Decorator show houses are a labor of love, is the best way I know how to describe my experience in a successful decorator show house. This inaugural post on decorator show houses explains the long and rewarding process involved in these annual charity events. So, come with me for a behind-the-curtain look at my passionate “labor of love." My phone call just ended with Main Street Oriental Rugs after returning from Elliott City, Maryland; I drove there to decide on which room I would like to design in the 2019 Historic Ellicott City (HEC) Decorator Show House.
I drove out to this morning for a second site visit to decide on which room I would like to design in the Historic Ellicott City (HEC) Decorator Show House. This year's house is a departure from the standard protocol, meaning it is not a historic property. The house is a 10,000 sq. ft. brick structure in the French Provincial style, and thus influenced this year's French Theme. Mojan, proprietor at Main Street Oriental Rugs, has been supportive in lending beautiful rugs for my show house rooms.
Bell Vue At The Chase, 2019 HEC Decorator Show House on opening day
The size provides the additional space needed for the boutique and antique shops to set up their booths. I was impressed with the overall construction quality and how the owner was in the process of bringing the house back to its former elegance.
After spending three hours walking through the house, I narrowed my focus down to the living room, library, and dining room. On my first site visit, a week prior, I saw potential in all of the rooms, and the library spoke the loudest to me. I seem to gravitate to the library or study in most homes that have them. In this room, I liked the warm paneling surrounding the fireplace and the presence of a fireplace. However, the fireplace face and hearth was not as appealing to me, and the placement of the lighting was questionable.
Walnut bookcases in the library at Bell Vue At The Chase show house
Although the room has good proportions, it is not as balanced as it could be. Meaning, one wall is heavy with dark wood, while the opposite wall is absent of wood, and contains two pairs of French doors.
French doors lead from the library to the rear patio and living room at Bell Vue At The Chase show house
Almost immediately I received an inspired solution to balance this room that gave me goose bumps! No, I cannot reveal it now; you must join me in September to see it. Over the next few weeks, the construction phase will begin, then it is discussions with contractors. Next, comes multiple visits to show rooms, vendors, workshops, drapery workrooms, hardware stores, and the upholstery shops. One of the most exciting activities is to select an area rug. Look for upcoming posts on the beauty and value of owning hand-made oriental rugs.
Shown below, during one of my first visits to Main Street Oriental Rugs, I was evaluating rug colors and patterns with some fabric memos from the Washington DC Design Center showrooms for this show house room.
Sambino gladly peels back the layers of beautiful rugs for me to evaluate
In the weeks near the end of the construction phase, usually in late August, we will receive a notice to begin moving in to our rooms. Then it is a final check for cleaned windows, paint touch-ups, and any media we might have in the room. After everything is in and arranged, the inventory process begins. This can be a nightmare for those of us who have high numbers of small accessories. I tend to not like cluttered rooms, but my libraries contain more than some of my other rooms.
Opening night is always exciting as the tension builds from the week before, making sure that everything is in the proper place, finalizing tech and sound checks, and accounting for business cards and other marketing materials. The committee completes final checks for catering, volunteers, and a house-wide electrical check. This year's event is open from September 21, 2019 until October 20, 2019. Tickets
My journey began in 2013, when one of my clients invited me to Mount Ida, a historic landmark property in the heart of Ellicott City, MD. From Historic Ellicott City's website, "The story of Mt. Ida begins in the early 19th century. Two years in the making, Charles Timanus, Jr., Principal builder of the Patapsco Female Institute, erected this yellow-stucco house of rubble stone for William Ellicott, grandson of Andrew Ellicott, a founder of Ellicott’s Mills. Mt. Ida’s style was gleaned from the Greek Revival and Italianate periods, reminiscent of that which pervaded the South during its Ante-bellum Period. It was the last Ellicott home built within the Historic District, a magnificent specimen of architectural excellence, and remains for us a living monument to the history and lifestyle we call our heritage." Fred Dorsey, an Ellicott City historian talks about Mt. Ida in this video clip.
Historic Mt. Ida, Ellicott City, MD
After touring the property, and the decorated rooms, I was introduced to the design committee, chaired by Carroll Frye. We talked and and later that week, I shared my design portfolio with him. This led to an invitation to bid on a room in the 2014 decorator show house, Meriweather Farm. The two-story, seven-bay by one-bay, rubble stone home with a gable slate roof farmhouse sits on 110 acres minus the 400 acres owned by Philemon Dorsey in the late 1700s.
The process of opening a show house is a major undertaking by all who are involved. It usually begins in early February with HEC, Inc. interviewing owners, and selecting a property that fits the required criterion.
- A Howard County Location
- Historic Property
- Large Size
- Minimum of Two Entrances
- Back Staircase Desired
- Parking for Automobiles
Choosing a Room
After locating a property, the committee negotiates with the owners to work on the house for approximately nine months. When both parties agree and sign the contracts, HEC assumes responsibility for the house until the show closes, around November 1st each year. Next, comes the large advertising sign, with the appropriate dates (shown above and where allowed) to begin guiding visitors to the upcoming event.
The committee then sends out the announcement to come and tour the house, and bid on a room. HEC provides an information package that contains the floor plans, history on the property, designer/decorator contract, and a Q & A sheet with information from the discussions with the owner. For example, in some years, the owner preferred the color blue, in another, I was allowed to remove a semi-attached shelving unit for the show, provided I return it to the original location.
For occupant safety, HEC requires non-slip rug pads under every rug, and rosin paper to protect the flooring during the construction/painting phase. I was one of the first to show up and had selected the parlor as my first choice. I returned to my studio and worked up design concept for the room, taking into consideration, the location, sun's orientation, egress, and circulation requirements.
I placed my bid for the Parlor, located to the right of the entry.
The parlor at Meriwether Farm show house
I liked the crown moulding, deeply set windows (typical in stone construction), and the fireplace. I thought that the furnishings plan should place everything close to the walls because it is a pass-through space. Furnishings placed in the center of the room do not allow good circulation of occupants at this public event. After a week of waiting, I learned that I was not awarded the room.
I then placed a bid for the large room located south of the parlor. This time received a personal phone call from the design chair. Both rooms had been awarded to someone else, and as our conversation progressed I was given a third choice. On level two, a series of bedrooms connected a bathroom and the back hall and stairs. All of these rooms were awarded, except the one at the top of the stairs and to the right.
Before images of 2nd floor bedroom at Meriwether Farm show house
It was a small bedroom, with a large walk-in closet (not original), and a connecting bathroom. Apparently no one entered a bid on the room, and you cannot have a show house open and a room that allows occupants to exit the show, not designed/decorated. So they asked me if I would come and take a look at it. I met with the design chair that following weekend. I was not interested in creating a bedroom, and after seeing my hesitation, another design committee member told me it did not have to remain a bedroom, "You can do what you like with the room Rhonald, I know you can come up with something."
I asked to be alone for a few minutes to gather my thoughts. When they returned I had the solution. Since the room was between other bedrooms including the master bedroom, it made sense to design a dressing room that would take advantage of the small bathroom I would have to include. That is another story! We all reached agreement on it, and HEC recorded it. Later that evening, in my studio I thought, "Why not create this room for the man of the house?"
Long story short, according to HEC and to their patrons, the room was a brilliant success. Below is a view of the finished room receiving it's soft-surface flooring, and shown in my online portfolio. Against a soft green background, I placed English antiques and modern upholstery, and curated accessories for the "Gentleman's Dressing Room." Note the new crown moulding, broadloom sisal floor covering, and period single pole wall switch. In addition, the iron box lock on the entry door was perfectly intact and operates well.
Sisal rug installation in the Gentleman's Dressing Room at Meriweather Farm Show House
It was an amazing journey to watch this all come together, with me in the middle of it orchestrating. So began adding to my project management skills. Opening night was wonderful, with a full-course sit-down dinner and live entertainment. The large room on level one was created by interior designer Paula Henry, and featured a grand piano near the window. When someone played, the entire house was filled with music.
Each day that I was present in the room, I greeted guests and talked about my design concepts, furnishings, antiques and unique objects found in the room. I met some of the most wonderful people, including a couple from Chicago, and two couples from overseas, and more than a few men who after touring the room commented, "I get it Rhonald, well done."
A Journey's End
Over the course of 20+ days, things began to wind down. The breakdown (no pun intended) begins day after the show house closes. Boxes and packing materials come back, empty delivery trucks return, and suits/dresses are replaced with sweatpants, shorts, and jeans among the camaraderie of disassembly.
While this phase is not as fun as the initial phase, I enjoy each journey nonetheless. Life is like that; the journey along the way, not a final destination. If you would like to visit more of the past show houses, hosted by HEC each fall, access the official HEC website. I cannot wait until next year!