By Amy Eddings
Holiday entertaining reveals the limits of a home.
My dining room, for example, is large enough for a table that seats eight comfortably. Any more guests, and my husband and I have to drag our spare dining table from the basement and set it up in the living room, pushing back armchairs, side tables and floor lamps to make way.
Dan DiBiasio and his wife, Chris Burns-DiBiasio, do not have this problem. As president and first lady of Ohio Northern University in Ada, the couple lives in The Dicke House, the president’s home, built in 1999 on the western edge of campus. It’s a gracious, red brick Georgian house that was designed for entertaining.
“It has a sensitivity to how you receive guests,” Burns-DiBiasio said. “This house has a big ‘wow’ factor.”
That includes a spacious entry hall that leads, visually and spacially, to a chandelier and a grand, circular stairway made entirely of oak. At the stairway’s base, at Christmas, the couple places a towering, fresh-cut evergreen tree.
To the left of the entry hall is a large receiving room with multi-paned windows, including a bay window that looks out on clipped boxwood and rose bushes that were still putting out blooms in late October.
There’s a fireplace, too, one of three in the home. During the holidays, Burns-DiBiasio works with Carol Slane Florist to play up the fireplaces and other architectural features of the house, like the two pillars near the front door and the spiral staircase.
“We’ve gotten to the point now where we’re reusing a lot of decorations,” she said, like silk flowers, candles, ornaments and figurines. “My Christmas entertaining starts early. It’s better for me to have things that will last and accent with fresh things, flower arrangements, and turn it over.”
Across the entry hall from the receiving room is the dining room. Seventeen were expected for dinner on the day I visited. The table can accommodate 20.
“The table consumes the whole space,” she said. “It doesn’t break down.”
No need here to haul up an extra table from the basement, I thought.
Off of the dining room, behind a double set of doors, is the kitchen, a “wow factor” that most guests won’t ever see. Two ovens. Two dishwashers. A Viking gas range with four burners, a griddle/grill and an exhaust hood. Plenty of counterspace. A huge, black granite-topped island with a handwashing sink.
“I love to cook,” Burns-DiBiasio said. “I love this kitchen.”
The caterers for that night’s event, she said, will use every square inch of space.
“This will be covered with stuff,” the first lady said. “I will clear all the counters for them, stuff everything under…” She motioned toward the cabinets. “That’s my job.”
Stowing away kitchen knickknacks for university events is one of the many ways they have to balance their private, family life with DiBiasio’s very public job. It’s a delicate dance they’ve been practicing since since 1995, when he became president of Wilmington College in Wilmington. The couple lived in the president’s house at Wilmington College, too, and raised their two sons there.
“The challenge with children was maintaining a private life,” Burns-DiBiasio said. “When we were entertaining, depending on their age, I’d either have to have a babysitter who would take care of them and make sure they were doing their homework, or, if they were older, like, teenagers, making sure the music that they’re playing upstairs in their rooms didn’t interfere with our event.”
She said she appreciated the layout of the presidents’ homes at both Wilmington and Northern for providing a comfortable and seamless separation between public and private spaces.
“Many presidents’ homes on other college campuses are older homes that have been adapted and the family is relegated to the upstairs. Maybe they’ll come down to use the kitchen,” she said. “Why I like this house, and the house in Wilmington, is because both of them have been designed for the purpose that they serve.”
She said she often reminds herself that her home plays a special role in the community.
“I kind of forget that,” she chuckled. “I think of myself as a regular person. But people love to come to the president’s house. They love to receive an invitation. They see you on campus and they want to see your home. There’s something special about coming up to the front door, walking into the home and be greeted by the president and their spouse.”
And there’s something special about having a home that will allow you to do that without having to push an armchair into a corner.
Here’s an example of what First Lady Chris Burns DiBiasio might serve guests during the holidays at The Dicke House.
Roasted red pepper soup; spinach and strawberry salad, with warm balsamic and bacon dressing; filet mignon with jumbo prawns; garlic parmesan potato soufflé; broccolini; dinner rolls (she likes Williams-Sonoma’s rolls) and Cora’s red velvet cake.
CORA’S RED VELVET CAKE
Start to finish: 1 hour and 15 minutes hours (active time, 20 minutes)
Flour for dusting
2 1/2 cups self-rising flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cocoa
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil (very important to use vegetable oil)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) liquid red food coloring
1 teaspoon white vinegar
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
10 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
Preheat over to 325 F.
Prepare two 9-inch cake rounds with pan spray and dust with flour.
Sift the flour twice, once before you measure and then again after you measure. Separately, sift together the baking soda, sugar and cocoa. Mix with the flour in a large mixing bowl.
Whisk together buttermilk, vegetable oil, eggs, vanilla extract, food coloring and vinegar in a medium bowl. Make a deep well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in all the wet ingredients (this is very important). Using an electric mixer, mix on medium speed until all ingredients are well-blended, approximately 3 minutes. The batter will be very thin.
Divide the batter evenly into the two cake rounds. Once the batter is in the pans, gently drop the pans on the counter to remove any air bubbles.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 30-45 minutes (cake should be very moist so be careful not to overbake).
Cool cake in pans on rack for 10 minutes. Loosen around edges with a small knife. Remove cake from the pans and cool completely on rack to room temperature.
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, blend the butter, cream cheese and powdered sugar together until smooth, approximately 3 minutes. Add the pecans to the mixture and gently mix until fully blended.
Place cake layers on a cake plate, spreading frosting between each layer. Spread remaining frosting on top and side of cake. Serve.
THE DICKE HOUSE
Ohio Northern University
920 W. Lima Ave., Ada