Dorchester’s Renovation Husbands Deck the White House Halls
Stephen and David St. Russell, a Boston-based home-design creator duo, bring their DIY magic to the People’s House.
Besides their Boston Victorian for the festive season, David and Stephen St. Russell picked up an unexpected holiday project this year: Decorating the White House.
Better known as the Renovation Husbands, the St. Russells are a husband-and-husband content creator duo with nearly 300,000 followers across social-media platforms. Since purchasing a formerly gutted 1893 Dorchester home in 2017—when the abandoned eyesore didn’t have plumbing or electricity—the Boston-based couple has meticulously documented the property’s DIY transformation on their gorgeous photography-packed site. But with their antics and charm, the St. Russells have also found a devoted audience on Instagram and TikTok, where videos bounce between helpful and hilarious, with tips on cabinet installation and landscaping interspersed with the occasional lip-sync of a Grey Gardens monologue and a Taylor Swift chorus. Bonus charisma aside, the couple’s design and restoration work is truly masterful, garnering the attention of publications like House Beautiful and Country Living. Plus the Boston Preservation Alliance awarded the St. Russells the 2022 Preservation Achievement Award for their work restoring and modernizing their historic Dorchester beauty.
So when the White House put out a call seeking volunteers to decorate the most famously historic American house for the holidays, the two jumped at the chance and applied. Selected as part of a pool of about 150 volunteers from all 50 states, they worked from November 21 through the 28 to help bring First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s holiday vision to life. Typically, the White House taps volunteers for one of two three-day shifts, with a break for Thanksgiving, though the St. Russells were picked for both blocks.
“What we thought was amazing was how much of this was actually DIY,” David says of the process. “You would think that they were buying all of this stuff, and designers were coming in, but almost all of the decor was either pulled from previous years or hand-assembled.”
This year’s theme of “We the People” sees the grounds and multiple rooms of the People’s House decked out with 84,000 holiday lights, 12,000 ornaments, 77 Christmas trees, 25 wreaths, and more. Much of that hand-assembly took place at an offsite Home Depot-sized warehouse “in an undisclosed location,” says Stephen, stacked with building materials, decor, extra furniture and other supplies. “We were both doing the messy craft work that we didn’t want to do in the White House, and picking from all the White House Christmas archives that were all boxed there,” he continues. “You can go down this aisle that’s just box after box of Christmas decor from all different administrations.”
The St. Russells spent the first two days crafting at the warehouse, where they peeked at seasonal treasures like gold leaf from the Clinton administration, then spent a third day organizing boxes of decor for inspection by the Secret Service, ahead of its delivery to the White House. After a break for Thanksgiving with family in the local area, decking the historic halls of the People’s House began in earnest.
“We felt really honored and excited to be doing the Blue Room, which has the official Christmas tree,” Stephen says. “It’s right in the center of the White House and is an eighteen-and-a-half foot tall tree that we—because we were the only ones who wanted to get on this eighteen-foot tall scaffolding—basically put every item on the tree.” Designer Emily Barton crafted the tree’s ornaments: Fifty-seven papier-mâché models of official birds for each state, territory, and the District of Columbia, with labels added by White House calligraphers. All the birds flocked together as one illustrates the room’s theme of unity and hope. “It was really exciting and an honor to feel like we had some ownership of that part, and was just really cool to experience.” (You can see Stephen and David decorating the tree in slide three of this official FLOTUS Instagram post.)
For David, what stuck was how, after daily COVID screenings and security checks, volunteers had the freedom to wander the building and enter any room with an open door—surreal access for a place that seems so untouchable. “Being able to walk up and look at all the portraits you’ve seen in history books as a kid—the originals of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are just there chilling out in a hallway,” David says. “That was probably the coolest part for me.”
Other surprises included crafting in a paint workshop in the belly of the White House, past steam pipes and down hallways. “It was funny because it wasn’t well organized at the time and we were like, ‘Oh, even the White House paint room can be a mess,’ ” says David. (“Relatable,” Stephen adds with a laugh.)
A reception on their final day included time with Dr. Jill Biden, who thanked volunteers after she met with National Guard families. “She gave her official tidbit and then, before leaving, stopped to thank us another time when the press cameras weren’t there, and it did feel very sincere,” David says.
Now that they’re back home in Boston, the Capitol experience not only sparked the seasonal spirit, but also gave them an idea for at least one potential project: Reproducing their own miniature version of the Blue Room Christmas tree and documenting the process. Among the things they learned from the White House experience—how to use lots of fake snow, for example, and that the seemingly-intimidating Secret Service “ended up just being very sweet,” as Stephen puts it—they’re hoping to inspire people, even beyond the holiday season.
“Part of the reason that we were there was to spread the word that it’s even possible to go, and encourage more people to volunteer,” David says. “They’re working really hard to make it more accessible—really make it the People’s House.”