Deck the Halls … and Every Room

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Local philanthropist Ellen Bolch fills her historic Vernonburg house with family memories and Christmas cheer


IF YOU ENJOY ENGAGING IN THE FRAY ON BLACK FRIDAY, rest assured Ellen Bolch will not be found in the crowd. The stylish Savannahian is too busy at home preparing the entrance hall of her circa-1847 home on the Vernon River for its seasonal fixture: a slender 12-foot fir freshly shipped from North Carolina.

“I like skinny trees so I can put them in the front hallway because it’s so festive to walk in and have the tree in your face,” Bolch says. She even has the chandelier temporarily removed to make way for the towering Tanenbaum, which reaches right up to her ceiling, its inky star wallpaper absorbing the warmth of a thousand Christmas lights. 

Historic home decorated for the holidays
a bust in a Santa Claus hat
nativity scene
The entryway console receives several holiday touches: a bust by artist Cathy Jarman sports a Santa Claus cap, and red and pink poinsettias accentuate the console’s rich pink hues. Nearby is one of the many Nativity scenes.

While “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Gregorian chants ring out, Bolch and her husband, Dr. Sidney “Jeep” Bolch III, adorn the tree with basketball badges and classroom crafts from her now-adult children’s time at Savannah Country Day School, silver Halloween baubles — mementos from the couple’s October 31 nuptials — and Bolch’s personal favorite: a small porcelain angel her parents purchased for her decades ago. 

“We are big Christmas nuts, and each year we tend to go more overboard,” Bolch says.

By the Monday morning following Thanksgiving, the tree is fully trimmed. Then, wasting no time, Bolch charges Helen Yates, the Bolches’ facilities manager, and their interior designer of 25 years, Carolyn Hultman (Hultman Interiors) to deck all the halls from top to bottom. 

Entryway with holiday wreaths

“Ellen is the only client I will decorate for. I don’t know how I got in it, but I cannot get out of it,” Hultman laughs. “I usually go away for Christmas to visit my five children and 10 grandchildren, so I enjoy styling her house because I feel like I am getting my own house ready. It gets me in the Christmas spirit for sure.”

As president and CEO of THA Group and an active member of the Rotary Club of Savannah and Bethesda Union Society, Bolch hosts a company Christmas party and charity board dinners, plus out-of-town guests, so Hultman and Yates ensure every space is merry and bright.

“We like to put something on almost every tabletop,” Hultman says of the two-day intensive. “And we are always reinventing ourselves.” 

Christmas tree
Christmas ornament
Cockateel Christmas ornament

Boxes of intricate Nativity scenes and a zoo of white mink animals dress sideboards and mantelpieces while bowls of silvered pears and polished trays accentuate the gilt- and silver-wallpapered parlors.

In a cheeky nod to the Lowcountry, Hultman gives a shell bust by local artist Cathy Jarman a Santa cap, while Bolch outfits a Bird Girl statue replica with a string of coral beads.

“As my husband, Jeep, would say, ‘Once we finish decorating for Christmas, don’t think about putting down your drink glass.’ There are no surfaces that are not decorated.”

— Ellen Bolch, homeowner

And finally, there are pots of pink and red poinsettias, swags of garland and smilax vine, and bowls of white orchids dotting doorways, chandeliers and tabletops inside the house and on each porch. 

“We can mix anything together and it works because the house is so crazy,” Hultman says of Bolch’s maximalist style.

The dining table, much like the hostess’ wardrobe, is a masterclass in elegant layering. Atop a white lace tablecloth, Bolch mixes embroidered linens, Tiffany holiday china, gleaming silver service, crystal glasses and a dizzying display of red and gold balls that spill from the table onto the buffet and across the faux zebra wood mantel painted by artist Sam Ward.  

coastal holiday decor on outdoor dining table
Overlooking the Vernon River, an outdoor dining set from Brown Jordan is the perfect place for a warm winter meal. A cachepot of orchids and variety of Christmas dishes bring holiday cheer to the setting.

“As my husband, Jeep, would say, ‘Once we finish decorating for Christmas, don’t think about putting down your drink glass,’” Bolch jokes. “There are no surfaces that are not decorated.”

While the decoration and hosting bring bountiful joy all month, the pinnacle celebration, an over-the-top Christmas pageant, takes place on December 24. A long-standing tradition, the Bolches entice guests with the promise of heavy hors d’oeuvres, Champagne and their very own role in the production. 

“ We like to put something on almost every tabletop. And we are always reinventing ourselves.”

— Carolyn Hultman, Hultman Interiors

“For years, I dressed everybody out of my closet,” Bolch says. “The Wise Men had my scarves wrapped around them, robes and jewels and [one] is in graduation regalia with all the colors, a mortarboard and everything.”

Dining room table set with Tiffany's holiday china
Michael DeLoach, the Bolch’s original decorator, selected metallic wallpapers for the dining room’s walls and ceiling to give the room a soft glow.
Tiffany’s holiday china and Christmas ornaments on a dining table
Tiffany’s holiday china was an annual gift from Bolch to her children and grandchildren until it was taken out of production in 2020. Here it sits alongside personal bottles of her signature bubbles.

As the ecumenical celebration has grown, new roles have been doled out and guests have contributed their own costumes. “We’ve added other characters like little Cindy-Lou Who and the Mayor of Whoville, so everyone has their own parts,” Bolch says, adding that even the couple’s Jack Russell terriers get involved — complete with handmade sheep costumes.

Once the performance concludes, the decorations sufficiently admired and family dinner devoured, Bolch turns the holiday hosting over to her daughter and son-in-law, Meredith and Reed Dulany, who hold a Christmas Eve sleepover followed by a gift exchange and Champagne brunch on Christmas morning.

Each year, Mame and Papa Beep — as Bolch and Jeep are affectionately known to their grandchildren — give special thought to spreading holiday cheer with their gifts. “I always give them something that will help them continue Christmas in their own homes,” Bolch says. “And I completely indulge in whatever they ask for. I am a sucker!” 

As for her own decades-old collection of Christmas treasures, Bolch is switching gears, foregoing the hunt for more decorations in favor of new creative projects with Hultman — most notably, a floor-to-ceiling closet complete with rolling ladder, for Bolch’s extensive collection of gowns and robes.

Although her holiday collecting may have slowed, Bolch insists Hultman’s festive flair and decorating services will continue to be in demand for years to come. “We share Christmas,” Bolch says.


Homeowners: Ellen and Sidney J. Bolch III
Year built: 1847
Year Renovated: 1992
Neighborhood: Vernonburg
Bedrooms and bathrooms: 5 beds, 6.5 bathrooms
Square footage: 6,855 
Interior Designer (2000 to present): Carolyn Hultman, Hultman Interiors
Builder: D.L. Moore

Kitchen design: Michael DeLoach
Master bathroom: Carolyn Hultman, Hultman Interiors
Tile: Garden State Tile
Flooring: original heart pine
Landscape: John McEllen
Paint: Sherwin-Williams
Windows and doors: original to home
Bath fixtures: Waterworks; Savannah Surfaces

All details provided by the homeowner and interior designer.

SALT OF THE CITY: Ellen Bolch is in a league of her own. READ MORE

INHERENT STYLE: Good taste runs in the family for Ellen Bolch and daughter Meredith Dulany. READ MORE

Cover of Savannah magazine's November/December 2023 issue

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