History for the holidays
W hen it comes to decking the halls this holiday season, few places do it better than Metro Detroit’s regal historic mansions.
Take Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester. The 88,000-square-foot former home of auto heiress Matilda Dodge Wilson and second husband Alfred Wilson is all gussied up from now until the end of December in her holiday finest, including 52 Christmas trees, 24 mantels and 1,300 square feet of garland.
For many families who come year after year to the estate’s Holiday Walk, now in its 46th year, it’s about tradition.
“That’s why it’s important that we change it every year,” said Shannon O’Berski, Meadow Brook’s director of marketing and community relations, who said planning for the estate’s holiday decor begins in mid-summer. “We want our regular visitors to keep coming back and we also want to make a lasting impression on those who are coming for the first time.”
Across Metro Detroit, historic mansions offer a unique way to experience the holidays. They also offer a chance to step back in time.
Inside the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, 14 fully decorated Christmas trees are in place, decorated with more than 2,500 ornaments. Special holiday tours run through Jan. 7.
Among the decor are Eleanor’s beloved teardrop-shaped ornaments. Inspired by a modernism exhibit she’d attended at the Detroit Institute of Arts in the 1950s, Eleanor asked glass blowers at the Ford Rouge Plant to make these special ornaments and they’re still part of the holiday decor. They’re also available to buy at the gift store.
Guests won’t just get a tour of the house, which was designed by Albert Kahn and built in the late 1920s, but will also hear stories from docents about special moments when the Fords and their four children lived there.
“The Fords loved spending time together during the holidays, and guests are able to see where the family gathered on Christmas Eve to watch first-run movies, shared special meals, and opened presents under the tree,” said Mary Fishwick, docent and volunteer coordinator at the Ford House in a press release.
New this year at the Ford House is an ombre-style tree in the gallery. The 12-foot tree features fuchsia, green and blue bulbs, along with handcrafted angels similar to ones Eleanor Ford had made for guests in the 1950s, said museum specialist Carol Zagorowska who oversees all the Christmas decor.
“We have a beautiful flame stitch sofa in there and we were interested in picking up those colors from the sofa,” said Zagorowska, who works with volunteer Joel Baird on the Christmas decor. “...We try to incorporate things from our collection into our designs.”
At Meadow Brook, planning for the holiday decor begins in July, but really kicks into gear in October when themes and motifs are picked for many of Meadow Brook’s more than 110 rooms, said O’Berski. More formal rooms such as the living room and dining room often have more formal decor, while rooms such as the nursery or games room are given a more whimsical look, she said.
“Decor themes are usually decided on and often based on a single inspirational item such as an ornament, color scheme or ribbon,” said O’Berski. “Individual room themes begin with the more prominent rooms such as the Great Hall, Dining Room, Ballroom, Matilda’s bedroom, because these rooms require the most decor materials. The room themes are generally selected based on the room functions and furnishings.”
More than 120 volunteers — many from Meadow Brook’s Garden Club, along with Oakland University’s track team — set up the trees and lights. New this year is the installation of exterior lighting, said O’Berski.
“The exterior lighting was added to create a more memorable experience for our visitors,” said O’Berski in an email. “Who doesn’t love lights?”
Grand Haven floral consultant Alice Waterous has been overseeing the installation of Meadow Brook’s holiday decor for 17 years. She and a team of about 12 designers worked for three days the week before Thanksgiving to make the magic happen, designing rooms and putting it all in place. Colors and motifs change every year, but designers are using decorations Meadow Brook already has.
“The challenge is to take the same old stuff and make it look different,” said Waterous. “That’s what takes the design skill.”
Waterous says designers from all over Michigan come to decorate Meadow Brook every year for Christmas. One designer friend, a Michigan native who now lives in New Mexico, flies in and stays with Waterous for the entire month of November to work on Meadow Brook and other projects.
But every year, Meadow Brook tries to add new elements and themes. New this year are Candlelight Tours inside the mansion (don’t worry; guests will use battery-operated candles), which are already sold out. Knole Cottage, meanwhile, which was once Frances Wilson’s playhouse, has been renamed Candy Cane Cottage.
“It’s decorated in sweets and treats,” said O’Berski. “It’s very whimsical and fun.”
Fun and festive. A perfect holiday combination.
■Meadow Brook Hall’s 46th annual Holiday Walk runs through Dec. 3. Tour hours are Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Holiday Lights and Winter Walks is on Dec. 11 and Dec. 18-23 from 5-9 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $7.50 for kids 17 and under. Kids 2 and under are free. Call (248) 364-6200 or visit meadowbrookhall.org.
■Holiday Tours at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House run through Jan. 7. Merry & Bright Nights, which includes candlelight holiday tours of the house and more, runs Dec. 7-23. Tickets are $20 for adults and $12 for kids 2-12. Some dates are already sold out. Call (313) 884-4222 or go to fordhouse.org.
■An Old-Fashioned Multi-Cultural Holiday Festival at Palmer Park’s Log Cabin, 2-5 p.m. Dec. 10. The 1885 cabin built for U.S. Senator Thomas Palmer and his wife, Lizzie, has been decorated for the holidays. There will be horse and carriage rides, holiday treats, music, arts and crafts. Admission is free.