When my husband and I agreed to put our house on the Rose Garden Homes Tour coming Oct. 19-20, I figured a little stress was inevitable. But I didn't expect to have a vivid nightmare after my decorator suggested putting a tree in the corner of the living room.
I dreamed that a forest grew. It started with the tree in the corner, then spread with an odd mix of rocks and bushes and dirt mounds leading to a waterfall and koi pond at the other end. The hardwood floors had been hacked through to build the pond and -- horrors! -- the black tarp lining it poked out the edges.
And one other thing: Angry people were gathering on the front lawn. They carried rifles. I woke up in a sweat.
Ah, the joys -- and fears -- of putting your house on a home tour!
That nightmare was months ago. Now, there's just a week to go before the doors will open and the blue-bootie-clad tour-goers in San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood will follow the path from an English Tudor to a vintage Craftsman, a modern eco-friendly residence, a Dutch Colonial garden and to my 1939 Art Deco, with an unlikely screened porch that is the heart of our home.
To my relief and joy, the project of preparing our home for the visitors became like an old-fashioned barn raising, with gestures large and small from friends, neighbors and even strangers, coming to my aid with all dispatch.
Before I met interior designer Patricia Borba McDonald, a well-known and "high-end" decorator who generously volunteered her time, I would never have imagined wallpaper on the ceiling of my entry hall and purple walls in my living room. And who knew that mauve was considered "neutral"? In the midst of it, I agonized over whether I could afford a new living room couch, reveled in a great find of vintage Chinese Chippendale chairs for the porch and scored a cool credenza -- a McGuire! -- from an abandoned office here in the newsroom.
(Did I mention I'm a reporter for the Mercury News? I had to cram in decorating time with covering the America's Cup regatta in San Francisco that went two weeks longer than expected. So when the photo shoot for this story came up, I was in a bit of a panic. My husband, Chris, has been massaging his temples for weeks now -- not to mention rehanging artwork, building new fences and staining a tabletop, among other less glamorous honey-do's.)
Whenever I mention that my house is going to be on tour, most recoil. "I would never!" they say. "You're brave!"
But there were many compelling reasons to consent. The tour, now in its 18th year, is a fundraiser for St. Martin of Tours School in central San Jose, where I was a student in the 1970s, our daughter, Claire, recently graduated and our son, Daniel, is an eighth-grader.
My roots run deep, both at the school and in the neighborhood; I grew up just five blocks away. Besides, I am bona-fide "lookiloo," the nosiest rosy out there. I even co-founded a home-and-garden website called -- you guessed it -- "Lookiloos," and was constantly asking people to open their homes to me.
How, then, could I say no?
Besides, I sort of thought our house was already "done." Ha!
It isn't grand like the homes in Los Gatos and Piedmont, or as architecturally significant as some of the homes in Berkeley and Palo Alto. It does have a local lineage, however. An early owner of the house was James Nissen, the first manager of the San Jose airport. It's new terminal is named after him. A pilots association sticker still survives on the window pane of the back shed.
I have filled the house with things important to me -- my Greek grandfather's Persian rugs (he was a dealer in Pasadena), my Belgian grandmother's Plein Air paintings created in the 1930s and '40s in the canyons of Southern California, the branding irons from Cheyenne and the writing desk I bought in Detroit when I worked for the Associated Press. The 1963 Buick Riviera parked in the garage keeps Chris connected to his Detroit roots.
We moved back to California in 1998, when I was lucky to land a job with my hometown paper. And when we first set eyes on this house -- one I used to ride past biking to school every day -- we knew this was it.
The house is light-filled, and it has the singular feature I required: a kitchen facing the backyard. The most significant architectural motif is the chevron pattern on the front and garage doors. The most unusual feature, however, is the 25-by-9-foot screened porch across the back, a 1950s addition that has become my favorite space. It's always been our central entertaining area, where we've hosted many a fundraising-theme dinner. Mad Men, Night of the Iguana, Voodoo on the Veranda, anyone?
It was this room especially, along with the living room, I wanted to "elevate" for the tour.
Enter Patty McDonald, whose grandchildren attend St. Martin's and who is also an interior designer de rigueur; she is no stranger to chartered flights with clients to their second or third homes when they need her special touch. She brought not only her artist's eye to our home, but her cadre of connections. Many donated or discounted their services to help the school fundraiser. They also helped this bargain shopper on a budget create a show-ready abode.
She called in Paul Griffin of Upholstery Specialists, a master at bringing back to life old or discarded pieces that were well made in the day and just needed a little care to return to their former glory. Not only did he reupholster (in that "neutral" mauve velvet) a sleek Design Within Reach couch (fabulous!) donated by Patty's friend, Rashad Eid, but he recushioned and upholstered the seats on the 1950s Chinese Chippendale chairs I found (at 70 percent off) at Holman's antique emporium in Pacific Grove. The seats are now covered in iridescent blue vinyl. (Chris nixed the white vinyl option, saying it "looks like the dress Ginger wore on 'Gilligan's Island.' " And the problem is ...?)
We needed wall-paperers and painters, window washers and power washers and my neighbor Dhelia Fahrner, who has a container gardening business. She freshened up my bedraggled front entrance way.
I also discovered the hidden talents of my colleagues. City Hall reporter Tracy Seipel, a former fashion writer, reorganized my bookcases into artful displays. Assigning editor David Early, a woodworker when not in the office, recommended his friend Mark Bracewell, from the Sawdust Shop, to recreate a table I saw in Elle Decor magazine. I found an X-base at Pier 1 Imports. My husband found the bamboo plywood, and Bracewell, who also makes guitars, cut it to size and trimmed and sanded it perfectly. Then Chris stained and sealed it. Sleek!
I moved my giant oil painting that I found a few years ago at the Oakland Museum's annual White Elephant Sale from one end of the porch to the other, and placed big lanterns on either side to add a graphic dimension.
My parents also came through. My dad, architect Pierre Prodis who taught me at an early age to appreciate clean lines and natural light, lent me his classic black Eames chair. It's the same one he gave all the architects in his office one Christmas in the early 1970s. (I still remember them lined up with their ottomans in the living room at the office Christmas party.) To think, after 40 years, the chair still looks modern and timeless.
Claire created a collage of magazine photos to hide a fireplace flue in a corner of her room and one of vintage cars for the wall in Daniel's room. Daniel, bless his heart, spent a whole weekend hauling garden rocks.
Throughout this home-tour process, Patty kept reminding me that this is our house, that these are our decisions, that this is a family home, not a decorator's distilled idea of home. We moved around pieces of artwork and furniture so I appreciated them more. We removed extra pieces that did little but add clutter. Less is more, Patty kept telling me.
If you come through the house, you'll certainly see the new couch and chairs and purple walls. But hopefully, as my husband likes to joke, it's still an "honest" house that reflects who we are. We still have a week to fine-tune everything and add fresh flowers. But one thing is for certain: In the living room, there will be no tree in the corner.
Featuring four homes and a garden; benefits St. Martin of Tours School
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Oct. 19-20
Where: San Jose's Rose Garden district (near intersection of Naglee and Dana avenues; exit Interstate 880 at Bascom Avenue)
Tickets: $30 advance, $31.50 advance online, $35 at door;
408-287-3630, http://stmartinsj.org/rosegardenhomestour; on days of tour tickets are available at 158 Tillman Ave.
Also: A garden tea and a gift boutique