How This Gala Made a Historic Mansion Feel Less Formal

The 49th Annual Meridian Ball kept things fun with a nacho bar, cigars, and a doughnut wall.

By Adele Chapin October 27, 2017, 7:16 AM EDT

Colorful linens from DC Rental and arrangements from Philippa Tarrant Floral Design topped tables in the White-Meyer House reception hall for the seated dinner.

Photo: Rodney Bailey

Meridian International Center's Meridian Ball
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Nonprofit global leadership organization Meridian International Center’s annual Meridian Ball is a fixture of Washington’s social season. The gala draws politicians and diplomats to the stately Meridian House, designed by renowned architect John Russell Pope. 

True to form, the 49th edition of the Meridian Ball on October 20 boasted 800 guests, with bold-faced names like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin, and Deputy National Security advisor Dina Powell in attendance. 

And while the setting was formal, the decor proved to be anything but. Design elements for the Latin-inspired event included tropical flowers, cigar rollers, colorful paper cutouts, and even a surprise doughnut wall with Mexican hot chocolate that sat near the exit as guests left the event.

“It is such a formal place,” Meridian International Center director of events Maria Canellis said of the gala’s setting. “It’s very French and gilded." 

So the Meridian team chose fun food and decor as a juxtaposition to the venue’s aesthetic, she said. “We even had a nacho bar in the corner—it's something completely unexpected at a gala.”

The cuisine menu, flowers, and design riffed on the inspiration for the evening’s decor. “We thought about taking inspiration from Latin culture and taking the vibrancy of that culture through the event,” Canellis explained. 

Guests began the evening with a cocktail reception in the Meridian House’s Linden Grove courtyard, then either went to dinner at one of 25 embassy partner spots or at Meridian's White-Meyer House next door, and ended the party with dancing in a clear-topped tent in the garden. 

Putting on such a large gala in a historic home takes careful strategy, according to Canellis. “The older houses are very salon-style in the way that they are designed, and you have to work with the space,” she says. “You separate off things and compartmentalize things. What it ends up doing is making things very intimate and you have little experiences in each of the rooms rather than one large ballroom space where you section it off.” 

Each room at the gala offered something different. For example, a band stood stationed in one room, and another room included an elaborate dessert display. Canellis also took advantage of the Linden Grove to stage the after-party’s nacho bar and tres leches stations.

This year proved to be record-breaking for the Meridian Ball in terms of funds raised, though the organization declined to reveal how much it raised. It also attracted corporate sponsors like Bayer, Chevron, and Gallup at the Ambassador’s Circle Level, its highest rung of sponsorship.

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