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Local designer decks the White House halls for holiday season

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First lady Michelle Obama toured the private living quarters of the White House, inspecting this year’s selection of holiday decorations.

Golden bows and ribbons were hung over doorways and mantles, and evergreen garlands arched over doorways. More than a dozen trees, some at least 20 feet high, were set up.

More than 70 volunteers, including Prince’s Lakes resident Shari Koenes, worked hours decking the halls. Now they’d find out if their efforts were up to the standards of the first lady of the United States.

“They told us she didn’t tweak anything, so we were tickled,” Koenes said. “She was obviously happy with what we did.”

For the second year in a row, Koenes was one of the select design volunteers chosen to help decorate the White House for the holidays. She will talk about her experiences in a presentation at Columbus Learning Center today.

Koenes hung garland and ribbon in the Oval Office and the West Wing and set up trees in the Yellow Oval Room.

Most of the ornaments and evergreen placed in the Obama’s private residence were set in place by Koenes.

The volunteers had to work at a hectic pace and under intense pressure. But when the decorating was done, few things matched the sense of accomplishment in what they’d done.

“Your jaw drops. It’s overwhelming at first. But you roll up your sleeves and get busy and hope it all gets done,” Koenes said.

Every year, the first family chooses a theme for the White House decorations. This year’s was “Joy to All.”

The trees, ribbons and displays celebrate the many joys of the holiday season: the joy of giving and service to others, the joy of sharing blessings with one another and the joy of welcoming friends and families as guests into our homes during these next several weeks, according to a statement by Michelle Obama.

All of the decorations reflect that spirit.

The East Wing included wreaths covered with snowflakes, old-fashioned lanterns and flickering candles.

The East Garden Room is geared toward children, filled with vibrant colors and wreaths made of gingerbread. A life-size replica of Bo, the first family’s Portuguese water dog, is the centerpiece of the room, and handmade “Boflakes” hang from the trees.

In the China Room, the china purchased by President Harry S. Truman is set to represent the joy of families sitting down to enjoy a holiday dinner.

The opportunity to decorate the White House was first presented to Koenes in 2011. A cousin, who worked for a Chicago event planning firm that has worked with the Obamas for many years, asked Koenes and her sister to help.

Koenes attended art school in Chicago and earned a degree in interior design. She had her own small design company for five years and worked on projects around the area before recently retiring.

Her experience includes doing Christmas decorations for other people’s homes. At her own home in the past, she put up as many as 17 trees, with themes such as Santa Claus, the Colts and simple red, green and gold.

All decorating volunteers reported to an event planning warehouse in Washington, D.C. before dawn Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving. They would have five days to have everything ready before the first presidential holiday reception of the season.

The trees, table displays and garlands in the public areas of the White House are done by a professional decorating company. But in many of the other areas, volunteers are provided with the materials and left to make their own decisions.

Many of the ornaments are reused from previous holidays. Some are antiques that were chosen by previous first ladies.

“But it’s amazing how you can change things up with ribbons and things of that nature,” Koenes said.

She and a handful of other volunteers were situated in some of the most high-pressure areas of the White House. Because places such as the Oval Office and the Obamas’ private residence are in near constant use, they had just hours to finish the decorations.

“I work OK that way. That pressure gets me charged up. We have the opportunity to choose which ornaments we like and which ones we don’t. They don’t dictate to us what to use,” she said.

When doing the Oval Office, she had three people helping her. The decorating palette was gold, bronze and red, which gave the room a warm, powerful glow. A 15-foot-high tree stands in the corner, while 25-foot-long evergreen garlands are draped on the mantles.

The West Wing lobby was highlighted by a 20-foot-tall Fraser fir. Garlands in red and blue color gave the area a festive air.

By Nov. 27, Koenes had set up seven trees, completed seven doorway garlands and helped with three mantle projects. For security reasons, she isn’t allowed to talk about what the private quarters look like.

And because everyone is working so diligently and is focused on the work, she found it difficult to distinguish much between individual rooms anyway.

“It goes so fast. There are a couple trees that stick out to me, but there are so many that just get muddled together,” she said. “Working so fast and so furious, it’s hard to remember.”

Capital holidays

2012 Theme: “Joy to All,” which celebrates “the many joys of the holiday seasons: the joy of giving and service to others; the joy of sharing blessings with one another; and the joy of welcoming our friends and families as guests into our homes over these next several weeks,” according to first lady Michelle Obama.

Public rooms

The library: Decorated in classic red and green tones. On display are replicas of holiday cards and notes from past administrations.

Vermeil Room: Celebrates the joy of giving, with presents large and small, wrapped with care, intended to remind people of the fulfillment they experience when giving to others around us.

East Room: The decorations evoke the country’s artistic heritage. This year, creative traditions are represented in every corner of this historic space — from the handcrafted wooden ornaments on each tree to antique paintings and needlework on display.

Green Room: Miniature terrariums dangle from the trees and remind visitors of the beauty of the


Red Room: The room is customarily decorated with cranberries, and the tradition continues this year with a cranberry, pepperberry and billy ball flower-covered vase holding a festive floral arrangement. Lemon topiaries are on display to provide cheerful pops of yellow throughout the room.

Christmas trees frame the space, and a colorful garland of crimson cranberries and sunny lemons adorns the mantel.

Past holiday themes

“Early Americana” — Lady Bird Johnson

“Season of Gold” — Patricia Nixon

“Homespun Christmas” — Betty Ford

“Classic American Christmas” —

Rosalynn Carter

“Old-Fashioned Christmas” — Nancy Reagan

“Christmas in Storyland” — Barbara Bush

“Winter Wonderland” — Hillary Clinton

“Red, White, and Blue Christmas” — Laura Bush

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