Union Square house tour offers a lot of variety in decor (and in cookies)


December 08, 1991|By Lynn Williams

When Harry Brosenne began work on his newly purchased Victorian house in August 1988, it had drop ceilings in two of the rooms (with bare beams behind them), unattractive yellow and blue paint throughout and a decrepit third floor that literally had not been touched for decades.

By December, the rooms shone with new paint jobs and wallpaper. The drop ceilings were gone and the original 10-foot plaster ceilings restored, and graceful period fixtures replaced bare light bulbs. The oak floors, bordered by dark strips of teak, had been cleaned and sealed, and polished to a soft gleam with a tough wax designed for bowling alleys. The top floor, once a separate apartment, became a pretty two-bedroom suite.

That's a lot of transformation in a small amount of time, and Mr. Brosenne's friends and neighbors expressed astonishment that such a large house could have been pulled together so quickly.

But he had to get it done quickly. After all, it had to be finished for the Union Square Christmas Cookie Tour.

Mr. Brosenne, a senior editor and writer for Bendix in Greenbelt, has been chairman of the tour, an annual fund-raiser sponsored by the Union Square Association, since its beginnings in the fall of 1986. That year, the neighborhood had played host to an October house tour which had not done spectacular business, and several of the association's members suggested that a holiday-themed tour might attract more attention. They settled on a "Christmas cookie" tour, on the theory that everybody, whatever their creed, likes Christmas cookies.

"Everybody said, 'You're not going to do it,' but we did, and it turned out to be successful," says Mr. Brosenne, who is also the association's recording secretary.

Turnout has increased dramatically, from about 300 visitors the first year of the tour to more than 900 last year. And the organizers expect the sixth annual tour, from noon to 5 p.m. today, to draw just as many.

The visitors who show up for the tour can expect to see 25 neighborhood houses -- including the carefully renovated Victorian showplaces for which Union Square is famous -- dressed up in their best holiday finery.

Some come for interior design ideas; although the majority of the houses date from the late 19th century, they are decorated in a mix of styles ranging from formal to country to art deco. Others seek renovation inspiration, or ideas for decking their own halls. Some come for the cookies: Each household on the tour offers its own home-baked favorite, and has provided a recipe for the tour brochure.

Mr. Brosenne estimates that two-thirds of the houses are new to the tour each year; "Myself and [tour co-chair] Debbie Rahl go around and bang on doors and ask for volunteers," he says. But a dependable fixture on the tour has been his own house, which he shares with a friend, William Brown; Mr. Brown's mother, Mae; and the household's pets, the poodles Fluff and Kong, and a cat named Mr. T. This will be the Brosenne-Brown house's fourth year on the Christmas cookie circuit.

Mr. Brosenne and the Browns have been Union Square area residents for six years, living in two rented places before Mr. Brosenne acquired the three-story, 13-room house on Gilmor Street. Unlike a lot of the neighborhood's impressively renovated houses, it was reasonably sound, but it still required months of work to make it as gracious and comfortable as a 100-year-old house deserves to be.

The biggest challenge was the abandoned top floor.

"The third floor had not been used for 35 years, and the cast-iron piping had just disintegrated," Mr. Brosenne explains. "The husband and wife who owned the place had a son who lived up there, and when he was killed in the Korean War they just closed it off and never used it again."

OC Now suitably spruced up and fitted with new plumbing, the third

floor is a suite for Mrs. Brown.

The decorating reflects a variety of period influences and personal quirks. The master bedroom is a mixture of the traditional -- a dark four-poster bed and massive wardrobe, purchased from the house's former owner for $50 -- with such innovative elements as contemporary art photographs of winged people, which Mr. Brosenne purchased while working part-time as a framer at Knight Gomez (now Nye Gomez) Gallery. Another reminder of his gallery days is the collection of miniature mirrors that lines the main stairway; he put them together from bits and pieces of framing materials.

The upstairs family room has a bit of a Williamsburg feel, with traditional damask-covered sofas and a cabinet filled with china figurines collected by the two men. The room is saved from conventionality, though, by its deep, sapphire-blue walls and contrasting white trim. Large plants border the windows, but there are no window treatments save for a lace valance, cut from a 25-foot bolt they bought for $2 at a local auction.

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