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Inspecting a large, bare Christmas tree inside Meadow Brook Hall’s breathtaking ballroom just days before the 1929 estate’s holiday fundraiser opens, Alice Waterous noticed a problem. The lights were strung too tight.

There’s an art to stringing holiday lights on a tree, said Waterous, a Grand Haven floral designer who has overseen the installation of Meadow Brook’s holiday decor for nearly 20 years. 

“You want the lights to go in and out,” said Waterous, taking a strand of lights with her hand and gently pushing them further into the tree. If lights are wound too tightly, “you’re seeing all the wire.”

Waterous knows a thing or two about creating a magical holiday look and lights are just one part of the equation. For 18 years, she and her team of “elves” — her company is called Alice’s Christmas Elves — have decorated Meadow Brook, the former home of auto heiress Matilda Dodge Wilson and her second husband, Alfred, decking it out in its holiday finest.

It’s all done before the mansion’s Holiday Walk, its biggest fundraiser of the year, which begins Friday. Approximately 12,000 people are expected to attend.

By the time guests arrive next week, Waterous and her team of 12 will have decorated 38 different spaces within the mansion, more than 50 trees and nearly two dozens mantels. Most of the trees have different color themes and motifs, which are tweaked every year so visitors have a unique experience.

“It looks different every single year,” said Shannon O’Berski, Meadow Brook’s director of external relations. “There should be a reason to come back and we really work hard to make sure that happens.”

Earlier this week, approximately 80 volunteers assembled the trees and strung them with lights (they have no pre lit trees, but a donor donated 80 pre-lit garland strands this year) before Waterous and her crew arrived Thursday. 

And while Meadow Brook’s staff picks out some color combinations or motifs for certain rooms, it’s Waterous and her team who really bring the decor to life, said Kim Zelinski, Meadow Brook’s senior director of museum operations.

“She takes my ideas and amplifies them by 10,” said Zelinksi.

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The historic home gets its annual makeover for the holidays David Guralnick, The Detroit News

Installing all that decor is no small feat. Waterous and her team, most of whom are from west Michigan, will work for three days straight at the 88,000-square-foot estate, using ladders, wire cutters and more. One floral designer, Suzie Kostick, a Michigan native, flies in all the way from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help. But it’s a labor of love, they say.

“Being able to make Meadow Brook come alive at Christmas time, it’s such a thrill,” said Laura Parker, a floral designer and team member who lives in Holly. “I love it. And I love Christmas. It’s just a joy.”

Waterous, a grandmother to five, one of whom, Terezia Waterous, is part of her Meadow Brook team, said there’s a reason floral designers are a good fit for holiday decorating. She compares what she does to a cooking show with certain ingredients and she and her team have to whip something up.

“We can take things that frighten other people and make them look good,” said Waterous. “It’s color, texture, line and form.”

“It really is a skill set,” said O’Berski. “They’re artists.”

Real to life-like

When the Holiday Walk started at Meadow Brook 47 years ago, it ran for just three days and all the Christmas trees were real. This year it will run for a month. 

“It was nice when we had live stuff, but it didn’t hold up. We transitioned to the artificial probably 20-25 years ago,” Zelinski said. 

Waterous started doing the holiday decor for the Holiday Walk actually as part of another team. Eventually she took over and brought in her own crew.

Two are artists. Several are floral designers themselves. One is a freelance event designer. One is a waiter. 

Kostick, who travels the farthest, says Meadow Brook is the main reason she flies in to help Waterous.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “It kicks off the holiday season for me. It really does.”

By 9 a.m. Thursday, with snowflakes falling gently all around Meadow Brook, Waterous’s team was already in full decorating mode. Members could be spotted from 50 yards away. They were wearing neon yellow shirts and hoodies with “Alice’s Christmas Elves” printed on the back.

“Here it’s not as important, but I do a casino and they’re neon so I can spot my folks,” said Waterous, who main also decorates the main tree at Ford Field. 

In the outside garage, dozens of bins of ornaments, picks and other decor were scattered on the floor and on nearby tables. They were divided by color. Zelinski said they probably have about 200 Christmas bins, which doesn’t include floral boxes, ribbons or lights.

Walking along the rows in the garage, Waterous spotted a long box with lime green floral picks. It would work for the trees in the ballroom that would be decorated in shades of burgundy red and lime.

"It looks different every single year," said Shannon O'Berski, Meadow Brook's director of external relations. "There should be a reason to come back and we really work hard to make sure that happens."

Earlier this week, approximately 80 volunteers assembled the trees and strung them with lights (they have no pre lit trees — yet) before Waterous and her crew arrived Thursday. And Meadow Brook staff picked out some color combinations or motifs for certain rooms. But it's Waterous and her team who really bring the decor to life, said Kim Zelinski, Meadow Brook's senior director of museum operations. 

"She takes my ideas and amplifies them by 10," said Zelinksi.

Installing all that decor is tough, demanding work. Waterous and her team, the majority of whom drive in from the west side of Michigan, will work for three days straight at Meadow Brook, using ladders, wire cutters and more. One floral designer, Suzie Kostick, a Michigan native, flies all the way in from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help. But it's a labor of love, they say.

"Being able to make Meadow Brook come alive at Christmas time, it's such a thrill," said Laura Parker, a floral designer and team member who lives in Holly. "I love it. And I love Christmas. It's just a joy."

Waterous, a grandmother to five, one of whom, Terezia Waterous, helps with the holiday decorating at Meadow Brook, said there's a reason floral designers are a good fit for holiday decorating. She compares what she does to a cooking show with certain ingredients and she and her team have to whip something up.

"We can take things that frighten other people and make them look good," said Waterous. "It's color, texture, line and form."

"It really is a skill set," said O'Berski. "They're artists."

Real to life-like

When the Holiday Walk started at Meadow Brook 47 years ago, it ran for just three days and all the Christmas trees were real. It was eventually extended to a week and then 10 days. 

"It was nice when we had live stuff, but it didn't hold up. We transitioned to the artificial probably 20-25 years ago," Zelinski said. 

Waterous started doing the holiday decor for the Holiday Walk, which now runs for a month, nearly two decades ago with another team. Eventually she took over and brought in her own crew.

Two are artists. Several are floral designers themselves. One is a freelance event designer. One is a waiter. 

Kostick, who lives in New Mexico, said Meadow Brook is the main reason she flies in to help Waterous.

"I wouldn't miss it," she said. "It kicks off the holiday season for me. It really does."

By 9 a.m. Thursday, with snowflakes falling gently all around Meadow Brook, Waterous's team was already in full decorating mode. Members could be spotted from 50 yards away. They were wearing neon yellow shirts and hoodies with "Alice's Christmas Elves" printed on the back.

"Here it's not as important, but I do a casino and they're neon so I can spot my folks," said Waterous, who does several other holiday decorating jobs, including the main tree at Ford Field. 

In the outside garage, dozens — if not hundreds of bins of ornaments, picks, garland and more — were scattered on the floor and on nearby tables. They were divided by color. Zelinski said they probably have about 200 Christmas bins, which doesn't include floral boxes or ribbons.

"I can't even tell you how many lights," said Zelinski, who said the estate just got its first strands of LED pre-lit garland this year, thanks to a donation. "There are several crates of lights."

Walking along the rows of bins in the garage, Waterous spotted a long box with lime green floral picks. It would work for the trees in the ballroom that would be decorated in shades of burgundy and lime.

Purple doesn't work in the ballroom of the historic estate, finished in 1929, said Waterous. 

"That's such a strong definite color and in some areas, it depends on the lighting, purple recedes," she said. "Things that are better in there are bright colors."

Waterous said the holiday decorating process is very organic; quantities and materials sometimes dictate the theme for a certain spaces.

"Some rooms, Kim (Zelinski) and her staff, have an idea what they want," said Waterous. "And some of the rooms, we have to wing it on our own ... We make it work. We do."

On Thursday, the team focused on three main rooms to work best with Meadow Brook's schedule: the Great Hall, the dining room and the ballroom.

In the Great Hall, Parker and James Lutke of Spring Lake, a freelance event designer, assembled a mantel that guests will see as soon as they arrive. Lutke weaved an extra strand of green lights through a wreath above the mantel while Parker hung white ornaments from the mantel, securing them with wire.

Everything has to be secured with wire since guests might bump into decor during the walk.

The old adage that "less is more" in design doesn't apply when it comes to holiday decor at Meadow Brook, said Lutke.

"It's not done until it's overdone," he jokes.

In the dining room, a group of four designers — Tonja Vanderveen, a floral designer from Hudsonville; Ron Taylor, an artist from Spring Lake; Amy Wilkinson, an artist from North Muskegon; and Cheryl Mast, a retired horticulture professor from Lowell — transformed the space with a gold color theme. Nearby, three more designers worked on the breakfast nook.

The key to a good mantel is movement, said Mast. She used large gold Poinsettia floral picks as her focal point on the dining room mantel. The garland was installed first and then she added ribbon, Poinsettia picks and ball ornaments clustered together were last.

"For the magnitude and size of this place, you don't want to put in things that are tiny," said Mast. 

New this year

New this year to the Holiday Walk, guests will see a poinsettia tree in the sun room with 150 plants. There will also be a dog-themed tree in one room and a scavenger hunt for kids named after the Wilsons’ beloved St. Bernard, Cleo. 

And family heirlooms will be woven into the decor to better tell the Wilsons’ story.

Volunteer Steven Lindsay said what’s amazing is how Waterous and her crew take the same decorations, but find a way to reinvent them.

“People would never know it’s the same thing,” he said.

Waterous said she’s overhead docents tell guests that the decor is new every year.

“I think ‘Ok, we’ve done our job,’” she said.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan
 

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan

Meadow Brook's Holiday Walk

  • Friday to Dec. 23.
  • Self-guided tours; reservations aren't required.
  • Tickets until Dec. 20 are $20 for adults, $7.50 for children ages 6-12 (accompanied by an adult); kids 5 and under are free. Santa visits on Dec. 21, 22 and 23 with higher ticket prices.
  • For information, hours, and details, call (248) 364-6200 or go to meadowbrookhall.org.

 

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