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SPRINGTIME Showoffs : Designers gussy up 'show case' houses to benefit Southland charities and attract clients. A few lucky owners get make-over for their homes in process.

April 25, 1993|LAURA HENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Henning is a Long Beach free - lance writer. and

Spring has sprung, and along with the roses and daffodils, a half-dozen designer showcase houses are in full bloom in the Southland, from Palos Verdes to Pasadena, Ventura to San Diego.

In these sumptuous showplaces, which are staged as fund-raisers by local charities, rooms and spaces are assigned to dozens of Southern California interior designers and decorators who show off their talents by creating drop-dead decors with swags of silk, expensive antiques and ankle-deep carpeting.

The showcase houses benefit a variety of charities ranging from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Whittier Historical Society, which gain a large measure of financial support from the entrance fees, usually about $15.

"These homes are big business," said Betty Rossiter, chairman of the Pasadena Showcase House, which benefits the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Over the years the Pasadena Junior Philharmonic Committee has raised $4.7 million with their showcase homes. They took in $100,000 alone from the art that was sold on the grounds of last year's project.

The Pasadena House is the oldest of the showcase homes. Marking their 29th year, the organizers say the house is the longest continuously running designer home in the country. When they put on their first one in 1965 it was a new concept.

This year more than 100 women volunteered to work on the event. Divided into a dozen committees, they choose the decorators and landscape designers, organize ticket and refreshment sales, design the program, take care of public relations and oversee "House Ops," or housekeeping. There is also a committee that makes sure the home is staffed with volunteer hostesses.

Rossiter, who in the past decade seems to have worked on every part of the Pasadena Showcase House, emphasized the business aspect of the undertaking. Liability insurance is taken out in case of injury to visitors or volunteers; contracts with the designers, caterers and homeowners are reviewed by an attorney working pro bono . The agreement with the property owner spells out his or her responsibilities as well as how the committee will leave the house after the event is over.

And by the time they concluded last year's showcase house, the women had welcomed more than 40,000 visitors, a far cry from the 8,000 who showed up during the first year or two. Then, recalled longtime volunteer Weta Mathias, they dug up donated flowers from the Santa Anita Race Track and planted them in the gardens of the design home themselves. Others painted, scraped walls and made gallons of coffee.

Experienced volunteers can look back on disasters and smile. But they were not so funny at the time. There was the occasion when Christine Varner and her fellow volunteers were standing outside of the house doing a lighting check. To their horror they looked up and saw a bathroom curtain on fire.

"We almost had a small coronary," Varner said, remembering how a candle had ignited the bottom of the curtain. "You never saw so many people bound up stairs so quickly," she said.

While the gussied-up manses are on display for only a short time, showcase homes are year-round operations. The search for the next house begins as soon as the previous home closes. Property owners who have either just bought their homes or are in the process of selling and want a quick and largely free redecoration often offer their residences for consideration. They are lured by the publicity of showcase homes or they may have visited them in the past and were impressed by them.

The style, history and attractiveness of the home, as well as its size, gardens and easy access to parking, are reviewed by the volunteer committee. Designer Jim Blakeley III, who last fall organized a showcase house in Bel-Air to benefit the Venice Family Clinic, said, ideally, the home should have 20 to 25 rooms and a tennis court.

"People want something spectacular for their $20," he said.

And because food and art sales at the showcase houses are getting more important every year, Rossiter said, it is harder to find homes that are large enough.

Showcase organizers also are careful not to repeat architectural styles. "If you do a Wallace Neff Mediterranean home one year, you don't repeat it the next year," she said.

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Susan Carroll's search for the perfect showcase home went on for months. She is a member of the 31-year-old Sandpipers, whose house benefits numerous South Bay charities.

After viewing a dozen houses, she and her fellow volunteers finally settled on a low-slung creation of glass, stucco and red tile perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A wealthy Hong Kong businessman bought the home and wanted it redecorated. His family will reportedly use the residence just a few weeks during the year.

As soon as the women saw the 6,000-square-foot, six-bedroom structure, which is surrounded by a series of charming, intimate gardens and koi ponds, they were sold.

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