MOST PEOPLE LIKE SHOW HOUSES because of the fantasy involved. What if I had a mansion and could hire 25 different designers to work their magic without worrying about a budget? Or they go on house tours to see how the other half, the half that has money for beautiful furnishings and perfectly manicured gardens, lives.
But if you're interested in home decor, there's a practical reason to visit the show houses and house tour homes that open their doors to the public this time of year. These designers and homeowners face the same kinds of problems you may have in decorating your own home -- just on a larger scale.
We toured the 31st Symphony Decorators' Show House, which opens today, and one of the beautiful homes on the Maryland House & Garden Pilgrimage, River Run Farm in Baltimore County, whose owner is a former interior designer.
This year's decorators' show house is Long Crandon, a 17,000-square-foot mansion in Timonium. It was built in 1921 for W. Wallace Lanahan, a prominent Baltimore businessman. The duke and duchess of Windsor visited there, and many lavish parties were thrown at Long Crandon in its day. Twenty-three rooms and areas have been redone and are on display.
River Run Farm is on the Gunpowder River in Glencoe. The present owners, the Reichharts, bought it five years ago and have made extensive renovations on the stone house, which was finished around 1910. A wing was added some 60 years ago, and the Reichharts have built a second stone addition with a large new dream kitchen. The first-floor rooms of the house and the surrounding gardens are part of the tour.
Here are some lessons that ordinary people can take from these extraordinary houses.
Be ready for anything. In renovation and interior design, the first rule of thumb is to expect the unexpected. "Like any old home," says Susie Reichhart, "we didn't know until we got into it" what problems might be lurking. Bad cracking in the concrete porch and rotting wood in a den, for instance, only came to light once she and her husband had moved in.
In the family / media room of the decorators' show house, interior designer Russell Slouck of Gatehouse Interiors found that the settee he had ordered for an alcove was half an inch too long. He had to rethink the whole room.
In interior design, he says, "You're always thrown a curve. You have to be flexible."
Don't be afraid of color. Donna Foertsch of DLF Design Associates painted the walls of the ladies' sitting room in Long Crandon persimmon red. Many people would be afraid such a dark color would make a small room look even smaller.
It doesn't. The room is light-filled because of one large window; a white mantel and lots of artwork on the wall brighten it even further.
The formal dining room, with its playful "Chinese Takeout" theme (each place is set with a carryout container and chopsticks) takes its color scheme from blue-and-white Canton dishes. There are bright accents of Chinese red, lime green and turquoise everywhere. But the unifying Asian theme and handsome antiques keep the room from looking garish.
Surround yourself with things you love. River Run Farm's owners love animals, so the den has a dog motif and the library features horses in antique art and accessories. But these aren't overdone. The first things you notice in these rooms are the comfortable furnishings, period pieces and cozy color schemes.
On the other hand, says Reichhart, "I like to go crazy in bathrooms and powder rooms." One powder room is filled with birds and bird nests (including the hand-painted sink) and the other is covered with foxes in every form.
When a room has good "bones," accentuate them. One of the most striking features of this year's Symphony Show House is the beautiful crown molding throughout the mansion. Katherine and William Tarleton of Tarleton Interiors made the molding stand out by painting it an architectural white, while the walls and ceiling are a linen white.
The hardwood floor of the ladies' sitting room was in such good shape that there was no need to hide it with carpeting.
The Tarletons noticed that the house's tarnished door knobs were actually sterling silver, which gleamed richly when they were polished.
Work with what you can't change. Laura Kimball of LCK Interiors was stuck with a green laminate countertop in Long Crandon's butler's pantry. She created a dramatic black-and-white space that softened the green of the counters.
The eye goes first to the black-and-white floor tiles, upper cabinets in white, and lower cabinets in black. An island features a speckled granite top predominantly black and white shaded with green. The green of the counters ends up working positively to add warmth to the room.
Be creative when you have a small, dark room. The gentlemen's library in the decorators' show house posed a dilemma for designer Janet Plitt. Beautiful mahogany walls made the room darker than it needed to be.
She took down the chandelier and put up track lighting that cast spotlights on artwork and bookshelves. Instead of filling the shelves with row upon row of books, she showcased objets d'art and photographs, interspersing them with books in an attractive arrangement. She lined the back of the shelves with fabric to give them added interest.
Interior design students from Anne Arundel Community College brightened the dark back hallway with metallic sheens and sparkle in both the paint and the decorative accessories.
Use one important piece as your starting point. Reichhart of River Run Farm designed her kitchen addition around an antique Irish pine cabinet.
"If you have a piece you love, work around it," she says. The red birch of the kitchen cabinetry blends seamlessly with it, and the antique became a focal point of the large room by being placed near the fireplace and sitting area at one end.
In the Symphony Show House, a large 1920s line drawing was the inspiration for a woman's office and bath, designed by Joyce Motsinger of Le Chateau. The "Out of Africa" theme was carried through with leather, animal prints and exotic accessories
Kimberly Davey of F. Meyer Designs started with a striking flower-print fabric and created the whole Wallis suite around it.
Deal with large rooms with several furniture groupings. The Symphony Show House's living room has two distinct conversational areas. Reichhart put sofas back to back to create hers at River Run Farm.
The master bedroom of the show house is so large it takes a bed, a game table with two chairs and another seating area.
"The problem with a larger room," says interior designer Maria Moscato, "is to fill it up without overfilling it."
Houses to see
Here is a sampling of the spring's show houses and tours:
This year's Symphony Show House is at Long Crandon, 2525 Pot Spring Road, Timonium, from April 29 to May 20. Hours are noon -- 4 p.m. Sunday; 10 a.m. -- 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. -- 8 p.m. Thursday. For more information, call 410-783-8000, or visit baltimoresymphony.org.
The Maryland House & Garden Pilgrimage continues next Saturday with private homes and other properties in Prince George's County (for more Information, call 301-627-3677); May 12 in Baltimore County (410-771-1341); May 13 in Somerset and Worcester counties (410-632-3617); and May 19 in Anne Arundel County (410-222-1919). You can also visit mhgp.org.
The 36th annual Historic Harbor House Tour, 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. May 13, will take visitors inside the homes, gardens and businesses of Fells Point. For more information, call 410-675-6750, ext. 12 or 16, or visit preservationsociety.com.
The spring 2007 Design House at the Washington Design Center, 300 D St. S.W. in Washington, will have eight rooms open to the general public through June 30. Hours are 9 a.m. -- 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m. -- 3 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 202-646-6100.