Henry Francis du Pont. 

“Our hope is to achieve a beautiful classic design and with our incredibly talented members, we know that goal will be easily met,” Degenhart said.

Holiday Memories

Having served six governors over 25 years from Carroll Campbell to Henry McMaster, Mansion Christmas Coordinator Nancy Bunch has a treasure trove of holiday memories and the garden club’s role in creating them. She can also take personal pride in the outcome as a member of the club.  

“Most of the first families have spent all their Christmases in the mansion,” Bunch said. “CGC transforms it into such a warm, festive home for the holidays. The first families enjoy inviting their relatives and friends to share the glory of Christmas with them. And how lucky they are to have their home decorated by such talented elves - one of the real perks of living in the mansion.

“Even the birds have enjoyed their own outdoor tree through the decades,” Bunch said, recalling the role of CGC member Yvonne Russell, herself the daughter-in-law of the late Gov. and Mrs. Donald S. Russell. “Yvonne decorated the birds’ tree for many years before the Columbia Junior Garden Club assumed the job, making their own decorations.”

The mansion hostess has high praise for her sister garden club members. “It is such a pleasure working with them. Through the years, the decorating chairs have totally dedicated their holiday seasons to the Governor’s Mansion. Not only do they spend a week on site, they often start planning their theme as early as spring and begin collecting the perfect pieces that will make Christmas at the mansion a very special memory. And following a week of intense work, they return often to freshen greens. It is a commitment and these ladies are totally dedicated.”

After the members have packed up their clippers and trimmings, “I am always in awe of the magical feeling of Christmas they have created. Each room is wrapped in joyous splendor,” she said. “They have been my special blessing each Christmas for several decades now, and I have no earthly idea how we would have ever survived Christmases at the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion without them,” she declared.

Each holiday memory is also special, because governors and their families have all added personal seasonal touches throughout the years. The Columbia Garden Club began decorating the mansion after Gov. Richard “Dick” Riley became governor in 1979. His late wife, Ann (nickname “Tunky”), a USC graduate, knew just what to do when faced with the daunting task of decorating the mansion for the holidays in 1981. She turned to longtime talented friends in the Columbia Garden Club and thus a tradition was begun.

That was before Bunch began working at the mansion, as she joined the staff when Gov. and Mrs. Campbell became residents in 1987. “For many of the Campbell Christmases, there was a handsome buggy filled with packages in front of the mansion,” Bunch recalls. “Some of their Christmas cards pictured the family posed in the buggy. Mrs. Campbell loved large, impressive decorations, such as the buggy and the angels hung in the arches of the entrance hall. The CGC always welcomes ideas from the first ladies and carries out their wishes.”

Mansion holidays are especially merry with the presence of children, so a particularly memorable period was launched in 1995 with the arrival of Gov. and Mrs. David Beasley and their family. “After many years without young children in the house, it was fun to see all of the festive decorations,” Bunch says of that time. “The Large Drawing Room mantel was laden with peppermint candy garlands and gingerbread men galore by Denise Degenhart and Pat Johnston. Wooden soldiers greeted guests at the front door and in the Library were some of the Beasleys’ personal collection clustered among the greens. Childlike gold and white angels decked the Small Drawing Room mantel.” Regardless of the composition of the first family offspring, whether they be toddler, teen or twenty-something, “The CGC always adds just the right touch,” Bunch says.

Christmas 2001 was especially memorable with the reopening of the newly renovated mansion. Craig Melvin, now news anchor on NBC's "The Today Show" but then with WIS-TV, arrived at the mansion before dawn to film a news segment. Bunch and CGC President Jane Suggs were there to meet the crew.  

“Governor and Mrs. Hodges and the boys all came down to join us and shared their excitement over their first Christmas in the newly renovated mansion. The CGC had really gone overboard to make it an extra special season,” Bunch recalled.

When Anne Bristow was CGC president during the Sanford administration, the four sons were able to apply their own decorating touches. Born in Charleston, they brought an outdoor sporting theme to their efforts. The CGC gave Marshall, Landon, Bolton, and Blake Sanford free reign with the Christmas tree in the Charleston Garden. “They had creations such as alligator bones sprayed gold with a sea turtle skull atop the tree and empty shotgun shells with a camouflage hat atop. The CGC welcomed their personalities and loved the décor, as did the many visitors,” Bunch remembers.

While the Sanford sons displayed their talents before guests, Bristow awed visitors with her striking motif. She filled custom-made wooden plant holders with poinsettias to line the staircase. “I’d never seen that done in the mansion before,” Bunch said. “Talk about a statement.”        

During Gov. Nikki Haley’s service 2011-2017, son and daughter, Nalin and Rena, brought youthful gaiety again to the holiday festivities. “Faye Jeffcoat created magnificent colorful and shiny Christmas ball wreaths and trees. She also introduced the Palmetto tree and crescent wreath at the entrance that was used for several years. One year, ice cream cones were made from shiny balls atop handmade cones with painted chocolate and sprinkles drooling down the sides. CGC never lacks creativity,” Bunch said.

When Haley became United States Ambassador to the United Nations, the McMasters began their years in residence, where they will celebrate their second Christmas this year. During their first holiday season at the mansion last year, CGC President Jamie Harpootlian brought morning treats for club volunteers during their decorating, some of which Mac, the McMaster’s English bulldog, got to enjoy. For decorations, CGC Chairs Martha Morris and Jeannie Powell incorporated bulldog replicas that had been given to the McMasters.     

The Tradition Begins

This year, the CGC members will begin creating their holiday magic Nov. 26, gathering to repeat the tradition they began in 1981. That morning, a tree will be delivered by the S.C. State Fair’s 1st Place winner, who is a member of the South Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Association. It will be the first family’s traditional centerpiece in the Large Drawing Room. The Future Farmers of Lexington Technology Center also will arrive with their annual gift of poinsettias they have grown themselves.

On hand to chronicle the details will be Verd Cunningham, former club president, who now serves as history chair. “The Columbia Garden Club has afforded me exciting ways to contribute to my community while working with delightful, creative friends,” she says in relating highpoints of the club’s contributions to the community through the years.

Current CGC President Susan Shuler says, "The Columbia Garden Club would not exist without the immeasurable dedication of time, energy, creativity, talent, and brainpower of so many. All of this is why after 91 years, CGC is still going strong. It is an honor and pleasure to be the president of such a wonderful and giving organization."

The Columbia Garden Club, founded in 1926, and its foundation, established in 1983, have contributed to the beautification of nearly every landmark in Columbia. In 2017, the Governor’s Mansion Foundation dedicated a bench in the Boylston Garden in the club’s honor for decorating the mansion for the holidays over 35 years. In 2004, the club also began a partnership with BellSouth, now AT&T, to purchase and decorate the State Christmas Tree on the State House grounds. In 2009, the Columbia Garden Club teamed with the Garden Club of South Carolina for the annual outdoor project. The Downtown Optimist Club has also contributed to it.

Christmas Open House with Gov. and Mrs. Henry D. McMaster greeting guests will be 5:30-7:30 p.m., Mon., Dec3, at the Governor’s Mansion, 800 Richland St. in Columbia.

The public is invited with no charge and no reservation needed. Along with entertainment and refreshments, Santa Claus has been scheduled for an appearance. 

Regular 30-minute holiday tours with docent guides will be Tues.-Thurs., Dec. 4-6 and Tues.-Thurs., Dec. 11-13 at 10 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. They are also free, but by reservation. Call 803-737-1710 or email nbunch@governor.sc.gov.

Columbia Garden Club master Pat Johnston shares how to create your own holiday magic:

“Decorating for the holidays can be a daunting task. However, a little planning now will save you lots of time. Most amaryllis bulbs can be purchased at any big box home improvement store. Put them in clear glass containers filled with some pebbles and water and watch them grow! Wrap the glass container with a pretty satin ribbon and you have a lovely table arrangement that will last through the holidays. Use an odd number of containers- three or five and keep the same color theme throughout your home- we prefer a common thread to tie the rooms together.

“With regard to front door wreaths, magnolia wreaths are beautiful and they age to a warm golden brown over time. You will be able to use the same wreath for a few years if you have a place to store it during the off seasons.

“And don’t forget the powder room – Nandina berries and some small Fraser fir branches – left over from trimming the tree, placed in a small pretty vase will complete your holiday decorations.”