Bette Chambers can breathe a sigh of relief. It's been a week since "Spring Promise," the seventh annual Decorator Show House sponsored by Historic Ellicott City Inc., opened its doors to the public -- and all is well and beautiful.
On the eve of the opening day, however, Chambers' phone never stopped ringing. As design chairman for the event, Chambers selected 20 designers to decorate 20 areas of a log cabin and its four-level addition in Oella, a 19th century mill town located just beyond the Patapsco River Bridge in Ellicott City.
"Every year, I get this pang of doubt. Will the show house be finished?
Will it be a success?" said Chambers, who earned a bachelor of arts degree in interior design from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
She seemed cool, despite managing several activities at once. She was readying her vintage Ellicott City home for overnight guests; answering the phone and providing quick answers to last-minute questions about the show house; steering a drapery hanger to her bedroom windows; and discussing a videotape with an artist who had stenciled the foyer in Spring Promise.
Chambers has worked on six of Historic Ellicott City's show houses. The show house, which is open six days a week through Nov. 4, requires several shifts of about 200 hostesses assigned to each room to answer questions and to direct traffic smoothly throughout the house. More volunteers are assigned to sell crafts and jewelry, and to work in the office area of the house, where visitors may purchase furnishings and decorator items that are used in the rooms.
Additional volunteers handle behind-the-scenes jobs. Those range from putting up signs that direct people to Spring Promise to selling ads for the show house booklet.
"The show house requires an astronomical amount of people, but it's a good money maker," Chambers said.
The money is used for community and restoration projects like the B & O Railroad Museum, the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin, and the Patapsco Female Institute gardens -- all located in historic Ellicott City. The approximately $40,000 raised from last year's show house, Bethesda, in Ellicott City, provided money for a substantial amount of renovation of the George Ellicott House in Ellicott City.
Chambers has been a member of HEC ever since its beginning in 1973, and has served in several leadership roles. The interior designer, who has her own business and has worked in the area for 37 years, has decorated rooms in five of the seven show houses; this is her third consecutive year as design chairwoman. In addition, she hung all the pictures in the hallways using paintings from two Ellicott City art galleries, Margaret Smith Gallery and the Sheppard Art Gallery.
When Spring Promise was chosen to be the show house, it was a departure from the vintage homes that had been decorated with traditional furnishings. This year's house has a combination of the old and the new, which provided a decorating challenge. The first step for Chambers was selecting the designers.
"It was like judging a flower show," said Chambers, referring to the process of choosing designers for specific rooms.
Initially, invitations were sent to about 125 interior designers from an area that included Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. In July, the show house was open for inspection to about 30 interested decorators.
After touring the house, they selected three rooms to decorate and submitted a brief summary of their ideas for Chambers to review.
Ultimately, 20 designers were matched up with one room apiece.
"The log house was built in 1820 and the extension was added in 1990.
It's a simplistic house done in Shaker-type furnishings that has a contemporary feeling. I asked the designers to try to do things very sparsely and not to overload," Chambers said.
The next step for Chambers was reviewing color boards. Those show the exact colors to be used, so that the house "flows color-wise," she said.
But that was no time for Chambers to take a rest. She distributed to her designers work sheets indicating details like when the house would be open for them, when the rooms should be completed and certain decorating stipulations. From that point on, the design chairperson kept a constant check on how things were progressing. For instance, if a particular color didn't mesh with the owner's approval or if it interfered with the colors in other rooms, Chambers discussed the problem -- "tactfully" she said -- with the designer.
But the biggest problem of this year's project was finding a suitable house to start with.
"We almost didn't have one," Chambers said. She explained that the 200-member HEC had only three months rather than the usual six or eight months to plan for the show house. "Older houses are very difficult to come by," she said. "There are a lot in the county, but either too much work is required for us to perk it up, or people don't want the inconvenience of moving out of their home for three months while we decorate.