When potential decorators came to inspect Mount Ida, the structure that would eventually become Historic Ellicott City's 1995 show house, many of them walked out.
Nothing could be done with rooms this ugly, they said.
"I almost wondered if I was nuts," says design chairwoman Michele Drury with a laugh. She can laugh now because the 16 designers who were brave enough to tackle the rooms have turned the Greek Revival-Italianate structure -- recently an office building -- back into a gracious home.
The decor has a continuity from room to room unusual in show houses because Historic Ellicott City, Inc., an organization concerned with restoration and preservation, traditionally keeps a tight rein on the design of its show houses. (This is its 11th.) The rooms are an artful balance of furnishings that reflect the style of the house with contemporary comfort and livability.
Think you have a problem house? What do you do when, say, your morning room has no windows? Sharon Meachum of Lady on Skates Interiors created her own windows with large trompe l'oeil paintings of garden scenes.
What about ugly dropped ceilings? Kathy Parrott and Missy Connolly of Alexander Blank Fabrics covered the master bedroom ceiling in soft drapings of inexpensive cheesecloth. The effect is charming, something like the canopy of a bed. It works very well with the room's subtle West Indies feel.
Mount Ida wasn't Historic Ellicott City Inc.'s first choice of houses, but three other possibilities fell through. In fact, the organization had signed a contract for one of them, but the owner called an hour later to back out. He and his wife didn't want to move out for the four months creating the show house would take.
(Why would any couple be willing to give up their home? Most show houses are owned by people who want to sell them. The property gets renovated at no cost to the owners, and the exposure brings potential customers.)
In spite of being in horrible condition, Mount Ida had several things to recommend it. It would be the first of the organization's show houses to be located in the historic district of Ellicott City. Mount Ida was built in 1828 for William Ellicott, grandson of one of the founders of Ellicott's Mills (now Ellicott City), so it brought plenty of history with it.
The building was being used as the headquarters for the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute, a 19th-century girls' school now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (The office workers have moved to a trailer out back for the duration of the event.)
The show house opening Sept. 30 coincided with the opening of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, just up the hill from Mount Ida. That meant the organization could offer two events for the price of one: The show house ticket includes a guided tour of the ruins and grounds of the institute.
Before the designers could move in, Mount Ida needed major renovations. Historic Ellicott City, Inc. had to spend money from last year's show house to pay for them. "We didn't like doing it," says Patricia Fleegle, the show house chairwoman, "but at least this will remain an historical property."
In fact, one room will remain intact after the show house closes, the "Archaeologist's Study," designed by Michele Drury.
Done in browns, purple sage and loden green, the room is slightly Gothic in feel; but note the Egyptian ceiling medallion, the contemporary picture over the fireplace and the Art Deco sideboard. Cleverly woven into the interior design are architectural artifacts and vintage photographs from the grounds of the Patapsco Female Institute. The room is the most stylish "museum" you'll ever come across.
Not all the rooms are as offbeat as the study. The living room by Antoinette Rasul of the Home Collection, with its faux marble fireplace and classic English design, is a sunny room -- both romantic and practical, with plenty of pinks and yellows. Pattern, texture and scale are mixed to give the room a fresh new look. The flowery slipcovers and carpeting reflect the handsome floral arrangements by Wessel's Florist.
But the room that will most delight visitors is the nursery upstairs, with its Victorian toile wallpaper, curio cabinet and canopied brass crib. The focus of the room is a 19th-century French carved shell cradle, draped with dotted swiss and ribbon. If you look closely, the room is full of magic, with books, toys and accessories all reflecting fairy-tale themes.
"We had a lot of fun," says Barbara Bradshaw of Old World Interiors, who with her partner Cynthia Monshower designed the nursery. "I have three sons, and I loved doing a little girl's room."
Mount Ida is located at 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City. Historic Ellicott City Inc.'s 11th Decorator Show House is open through Oct. 29, Tuesdays and Thursdays 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Wednesdays and Fridays 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays noon-5 p.m., closed Mondays. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door. Tersiguel's restaurant will cater lunch and light dinners in the tent. For more information and directions, call (410) 750-2089.