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Step Into the Past : The 1990 House of Design in Santa Ana, Refurbished Into a Holiday Wonderland, Showcases Talents of County Designers and Benefits Philharmonic Programs


So you've never been to a showcase design house in Orange County? Your luck is about to change. The 1990 Philharmonic House of Design--a 21-room Georgian Renaissance mansion that has been gutted and transformed into an interior design wonderland for the holidays--will be open to tours today through Dec. 9.

A first-time project between Orange County's chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers and Orange County's Philharmonic Society, the showcase house hopes to raise $100,000 for the Philharmonic's youth programs while providing the county with its first glimpse at what the sponsors hope will become an annual open house.

"Showcase houses have been popular across the country for years," says Abby Menhenett, co-chair of the project and an interior designer in Corona del Mar. "They are a wonderful marriage between local designers and charity organizers."

Showcase houses generally raise significant sums for charity organizers and allow local design professionals the opportunity to display their talents--without the normal constraints of client budgets and taste.

"It's like coming to a party and seeing a portfolio of 24 of Orange County's top designers at one sitting," says Lynn Deal, a designer in Newport Beach. "You can see the style, the creativity, the professionalism, and if you like what you see, the designer is right there."

The three-story residence selected for the restoration is on Santa Ana's historic Victoria Drive and has dramatic Georgian lines and southern charm. Built in 1927 and once owned by the Gerrard family, which started the Alpha Beta market chain, it has a spiral staircase, morning room, elegant library, huge living room, upper-floor music room, an English-chintzed guest room and adjacent carriage house.

Showcase houses tend to be overdone, overfluffy and overformal, but the designers here have created a softer look.

Designers were introduced to "imaginary clients"--a well-traveled couple with two children in college--and they put in their bid for one of the available 18 spaces (bedroom and bathroom suites count as one project). Those selected were given the house's color palette--ruby red, emerald green and sapphire blue--in keeping with the Georgian theme and the holiday season. Then they made two formal presentations to the design house board before receiving approval to move forward.

"The design coordination didn't just happen by accident," says Menhenett with a smile. "It takes a lot of planning and effort."

The designers sought to have many of the supplies and furnishings donated. More than 200 companies and individuals contributed. What wasn't donated was purchased by the designers for their respective rooms.

A tour of the house begins in the grand foyer, which imitates one usually found in a Southern mansion. The curving wood staircase that swirls up toward an arched window is carpeted in jewel tones.

Lisa Weber, who decorated the foyer and staircase, worked with a floral designer to drape the staircase with garlands and fabrics mixed with branches, twigs, ornaments and brass trumpets. The furniture is a collection of hand-finished English reproduction pieces. The walls are covered with rose ragging, a painting technique that creates a rough plaster look.

The 18-foot-by-38-foot living room has 10-foot-high ceilings, classic moldings and half a dozen perfectly proportioned small-pane windows, each newly decorated with a beautiful twig and berry wreath. A Gargantuan dried floral and branch wreath, delicately stuffed with fruits and vegetables, hangs over the mantle.

The restored hardwood floor is topped with a hand-knotted Bijar Oriental Indian rug. Antiques and reproductions of the period define the central seating, music, game and reading areas in the room.

Walter Nutting worked with a floral decorator to create an exotic Christmas topiary tree with berries, fruits, vegetables, garlands and lights. A rare collection of St. Nicholas dolls dressed in international costumes decorates one wall, and a hand-painted chess set made from European chocolate moldings sits on the game table.

The second-floor master bedroom and bath share a sophisticated, Oriental environment of chinoiserie, tapestry, silks, antiques and collectibles. Menhenett and Lisa Dunlevie used natural-colored grass cloth with a pattern of leaf green, cinnabar and porcelain blue accents on the walls.

The bed is upholstered in quilted buff and champagne silk tapestry with luxurious silk spreads and pillows. It is crowned with a romantic cloud of sheers suspended over the bed on bamboo poles. Armoires, lamps, books, Oriental rugs and chests, porcelains and a bamboo garden stool create a tasteful elegance.

There is a custom limestone floor in the master bath. Leaf-green tiles are laid on the counter and tub deck, and there's a faux limestone wall. Towels hang on an antique bamboo hall tree and the windows use stagecoach shades, lined with green silk.

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