- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Washington area house and garden tours are as perennial as flowers in springtime and increasingly just as profuse.

The agenda for each is roughly the same: Sponsors — usually a church or charity organization involved in preservation and restoration matters —invite a dozen or more homeowners to throw open their houses for inspection by hundreds, and often thousands, of strangers. The public pays $10 to $45 to gawk and perhaps glean some decorating ideas of their own.

“Their houses are typically 100 years old or a little more, and you have to take great pride in them because they require work,” says Charles McMillian, a vice president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, explaining why owners are willing to give up their privacy. “Like showing off a child or pet, it is your achievement.”

The 50-year-old society has organized a house and garden tour on Mother’s Day for the past 48 years.

Rules vary with each neighborhood and can differ with the year. Capitol Hill homeowners are asked not to advertise their part in the tour as a sales hook, and owners everywhere are expected to take down “for sale” signs if their houses are on the market. This is done “to take crass commercialism out of the picture,” according to Rob Nevitt, outgoing Capitol Hill Restoration Society president.

“But often houses go up for sale soon after,” notes Stephanie Bothwell Warren, chairwoman of this year’s Georgetown House Tour, which took place, as usual, the last weekend of April.

There are other concerns of late, she says, mentioning “cell phones that have photographic capabilities. People don’t want their privacy invaded that way or have it used in some way.” For this reason, signs are posted requesting people not use their cellular phones. Also, baby carriages are parked outside the door.

“I’ve been on lots of tours because I’m interested in architecture, and I seriously doubt any other area of the country can claim to have as many as are found around here,” says Tom Grooms, acting director of design excellence and the arts in the General Services Administration’s Office of the Chief Architect. He also is author of “The Majesty of Capitol Hill,” about the neighborhood’s outstanding and unusual buildings, and a participant in this year’s tour.

“Tours aren’t only about making money but sharing your home with others,” he says. “I call it the collective example of the American spirit. If it were just the money, you would write a check.”

He used the winter to get the house ready so he could focus on the garden in the spring — excluding the planting of 500 tulips that took three weekends in the fall.

“Beware the domino effect,” Mr. Grooms says, only half-jokingly. “You decide to change one thing and then realize something else needs changing. … We decided the dining room table was not in scale to the size of the room. We got a new antique table and then had to get a new rug for underneath because the rug wasn’t big enough.”

Owners aren’t required to be hosts and, in some cases, are discouraged from being present. To safeguard property and act as guides to each site’s special features, volunteers are corralled to be house captains and docents — as many as five or six to each home, each shift. They act as monitors and guides, pointing out a home’s interesting facets and discouraging the overly covetous.

Volunteers, called “rug rats” on the Georgetown tour, deliver plastic or other suitable material to protect carpets and rugs — crucial in case of rain. The Hill tour ticket contains a notice saying owners have the right to request that visitors remove their shoes upon entering. This produced a letter of protest to a local paper one year when a Connecticut Congress member’s abode was on the tour on a damp day, Mr. Nevitt recalls. “‘Who does this woman think she is?’ the writer said. But it was the house captain who had asked people to take off their shoes.”

Overall, Mr. Nevitt says, “the tour has been happily free of scandal. It is just an annual miracle how well this thing comes off. No heart attacks or vandalism.”

Owners usually relish having a deadline to be sure they complete long-delayed — and often expensive — upgrades, but the best-laid plans can go astray in the strangest way. Greg Farmer estimates he and his wife, Jean Marie Neal, invested $27,000 this year to finish projects throughout their home at 621 A St. NE, including beautifully hung new drapes. One hour before the Capitol Hill tour began, one end of a rod collapsed — too late to buy a replacement piece.

“I reverted to [my] roots and used duct tape,” he says. “My advice is to enjoy [the tour experience] and not take it too seriously. You can work yourself into a lather.”

The domino effect works in other ways as well, points out Alex Camacho, who helps run the Dupont Circle Citizens Association tour, which takes place in October each year. “When neighbors see people getting ready for the tour, they start cleaning their own yard.”

“You wouldn’t want to go out on a date with your underwear showing,” jokes Capitol Hill Realtor Tatiana Kaupp about the effort involved. “It takes about five months to get ready,” she says. “Then you don’t do anything [to your house] for the next five years.”

The biggest problem is a diplomatic one — what Mr. Nevitt calls “a kind of dance.” This happens when a selection committee approaches owners initially and then, on close inspection of a home’s interior, finds reasons why it should not be included after all. “Vinyl windows or something like that” are a no-no, he says. In addition, houses have to be up to code and have up-to-date insurance. Some associations take out insurance for the event itself.

Already, the Georgetown House Tour, in its 75th year, has lined up several houses for 2006, according to Ms. Bothwell Warren, who says the event may be the oldest one of its kind in the country and has grown into a grand social affair. “It takes a full year to find the houses, do the write-ups and make the tour books,” she reports. Tickets to the patrons’ party that honors the homeowners the night before cost $150.

Tours can be elaborate but not necessarily “grand.” Volunteers who run the 26-year-old Hyattsville Preservation Association tour, which takes place the Sunday after Mother’s Day, deliver breakfast to homeowners that morning and give participating owners a plaque noting the date their house was on a tour.

“We spend lots of money and get houses lined up by the end of the year,” says official Sharon Howe Sweeting. “We’re talking modest homes, including bungalows.”

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