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The Eye by Barbara King

The house begs for a standing ovation

Pasadena Showcase celebrates opulence with a megaphone.

April 24, 2003

THE SHUTTLE FROM THE ROSE BOWL parking lot moved cautiously, almost respectfully, along the bosky streets of the Arroyo Seco with its stately houses, the kind of houses the word "house" is inadequate for, which is why they demand their own vocabulary: mansions, manors, villas, palaces, palazzos.

We parked in front of a massive, wrought-iron entry gate opening to a drive snaking its way up an incline that would be a trek even in the right shoes. As we trudged and rounded toward the left, past a lap pool spouting two rows of water arcs and tossing off brilliant glints in the intense sun, I caught sight of the house -- the estate -- so imposing it dwarfed the immediate landscape and appeared, for just a second, to have eaten up the whole sky. I was turning green, greener than the manicured grass, and I knew it had to be lousy for the complexion.

There before me was the 2003 Pasadena Showcase House of Design, Casa del Cielo, a local landmark created in 1923 by the Pasadena architectural firm of Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury, designers of 1,000 Southern California structures. I saw a stunning example of Spanish Colonial Revival style, projecting a restrained opulence and majestic simplicity.

That was from the outside. As soon as I'd walked through the three-inch-thick carved doors with the Spanish Baroque cast stone surround, I entered a dizzying world of visual overload, of prosperity announcing itself with a megaphone. It brought to mind any number of showstopper images: Ethel Merman in full voice, Andrew Lloyd Webber at his most hyper-staged, Cher in a Bob Mackie headdress.

How could it be otherwise? For more than a month, 50 designers had worked day and night creating their own showstopper set designs, going full out to display bits and pieces of every last aspect of their style. They had the space to do it, to be sure: 14,000 square feet spread over 19 rooms. But therein lies the rub: all those designers, all that house. No matter how well it's planned -- including the strict palette the 50 had to work within, the specific areas they'd been assigned, the earnest attempts to be faithful to the integrity of the house -- no matter how high the hopes, harmony cannot reign supreme in a project of this magnitude.

It was nth-degree lush and plush and tiled and textured and patterned and pillowed, with no place for the eye to take a rest, but then again, that's not what it's for. This is the standing-ovation performance, the knock 'em dead and make 'em come back for more show -- much more, if the designers get from this what they aim to get.

"It's always the main reason we do it -- new clients. We can make a huge amount," said John Cole, who created the family room and adjoining terrace and who is participating in the event for the 15th time. "And," he hastened to add, "it's a good cause."

"And it's a good cause, thank you, John," said public relations co-chair Carlye Cordner.

Yes, it is. The showcase is a major donor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- almost $11 million so far -- and aids any number of children's music programs in the community.

So I got into the spirit of the thing. I took a deep breath and focused on an object here and a vignette there, little stealable ideas that might perk up my decor. (My two favorites: a seamstress' torso laden with layers of antique necklaces and belts, like a jeweled sculpture, and a hollowed-out table with coiled strands of oversize bead jewelry overlaid with a glass top. The two that intrigued me the most: a plasma TV -- one of many in the house -- disguised with a custom frame and painting that slides up and down; and, continuing the movable motif, a bathroom mirror that slides to the left to reveal a window overlooking the grounds).

I started to enjoy the whole shebang, in my own skewed way. That is to say, I got it, and I got with it. I didn't have to take it so seriously; I could just indulge in the flamboyant, almost endearing spectacle of it all, the well-meaning volunteers working for that good cause and the designers so eager to make a grand entrance and an even grander exit. I wandered about like a wide-eyed tourist.

But after a while I got lightheaded from it all, and my sensory receptors started to shut down. So I stumbled outside and stood in a semi-stupor on the Peacock Terrace, trying to clear my eyes. Oh, just for a few minutes of visual peace and quiet. But there were more cushions and more tables and more fat pillows, and I practically fled out onto the sweeping back lawn and into the gardens.

How wonderful and how welcome and how very, very surprising to find retreats of such lovely understatement. I lingered in Court of the Jasmine and Water Gardens of the Sunken Rill, listening to a tiny flow of water gurgling down from a raised pool, and sat down in the Garden of Earthly Delights in the midst of the jasmine and fragrant lavender.

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