When President Francis Underwood wants to orchestrate political intrigue – or discuss marital problems – with First Lady Claire Underwood in the sitting room between their separate White House bedrooms, the action isn't at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., in the nation's Capital, but rather in a nondescript warehouse in Joppa.
And, when the fictional president in the popular Netflix political drama "House of Cards" is wooing a fat-cat Iowa campaign donor with a lobster dinner on Air Force One, they aren't jetting over the Midwest, they're sitting in a replica of the plane's interior firmly planted on Maryland soil.
The Joppa warehouse is home to many of the "House of Cards" interior scenes from the White House rooms to Air Force One and elsewhere, all of them meticulously replicated by a small army of decorators, prop men and women, grips, carpenters, electricians and other set crew members.
So, when President Underwood steps through the door leading from the Oval Office to the lawn to share a smoke with Freddy Hayes, formerly of Freddy's BBQ Joint and now working on the White House grounds crew, you'll swear the Ellipse is just a few yards away.
Season 4 of the political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, as the president and first lady, premieres Friday, and the show has been renewed for a fifth season, for which filming will begin in June.
Until then, it's downtime at the nearly 300,000-square-foot warehouse turned sound stages, whose location is kept closely under wraps to avoid break-ins and thefts.
There's a skeleton crew around when production is in hiatus, but come late spring to early summer, those hundreds of support people will be bustling around the set all hours of the day, five days a week through December when the season's filming wraps. Many days they'll be joined by the production crew and the actors themselves.
A reporter and a photographer from The Aegis were invited to tour the sound stages recently with the set decorator, Tiffany Zappulla, who provided some inside stories of decorating for "House of Cards."
Millions of dollars have been spent locally – in Harford County and in Maryland – to create a new White House, buying furniture, paint, carpet, decorative pieces, art, food, wood, construction equipment. You name it, they use it on the set.
When Zappulla can't find what she needs in a store, or it's too expensive to buy, it's often handmade by set construction crews. And everything is well built. It's not thin and flimsy so it just looks good; it's strong and sturdy and will hold up well over time.
There are some pieces in the real White House that only exist there, like lamps and furnishings in the main entry hall. When you're filming a show about the White House, and something similar costs $125,000, you have to find a way to make do with a copy.
During a tour of the real White House, Zappulla was doing her best to figure out how she would do that back in Joppa.
Because no pictures and measurements can be taken at the real presidential mansion, she stood next to furnishings and trim, taking visual measurements using her arms and head – "this part comes to my neck, this part starts at the tip of my outstretched fingers."
She found whatever materials she could, including using a wok, to make a lamp look authentic. An artist on the set carved the lamp's feet.
From the outside, the production site – the film sets, the storage areas – looks like another warehouse, fairly quiet during mid-winter.
Once inside, however, things start to look quite a bit different. Huge box-like structures are built floor to ceiling in the soundproof building. From the outside, they just look like plywood sheathed over 2-by-4s, but walk inside and immediately you're standing in the conference room of Air Force One, or the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, the Oval Office or the president's bedroom.
In one large room is stored everything and anything you could possibly need to decorate the sets of a motion picture, play or television drama, and a lot of things you can't even think of.
One wall is stacked with storage shelves full of chairs. Just chairs. Zappulla jokingly calls it "House of Chairs." They've all been used at some time or another on one of the sets. Along another wall the shelves are filled with sofas.
On another section of wall is art, from large decorative pieces to smaller tabletop. In another corner are brooms and shovels, bikes, fire extinguishers. Walk through the storage areas and you can find anything you need for your home. Decorative vases and bowls. Telephones. Groceries. There's a library of books, tables, various seals of the President of the United States, the different cabinet departments.
Having worked on the show since the beginning, Zappulla knows pretty much where everything is in the giant storage room, though it's still her dream to have bar codes on everything.
"I try to be as organized as possible," she said.
She also has an uncanny memory for recalling what piece has been used in which room and she's very careful not to reuse something.
"If I identify it to a character, I won't reuse it again," she said.
Attention to detail
For the Air Force One interiors, the table in the conference room was custom made by the construction department – an exact replica of the one aboard the real plane. The phones are the same, the chairs – everything is the same to a T. And that's not just in Air Force One, that's for all the Joppa sets.
What you don't see, however, is that the chairs around the conference room of Air Force One on the "House of Cards" set are actually sitting on large wooden boxes covered with carpet. They've been set to a level that makes it easier to film.
Some liberties were taken in the press briefing room. On the set it's a little larger than the room in the White House, Zappulla said.
"The attention to detail is unbelievable," said Trish Heidenreich, economic development director for the Town of Bel Air, who was also present on the tour.
Denny Lee Carpets in Edgewood provided most of the carpeting for the sets.
The Air Force One conference room carpet is blue, the same color as in the U.S. flag, and has stars on it. Rather than spend 10 times as much money on carpet with stars woven in, Zappulla bought regular blue carpet and had the starts painted on.
The marble walls throughout the White House aren't really marble on the "House of Cards" set. Real marble was used only in one place – the main entrance and hallway. Everywhere else there would be marble in the White House, it's a faux paint finish on "House of Cards."
Lots of televisions hang on the walls of the situation room. They are covered with green screens and the news of the day is projected by computer onto the screen, much like television weather forecasters stand in front of a green screen the public can't see.
The White House residence
The White House residence was one of Zappulla's favorite rooms to decorate.
"It's one of my favorite spaces. It's kind of like opening up a jewelry box," she said. "It shines, it sparkles. It was really fun to do."
And it was not an area to be skimped on, Zappulla said.
"It's an area where you need to go all out," she said. "I really put as much quality into this space as possible, within reason."
In the residence, where Francis and Claire live, Zappulla had a little more liberty in decorating. A new president and first lady were coming into the White House, and their tastes are a little more contemporary than the traditional pieces in the presidential collection.
One of Zappulla's personal touches in the residence is a certain corner chair because "I believe every place needs a little bit of leopard."
Claire always seems to have birds around her, so they're tied in to the decor of her bedroom. And there are mainly white flowers decorating the rooms. Wright is not a fan of flowers, Zappulla said, so she chose white tulips because they don't smell.
"Now Claire is associated with white tulips," Zappulla said. And those are the only live flowers used throughout the set – the rest are silk.
Zappulla had some liberty in the on-set residence kitchen, too. The real Washington kitchen is "a very 1980s, utilitarian kitchen with oak cabinets. The "House of Cards" kitchen is more modern with white cabinets and stainless steel appliances. A grill was built into the middle of the island, just so Claire could fry an egg in one scene.
"We had fun with this space," she said.
The first couple's private bathroom was built around one item – the bathtub.
"Everything started with the tub and worked its way out," she said. "And there's very specific art we're trying to tell a story with."
The mood in the residence changes, too, as Francis' mood changes through the third season. The character has become very dark, and so has his room.
In the Oval Office, the seal of the United States is woven into the carpet.
"It's illegal to reproduce the seal," Zappulla said. "but in China they don't care."
And that's where she had to turn for that specific piece of the carpet. (It's also illegal to replicate the Medal of Honor.)
'He doesn't sit there'
The actors do pay attention to their characters and to the sets, though sometimes a little late in the game.
Throughout the third season, a suit hung on a hanger stand in Francis' room. On the last day of filming the fourth season, Spacey noticed the suit and said, "Francis wouldn't wear this suit," so Zappulla got a new one.
In the White House Cabinet Room, chairs are arranged around the oval conference table by position. The president sits across from the vice president, and other cabinet secretaries are seated around the table according to when their department was established.
"Kevin walked in one day and said 'He doesn't sit there,'" Zappulla said, and assured Spacey that the chairs would be in their appropriate places for filming.
Many of the items in Francis' study in the White House were reused.
"We brought in furniture from the beautiful townhouse they were living in when they moved into the White House," Zappulla said.
The magazines on the president's coffee tables are changed to fit the month and year.
Sometimes there are last-minute changes necessary, like the chair in the Oval Office.
"Those chairs are not comfortable," Zappulla said Spacey told her. "And I'm going to be sitting in this chair a lot."
"So I had to change the chair," she said.
One of the best moments for Zappulla as a decorator came at the beginning of the filming of Season 3, the first Francis and Claire are living in the White House.
"On the first day he walked into the residence, Kevin walked in and just said 'Wow.' He kept going through, looking at rooms. Robin was behind him and kept saying, 'Come here, you have to see this,'" Zappulla related.
"As a decorator, that's what I strive to do," she said. "Would this person live here, be comfortable here? Can you add a personal touch and still be in the White House? I think we've been able to balance that very well."