What? No Vassar Showhouse? The founding organizers say the fund-raiser is taking a break after 40 years. The problem is a lack of younger volunteers.

Posted: September 30, 2006

The first Vassar Showhouse was hardly a showstopper.

The Haverford mansion had no heat during the renovation and one of its decorated rooms featured laminated cardboard furniture.

"We froze in there all winter," recalled Polly Toland, who was among the Vassar College graduates who originated the designer showcase to benefit the school's scholarship fund.

In the 40 years since, the much-copied event has become far more elaborate, requiring an army of volunteers and hired hands to transform huge, mostly Main Line properties into decorating theme parks.

Which is one reason why the Vassar Showhouse and Gardens, as beloved in certain circles as the Devon Horse Show and Lilly Pulitzer, is taking a break in 2007.

Whether it will ever return is anyone's guess.

"Hope springs eternal," said Susan Wright, a member of the showhouse steering committee for more than two decades.

Four women, now all in their 70s, have overseen the increasingly complex project since 1966 and say they are ready to hand over the swatch book.

The problem is, "we don't have young volunteers who are very interested" in the job, Wright said.

In truth, the Vassar Showhouse is a victim of its times.

For generations, it threw open its freshly painted doors each May to give attendees exposure to new decorating styles and furniture trends. Many merely salivated over the designer flights of fancy, each room the vision of a different auteur. But enough well-heeled visitors hired the decorators that the pros gladly volunteered their labor.

Now, in the age of HGTV cable shows and a do-it-yourself approach to the good life, attendance has declined. Those who do show up are trolling for ideas they can implement on their own.

"They go out and shop at Home Depot and TJ Maxx," lamented designer Pedro Rodriguez, who did his first Vassar house in 1971 and immediately lined up clients wowed by his work on a library. Last year, Rodriguez's Country French family room didn't generate any business at all.

Competing benefits are now held in Princeton, Bucks County, Atlantic County and elsewhere. There's even a designer DogHaus to aid the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When the Vassar Showhouse debuted in 1967, however, organizers say it was the first in the East.

A local alumna went to California and visited a gussied-up home open to the public for a fee. She came back and told club members, who previously had held a theater benefit.

A few days before the Haverford opening, Toland and her cochair realized that they had no signs to inform people of the event, so they hastily painted some homemade ones in her barn.

"We learned by experience. We fumbled our way," said Toland, of Wynnewood.

Since then, the monthlong open house has made more than $3 million available to area students, Bonnie Hughes, another original committee member, said. No other Vassar club has raised as much, she noted.

But expenses are up for diminishing returns. This year, 8,000 people passed through, down from 19,000 in 1991. Earnings were $60,000, almost 60 percent below the record.

"It seems like a lot of work for that much money," Wright said.

"It's getting tougher and tougher" to find a location that can handle the traffic and 220 parked cars, said Hughes, of West Chester, who oversees operations and meeting township regulations.

Planning begins in September and the details are endless, she said. Interview designers. Secure an electrician and foreman. Paint common areas and landscape the exterior. Print programs. Plan the preview party. Train volunteers. Hire off-duty police to direct traffic. Make sure no one walks off with a chic pillow. (Most items are sewn down.)

"It's a monumental job," Hughes said. The club's "young people don't have the time."

Simply finding a home big enough is a challenge.

Many Vassar houses are lent by developers hoping to attract a buyer. Private owners offer their property for the same reason. While they can't keep furniture or plants, they get fresh paint and a discounted rate for structural improvements.

The Hiltbrands were in the showhouse twice.

The first time was in 1996, after they purchased an 18th-century, 13-bedroom farmhouse in Malvern that needed work. The family was still in its old residence and did not have to be relocated during the redo, which typically starts in March.

In addition to paint, the Hiltbrands got a kitchen and flooring at cost.

"I was happy with it," said Mary Hiltbrand, a mother of four whose husband, David, is a staff writer at The Inquirer. The couple did some repainting later, she said.

The second time was in May, after the Hiltbrands had moved and put the house up for sale.

It was another good experience, Mary Hiltbrand said. When the showhouse gardeners wanted to take down trees, she put her foot down. Mostly, however, she let the designers follow their muses.

"It's a lesson in detaching," she said.

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.

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