Tours de Force

A perennially pleasing way to ogle domestic restoration

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Historic house in St. Paul, Minn.

Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Three signs of spring: (1) flowers; (2) hay fever; (3) house-and-garden tours.

Global warming may have made the advent of (1) and (2) less dependable than it once was, but (3) still occurs with clockwork regularity. Mailboxes bulge with enticements to take in open houses and gardens in historic communities from coast to coast. Makers of furniture polish and fertilizer enjoy a sales bonanza.

It should be noted that La Casa de Dwight is perennially absent from the circuit. My house is old and wonderfully comfortable, to be sure, but it's not too different from hundreds of other local row houses, and its décor is perhaps best described as "lived-in." Garden? Forget it. My diminutive front yard is thickly sown with low-maintenance ground cover, while the grass in the equally teensy back yard is so resolutely unmanicured that it looks downright Jurassic. Little wonder that tour organizers avert their eyes when they pass my door.

Nonetheless, the fact that my own domicile is not tour-worthy doesn't keep me from jumping at the chance to see those that are. Armed with a dim memory of grad-school architectural history courses and driven by a heady mixture of house envy and unabashed nosiness, I plunk down my dollars for just about every tour that comes along—and there are plenty. Every year in Washington, I can troop through cozy Georgians in Georgetown and princely palazzos on Embassy Row. Farther afield, I'm tempted by villas in Florida and bungalows in California, new monuments to the New Urbanism in Kentlands, Md., founded in 1988, and newly restored beachfront houses in Pass Christian, Miss., devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Some of these events have achieved a venerable history. The Georgetown House Tour claims to be "the nation's oldest ongoing house tour," celebrating over 90 years. Virginia's Historic Garden Week, an extravaganza that throws open the doors of houses from Chesapeake Bay to Cumberland Gap, has operated annually since 1929—except, a press release admits, during World War II when organizers "took time off to tend their Victory Gardens." Despite a reviewer's terrifying warning that "hoop skirts and brass-buttoned waistcoats abound," visitors have been trekking to Mississippi for the famous Natchez Spring Pilgrimage Tour since 1931. In fact, the Pilgrimage has been around so long that it now includes something called "Southern Exposure," a rollicking (at least I assume it rollicks) stage production that the website describes as a "hilarious spoof on the homes, homeowners and tourists of Pilgrimage." That's a show I want to see.

A truly memorable tour leaves you with sensory overload. After wandering through venerable Virginia gardens, I've come to the happy conclusion that history smells like boxwood on a warm afternoon; on the other hand, my corneas are permanently scarred by visiting an apartment in which every hard surface was mirrored or gilded or both. If you're lucky, the itinerary offers sustenance for the body as well as the soul: Few things gladden this house-peeper's heart more than the promise of snacks—preferably homemade and heavily sugared—at the end of a hard day of examining other people's parlors and parterres.  

But if a tour accomplishes what it should, it tweaks your mind while it tickles your senses. It gives you ideas. The ramble might inspire you to start collecting crystal obelisks or Stickley furniture (good luck with that) or to plant old-fashioned hollyhocks along the back fence. Best of all, it might even spark a preservation epiphany: It could make you decide that it would be pleasant to live in an older neighborhood where the houses have historic character instead of three-car garages—and before you know it, you're checking the real estate ads.  

If you get a piece of mail from the National Trust anytime soon, you may notice the tagline "Historic preservation helps people protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them" printed on it. If the phrase "protect, enhance and enjoy" isn't a perfect summary of what these tours are all about—especially that last word—it'll have to do.  

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