Blanch Bedwell knew a good idea when she saw one. Back in 1972, Bedwell attended a charity event in which interior designers were given free decorative reign over a selected house and then charged admission to visitors. Recognizing a moneymaker when she saw one, Bedwell, a member of the National Symphony Orchestra's Women's Committee, brought the idea back to Washington, D.C., thus beginning its Decorators' Show House. Years later this annual event is the Women's Committee's largest-grossing fund-raiser, having earned nearly $7 million for the NSO.
While the finished house will not be open to visitors until Sept. 30, people will be able to get a sneak peak at the chosen home, Washington D.C.'s Houghton Mansion, on Bare Bones Days, Aug. 3-4.
Says the Bare Bones Days Chair Mary Ann Ormes, "We began having the Bare Bones Days because people are usually interested in what the home looks like before the house is decorated."
The Monday after Bare Bones Days the real work will begin as more than 20 of the region's most well known designers will immediately begin redecorating the 46-room house, which includes a ballroom, terraced gardens and a swimming pool. Owned by the State Department, Houghton Mansion is located on Embassy Row. Once the residence of the Iranian Ambassador, it has been vacant for more than a year. "It's much harder to find homes in today's market," said Connie Watts, 2002's Design Chair. "We've really been blessed with a magnificent place, it has a perfect location and is also large enough to showcase the designers' talents."
The brick Georgian mansion, built in 1934, is based on the neoclassical style of architecture, which is a popular motif in many of the downtown government buildings. While the decorators will not make any changes to the architectural details of the house, Show House Chair Marilyn Scott said that "all of the designs will update the house while still remaining subtle and subdued. Like the house itself, the designs are beautiful and elegant."
This will not be the first time Houghton Mansion will have undergone such an expansive change; it was an NSO Show House in 1984. Since then, however, the house has rarely been updated and most of the interior is in pale neutral tones. The State Department is hoping that the new interior along with the publicity will entice a new tenant who will be willing to pay the $15,000 a month rent.
IT IS THAT PUBLICITY that has attracted so many designers to the project, knowing their names will become known with people who enjoy interior design. For others, the mere honor of being selected was motivation enough to join the project. Though many of the designers have worked on the NSO Show House in years past, this was the first time in which a designer had to be invited in order to participate.
Joan Polk of Joan Polk Interiors Inc. in McLean has participated with the show off and on for five years and says that "normally I'd be too busy to do it, but this year is very special because it was by invitation only. I couldn't turn down an honor like that."
Another change to this year's organization was the lottery system of dispensing the rooms. The invited designers were allowed to tour the home ahead of time and write down the top four rooms they wanted and their names were then drawn, giving them their first available choice. They will then have only six weeks to completely transform their rooms.
For some, the task will be more challenging, as they attempt to update the rooms with designs that coincide with the grandeur of the mansion. One room that will undergo an enormous change will be the kitchen, done by Stuart Kitchens of McLean. Designer Judy Bracht who will be working on it says that they will be installing three dishwashers and a double oven to accommodate the parties this type of house usually hosts. "This is the type of kitchen you would find in a castle," she says, "it's necessary to look at the size of the home and the volume they would be expecting for entertaining."
They will be keeping the slab marble island in the center of the kitchen which has been with the home for many years but will be completely changing the color scheme. The pantry will be a barn red leading into a taupe and green kitchen with a neutral limestone floor. Trompe-l'oeil will be added behind the cabinets along with crown molding and torch-like lamps around the room. "This kitchen will be a grand kitchen that huge houses in the 1920s had but with a 2002 update," Bracht said.
OTHER DESIGNERS WILL also be incorporating the house's past while keeping their designs more current. Christopher Nutter of McDonald & Associates Interior Design of McLean will be working on the Formal Powder Room on the first floor. Like Bracht he will be leaving some of the original elements of the room, like the mirrored wall because "it plays into the 1920s or 1940s glamour that we're going to have as the feel of the room. That style is really popular right now so we really got lucky with that," he said.
To further the elegant 1940s theme while making it fun, Nutter will make the color scheme a monochromatic silvery purple. He will also be adding a dramatic chandelier and upholstering the walls. "We want to make it the little jewel box of the house, a separate place where women can go talk and put on their makeup during a party."
Such comprehensive changes will come with a high price, as all of the designers will be paying out of their own pockets. However, most of them feel that this is a small price to pay for the free publicity they will be receiving as a result of the show, as the organizers are expecting up to 20,000 visitors.
"It's a wonderful event to be a part of," said Nutter, "it's a great house, with a great group of designers who will be benefiting a wonderful charity."
When to Go
Bare Bones Days — Aug. 3-4 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Tickets are $5 at the door.
Parking is at American University, corner of New Mexico Avenue and Nebraska Avenue. A free shuttle bus will run between parking and show house.
Call 202-416-8149 or visit the Web site at www.kennedy-center.org/showhouse.