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Rediscovering Victorian's Secrets : Visitors Can Immerse Themselves in Authentic Setting at McCharles House


If you like to take your tea feeling authentically Edwardian or Victorian--that is, amid overstuffed settees, crushed-velvet ottomans, lace galore, fresh magnolia and garland swags, and even tiny rosebud "mussy Tussies" (miniature bouquets)--chances are you've already had a peek at the McCharles House Restaurant and Tea Room, a restored Victorian home in Tustin's Old Town area.

If not, you can begin the tradition.

"We've always loved Victorian houses," says Audrey Heredia, who, along with daughter Vivian, owns and runs the restaurant. "This house has a lot of history to it, and a lot of love and sweat has gone into restoring it. We bought this house in 1976, and it took eight years to bring back its original loveliness. We didn't want to rush; we wanted the details just right."

The just-right details can be seen all over this two-story Victorian, whose 100-year-old eucalyptus trees protectively tower over it, white picket fence and all.

The sturdy period house in Old Tustin was built in 1885 by D.L. McCharles, Tustin's township justice. The heirs sold the home in 1943, and the property has seen many uses--a nursery school, bookshop and even a clothing store--until the Heredia family took over.

The house's exterior is painted in deep mint green and accented with mauve and white--a traditional American Victorian color scheme. White lattice work, scalloped shingles, flower-boxed windows, bricked walkways and heavy wood doors beckon the guests to enter into a different time zone.

"I think the idea of 'cocooning'--that is coming back into the softness, warmth and coziness of home and family--is a very appealing concept right now," says Vivian, explaining in part the new interest in the time period. "Last year, especially during the war, people seemed drawn to this place. It's a house that allows you to come and actually feel slowed down; that life means taking a little time to sip, and not just go racing through the day."

The restoration of the house was a timely and painstaking process. Audrey's husband, Carlos, brought the structure up to code by spending nearly $100,000 to install new wiring, plumbing, vents and a compact kitchen with workable space.

The five Heredia children helped scrape and strip the stairs and wall paneling. During their 12-hour marathon sessions, they found certain surprises: Under the wall paneling were 11 different colors and layers of paint, covered by layers of wallpaper. Underneath was the beautiful, original redwood sidecar paneling and trim. The floors revealed fine old pine woodwork. "All the good things seem to be underneath," says Audrey.

"Bright colors were common in Victorian times," she says. "People could show off their wealth and financial status by the paint; the wealthier could afford richer pigments. So people were very into color. Actually, the house is quite subtle. We could have gone really flamboyant, perhaps introducing a yellow color next to the raspberry."

Both mother and daughter say they were out there alone searching for cabbage roses and Regency-stripped wallpaper during the early '80s. "You might forget this look hasn't always been as popular as it is now," notes Audrey.

They searched for several months before hitting upon the "perfect" wallpaper: a raspberry and blue cabbage flower-and-ribbon design imported from England. (The same pattern has been manufactured since the late 1890s).

Antique shops, garage and estate sales, thrift shops and warehouses were all searched for the period antiques that are scattered throughout the house. The main buffet sideboard in rosewood is a particular beauty.

The owners say that many people comment not only on the look, but also on the feeling the house seems to evoke. "This house has always been a family house," notes Audrey. "And so many people comment on the good feeling, or vibes, if you will, that are in this place. I do a lot of artwork here late at night, and I always feel safe and warm. There just seems to be something comforting and comfortable about the house itself."

The garden at McCharles House is tended by daughter Stephanie. Just as in Victorian times, it revolves with roses, nasturtiums, hollyhocks, stock, geraniums, pansies, sweet Williams, lemon leaves and even cabbage. Stephanie says she is considering planting the knot-garden look of the era, along with a good-sized herbal garden. Edible flowers from the garden often find their way inside as decorations on the desserts.

It should not surprise anyone that designer Laura Ashley often holds events at the house. Sunday it is sponsoring a "Laura Ashley Tea" in the upstairs pink room. The new Laura Ashley spring collection will be shown and its home furnishings will decorate the room.

While the appeal of the Victorian era may, in part, be due to selective, romanticized impressions of the period, the Victorians did actually retreat to their homes and gardens for serenity and peace.

"This is the (idea) people seem to be drawn to today," says Audrey. "Let's get back to the time when mothers and children dressed up and frolicked in the garden (as in the portraits of the day). Whether they actually did may be moot, but it's a beautiful idea, isn't it?"

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