CHULA VISTA — The trip from the luxury of a late-model limousine to the charm and quiet of a Victorian-era "orchard" house was a journey of only a few steps for the 140 guests who attended Thursday's gala preview of "Past to Present," the 1986 edition of the annual Designers Showcase event.
The formally dressed patrons who pulled up to the curb at 642 2nd Ave. that evening had only to cross the threshold of the historic Jennie MacDonald house to be transported back in time to the elegant world of the gentleman farmers who helped settle Chula Vista a century ago. At the doorway stood Philip Klauber, president of the San Diego Historical Society; inside, the guests received a less-enthusiastic greeting from a large black-and-white cat, which, according to feline custom, went about its business without paying too much attention to the human intruders.
Co-sponsored by the Historical Society and the San Diego Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (the two groups' preservation and education programs benefit from the annual Designers Showcase events), Past to Present invites the public to celebrate the preservation and restoration of a pair of 1880s "orchard houses," as the spacious dwellings built to accommodate the families of Chula Vista fruit growers originally were called. In addition to the MacDonald house, the Garrettson-Frank house (both structures take the names of their original owners), which recently was moved to the rear of the MacDonald lot, has been decorated by members of the designers' society for this event. The houses will be open to the public daily, except Mondays, from Sunday through May 26. Admission is $8 adults, $6 children under 12.
The preview party and the events that are to follow would not have been possible were it not for the imagination and perseverance of Corinne McCall, who grew up in the MacDonald house and recently purchased it from her parents, John and Jean McCall. After learning that the landmark, Queen Anne-style Garrettson structure was to be demolished to make way for a condominium project, she purchased the building for $1 and arranged to have it moved to the rear of her lot.
The move provided grist for the interior designers' mill. For each of the last 13 years, this group has taken over a noted residence and redecorated it in striking style; the owner approves any substantial, permanent changes (such as wallpaper and paint), and has an option to purchase the furnishings that are installed for the event. The results usually are stunning; this is decorating with a vengeance.
For McCall, the event is a double windfall, since she owns both houses; for the designers, it provided a double challenge, which they met by decorating the MacDonald house in period style, while taking a modern approach with the Garrettson house.
As party patrons discovered, every effort was made to make the MacDonald house look lived in--by its first, 1888 occupants. In the parlor, a plate of croissants and glasses of sherry stood at the ready for the refreshment of tea-time callers; none of the guests dared touch them, but the temptation was strong. A glass of brandy and a pipe waited next to an armchair in the adjoining study, where an open copy of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" seemingly anticipated the return of the master of the house.
The mood was quite different in the Garrettson house, which, although built in 1886, had been upholstered in a thoroughly 1986 style.
The touring parties of guests, which included many of the designers, soon discovered what previous Designers Showcase patrons have learned: inspecting houses can be very pleasant, but the aesthetic senses require nourishment beyond the visual. Thus, most repaired quickly enough to the brick-paved precincts that separate the houses, where cocktails and nibbles were generously handed around. Later, the guests retired to a spacious tent (a welcome refuge from the chill); there, they dined on breast of veal and strawberry-and-chocolate pastries. The Bill Coleman Quartet lured revelers onto the dance floor with a selection of music that, by decree of dinner chairman Walter Nelson, included "genteel fox trots, but no disco."
The event honored Augusta Starkey, a Philadelphia native who has lived in Chula Vista for 53 years and said that she and her late husband, Harold B. Starkey, were among the orchard families. Chula Vista Mayor Gregory Cox served as the evening's honorary chairman.
Corinne McCall and her parents were on hand to receive guests; another McCall daughter, Julianne Rearwin, journeyed down from La Jolla to revisit the house in which she had been reared. Among others present were Past to Present general chairman Sheila Nasland, social co-chairmen Klonie Kunzel and Jean Rudd, and Historical Society Director Richard Esparza.