Unitas lived in the five-bedroom house on Timonium Road from 1971, when the he led the Colts to an AFC title match against the Miami Dolphins, until 1988, when he moved to a farm in northern Baltimore County. Unitas died in 2002.
His widow, Sandy; daughter, Paige; and son, Chad, and other members of his family, will cut the ribbon to open the show house on April 28, giving visitors the chance see rooms decorated by some of the region's premier designers.
Every year, Baltimore Symphony Associates, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the event to raise money for the symphony's education initiatives, has a number of houses from which to choose its show house. But when the owner of the home at 311 W. Timonium Road offered her house to the group, "it was too good to pass up," says Carolyn Stadfeld, the organization's design chairwoman.
Many area designers didn't want to pass up the chance, either. Stadfeld says 55 interior decorators from as far away as Northern Virginia made bids on the 23 design spaces in the show house.
"Any time you have a national figure, that's a big draw," says Stevenson-based designer Victor Liberatore, who with his partner, Gail Lieberman, successfully bid for the living room.
The designers decorate the rooms at their own expense, hoping the show house will bring them new clients, Stadfeld explains.
This year's house, a stucco Colonial built in 1932, is structurally almost the same as when the Unitas family lived there 40 years ago, but the designers have transformed the look of rooms.
Unitas' office, which once housed his many plaques and awards, including his NFL Man of the Year and NFL MVP trophies, has been turned into a bright and cheery library.
The large addition that the family built for entertaining, and which once sported a pool table and bar, has been converted to a great room.
Sandy Unitas visited the house a few weeks ago and says she was impressed by what she saw.
"From what I've seen so far, it's fabulous," Unitas says, noting the visit was the first time she had been on the property in 26 years. "I wish it would have been a show house when I was trying to do it myself. It would have been much better."
Johnny Unitas bought the house in 1971 before the couple married. At that time, the property included seven acres, much of it woodland, on a hill overlooking Timonium. Sandy Unitas recalled a sweeping driveway lined with dogwoods that led up to the house. "The setting was absolutely gorgeous," she says.
A couple of Unitas family pictures are almost all the evidence show house visitors will see that this home once belonged to the football legend. The committee that awarded the bids wanted rooms that would appeal to design enthusiasts, Stadfeld says.
"We were looking for ideas that are current," she explains. "We were not looking to make the rooms match all through the house."
The designs draw inspiration from a variety of sources, including the Eastern Shore, the Mediterranean Sea and a French boudoir.
Regina Bello, owner of the Monogram Shop on Falls Road, was the exception, decorating the kitchen with the Unitas family in mind. In the brightly painted room, she has set the stage for a birthday party, complete with a cake and pendants.
Bello says she knew Unitas when he lived in the home because she lived in a neighboring community and their children carpooled to school together.
The kitchen design reflects Unitas' dream for a country home, which he eventually bought in Baldwin. Bello uses cow and chicken motifs on the walls, and the ceiling, which is painted emerald — Pantone's color of the year — is reminiscent of a green pasture.
On a ceiling beam she has stenciled a quote from Unitas: "A man never gets to his station in life without being helped, aided, shoved, pushed and prodded to do better."
Bello says she visited the home when the Unitas family lived there but never envisioned designing the rooms.
"It was fun to do it," Bello says. "I definitely designed it for a family like theirs."
Christopher Winslow, who designed the entry hall, wasn't thinking about football, but sailing. He says wanted to summon the feel of the Eastern Shore on a hot summer day. He painted four murals of beach and water scenes, installed recessed lighting and applied a light stencil design to the walls.
"I wanted a space that had a lot of wall space and I wouldn't have to put in a lot of furniture," the Baltimore artist says.
He and many of the designers are show house veterans. Muralist Pat O'Brien is marking her 10th year participating in the annual event. This year she turned a mudroom into office space, painting numbers and an old-fashioned phone on a light blue wall.
Liberatore and Lieberman, who together have participated in 20 show houses, teamed up to design the living room, mixing rustic elements of a stone fireplace with the red, black and silver of contemporary Art Deco furnishings in a room they call "Lounge on the Rocks."
Liberatore says he enjoys the freedom and theatrical quality of a show house. "Our show houses are something you remember," he says.
"We always like people to go in and say 'Wow,' " Lieberman adds.
While many of the designers are veterans, an upstairs bedroom that's been decorated as a nursery is the work of students from Harford Community College. Each year, Betty Reeves' interior design students take on a room as a class project. This year they offered bids for a teen bedroom and a nursery; the committee chose the nursery.
The students decided the room should be gender-neutral. They selected gray for the walls and added white chair rails and crown molding for accents. A strip of neon geometric designs give the walls a pop of color.
"It was really exciting," says Alexa Hubicki, who was of the students. "We just wanted to have fun with it."
Designers don't always get the rooms they want.
Paula Henry with Simply Put Interiors and muralist Dee Cunningham ended up with a small corner bedroom. While not as spacious as they would have liked, they took the room as an opportunity to show what can be done with a small space, turning it into a lady's sitting room they called "Cozy Corner." Cunningham painted a ceiling medallion and Henry added purple accents on the bookcases and chairs.
"I wanted it to feel very cozy, like it was going to give you a hug," Henry says.
Stadfeld says the show house, which had been for sale, will go on the market again once the event concludes. Someone who not only is a fan of Johnny Unitas, but also of creative interior designs, will have the chance to have it all.
If you go
Symphony Decorators' Show House, 311 W. Timonium Road in Timonium. Parking is at Timonium Presbyterian Church, 303 W. Timonium Road. Open April 28-May 19. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m.to 4 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets can be purchased for $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the BSO box office, online at bsomusic.org and retail outlets such as Graul's Markets, Budeke's Paint Stores and Watson's Garden Center. Tickets also are available by calling the box office at 410-783-8000.