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The Joy of Peeking Into Other People’s Homes

‘These properties are filled with such interesting history, we feel that we’re caretakers, not just owners,’ a New Orleans fiction writer says of her (allegedly haunted) house

The delight of seeing other people’s homes, how they live and what they collect never grows old. There’s an element of eternal surprise, best captured by guests’ “ooohs” and “ahhs” as they move through homes, gleaning decorating tips for their own. The distinct architectural styles found in San Francisco, Charleston and New Orleans in particular make the tours there unforgettable. Pro tip: if you yearn to stay overnight, research the house-like inns in these locations. 

Charleston, South Carolina  |  Credit: Kim Graham Photography/Historic Charleston Foundation/Facebook

Charleston

This refined South Carolina city’s annual house tours last an entire month: mid-March to mid-April — prime azalea season! So many 18th and 19th century homes are in Charleston that certain days are devoted to particular streets, like Church, South Battery, Broad and East Bay, during The Charleston Festival. This year’s festival featured antiques, gardening and Chinoiserie in the decorative arts, designer showcases, art events, walking tours focused on ironwork, 18th-century architecture and history, plein-air painting and photography workshops and parties at historic house museums. House tours are $75, other events $35-plus.

You’ll see myriad homes in Federal, Georgian and Greek Revival styles, as well as piazzas (porches).

You’ll see myriad homes in Federal, Georgian and Greek Revival styles, as well as piazzas (porches). “Our piazzas are generally found on the south or west side of the house, to catch harbor breezes. Many piazza ceilings are painted blue, and there are stories for why,” says Tyler Friedman of Walk & Talk Charleston, who leads walking tours for the festival, a fundraiser for Historic Charleston Foundation, whose house tours began in 1947.

“One says it stems from a Gullah tradition — blue is sacred in some West African cultures since evil or trapped spirits can’t cross water or the sky, and enslaved people made a paste out of indigo, once a big cash crop here. Insects and birds are less likely to nest in blue ceilings, another theory says.” 

Erika Wallace is thrilled to open her pale yellow 1870 Church Street home every year to tours. “My husband is an architect and I’m an interior designer,” she explains, “so our lives are centered in houses. We’re very supportive of HFC, a model for protecting the historic and architectural integrity of our city’s homes.”

Erika Wallace’s home in Charleston, South Carolina  |  Credit: Courtesy of Sharon McDonnell

A dining room is entirely furnished in blue and white, from porcelain, tablecloth, and drapes to the ceiling. A garden room has floor-to-ceiling glass walls with views of greenery, a sitting room with a Swedish Gustavian wood table and chairs circa 1775, antique French lanterns, leather furniture and a bar with an exposed brick wall. “In Southern-speak it’s a ‘keeping room’ off the kitchen, where you sip coffee in the morning and wine at night.” Wallace’s house is a “Barbados house.” She notes, “When trade with Barbados was brisk in the nineteenth century, people started painting houses in pastels like the Caribbean to show off their status.”  

Tip:  A magnificent white 1845 mansion with two-story blue-ceilinged piazzas, 20 South Battery is a luxury inn facing White Point Gardens and the harbor (and a stop on the South Battery house tour). Lavish Gilded Age décor features antiques, crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors, red velvet sofas and armchairs, Italian mosaic tile and parquet floors, tapestries and paintings galore, plus a Grand Ballroom with gold-leaf ceiling trim. During the evening wine/snacks hour, you can dream you actually live in this house (The Preservation Society of Charleston was founded in 1920 here) which now offers 11 rooms and suites.

Located on the main shopping street, which has many antique shops and galleries, Kings Courtyard Inn is a moderate-priced 1845 low-rise hotel with courtyards for evening wine/snacks.  

San Francisco

Thousands of Victorian houses are in San Francisco, and it’s the main design style in neighborhoods like Haight Ashbury, Western Addition, Hayes Valley, Pacific Heights, Castro and the Mission. There’s a huge variety: Exuberantly multi-colored or single-color facades, turrets, gables, decorative flourishes like wedding-cake-style or fishscale trim, and interiors adorned with ceiling medallions and moldings, carved woodwork and multiple fireplaces.

“When you think of Victorian houses you think of San Francisco,”

Walk around enough, and you soon notice different styles. Italianate features flat or low-pitched roofs, flat fronts, tall narrow windows or slant-sided bay windows. Queen Anne means turrets (a rounded tower is called a “witch’s hat”), gabled roofs and an asymmetrical look. Stick style means rectangular bay windows and porches, gabled roofs and often “sunburst” motifs above windows. Annual one-day house tours in one neighborhood are held by the Victorian Alliance, usually in October (December 2023 was an exception), for almost 50 years. Tickets are $50. 

“When you think of Victorian houses you think of San Francisco — they’re in other cities, but they don’t dominate the place like they do here, and epitomize it,” says Jim Warshell, who enjoys showing off his Victorian on house tours (it’s even showcased on Road Scholar tours of San Francisco). “People say, don’t you feel it’s intrusive? No. The more you share, the better you feel. You feel in love with your house even more when you see it through fresh eyes. Every time we do it, we think, ‘That was fun.’ The questions you get, the wealth of knowledge guests offer — it’s stimulating, and it’s a joyful thing to interact.” 

A colorful Victorian home in San Francisco  |  Credit: Sharon McDonnell

His four-story, mustard-colored Victorian with green and red accents is eclectic, and features a mansard roof with a rooftop greenhouse, Queen Anne turrets, and Italianate and Neoclassical details. Eight fireplaces display Arts & Crafts and Minton tiles — one depicts the four seasons, showing activities from ice skating in winter to planting in spring, another Aesop’s Fables.

The goal of the house tours is to “inspire and educate the public, especially the younger generation” on the beauty of such homes and encourage their preservation. “We want to invite people in to show how wonderful these historic resources are, but how livable they are — not hands-off museums — whether it’s period-accurate furnishings or a more contemporary or eclectic style. Some bring kids, who are some of our most fascinated guests,” says Warshell, a retired Macy’s executive. Born in Chicago, Warshell moved to Brooklyn in the 1980s, and “fell in love with acquiring and restoring three brownstones in Clinton Hill, which furthered my love of historic homes.”

Now in San Francisco, he says, “We’re the fifth family to own our house. My wife researched all their histories, and we met descendants of all except one — the first family was Bostonians, later families were African Americans from Texas and Chinese Americans. It enriched our enthusiasm for the story of our house.” The Chicago-born Warshell moved to Brooklyn, and “fell in love with acquiring and restoring three brownstones in Clinton Hill in the 1980s, which furthered my love of historic homes.”

Stained glass detail in the Brune-Reutlinger House, San Francisco.   |  Credit: Sharon McDonnell

Another frequent house tour stop: the ultra-ornate 1886 Brune-Reutlinger House, which features a Turkish Room, Japanese Room and tons of Victorian antiques. A basement is packed with a jaw-dropping collection of player pianos from the early 1900s. (Some even feature banjos, violins, hoof beats and pistol shots.) 

Tip: The Parsonage is an 1883 cream-and-olive-green Italianate, whose lipstick-red parlors have fireplaces with marble fireplaces, a “naturalist’s cabinet” with wood marquetry, vintage ads and Buddha head sculptures. Its five rooms are named after notable San Francisco women: The Julia Morgan room has two beds and a sofa, as well as a huge bathroom with a green marble floor and shower — plus a many-drawered apothecarium with a collection of small, wood-carved Russian bears. It doesn’t just look like a home, it still is: The owners have lived here since 1983 (the second family to own it), kept its original moldings and wainscoting, and furnished it in antiques or reproductions. 

New Orleans

Creole cottages and shotguns abound in New Orleans, and an ideal way to see one in the French Quarter is the often-monthly At Home happy hours from VCPORA (Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents & Associates). Tickets are $15. Patio Planters also holds an annual tour of private patios in late May, plus multiple house tours around Christmas. 

“If someone asks if you want to see their house in the Quarter, never say no.”

“If someone asks if you want to see their house in the Quarter, never say no — you can never tell what it looks like from the outside, and every courtyard is different. It feels like a treasure hunt; I’ve never been disappointed or bored looking at someone’s house,” says Jennifer Baynum, 51, whose salmon-colored, two-story Creole cottage with green shutters, a former servants’ quarters, is a back building not visible from the street. “Take a step in any direction, and you walk in the direction of history. I loved going to At Homes, and since my home is decorated a bit strangely, I offered it for their Halloween event.”  

That’s an understatement. The fiction writer’s 260-year-old marble-floored home has a sofa made from a coffin, dressed up with black leather Chesterfield-style cushions. Her bed frame has carved wooden fangs and horns, and dark art abounds —like a painting of the Addams family’s Morticia and Gomez. Assorted gargoyles and skulls casually lie about. “It’s a Gothic look but sophisticated — call it ‘Better Homes and Mausoleums.’ The slower you walk around, the more you find,” she says. VCPORA set up a cocktail bar and put up decorations in the courtyard, and people came in costume. There was, of course, no need to decorate the inside. 

New Orleans, Louisiana  |  Credit: Visit New Orleans/Facebook

“A lot of these properties are filled with such interesting history, we feel that we’re caretakers, not just owners of the property. I wanted to share it,” says Baynum, who researched her (allegedly haunted) house. A past owner went mad after her husband was killed in a war. A German immigrant fired a gun into the air during New Year’s Eve, it killed someone, and he was arrested inside. The South’s first Black newspaper was founded by a free Black Haitian owner’s sons. 

“A lot of these properties are filled with such interesting history, we feel that we’re caretakers, not just owners of the property.”

Catherine Whitney’s peach-and-orange 1880s double shotgun has eight chandeliers, a music room with piano, and a kitchen with three refrigerators (“I use one for wine and champagne”) and two dishwashers. (“Every house here has something quirky.”) That big kitchen came in handy when she hosted a VCPORA At Home, offering bountiful catered food and live music. “Probably nowhere else would I do this. But I’ve done many At Homes and was glad to do it. New Orleans is a very unique place, and a camaraderie exists in the French Quarter. We all share a desire for preservation.”  

Tip:  A picturesque French Quarter inn is Olivier House, a former 1839 home plus an 1812 brick-floored Creole cottage and a duplex Carriage House. Pink houses with black shutters and cobalt blue houses with white shutters buildings feature 42 rooms (some with exposed-brick walls) and an outdoor pool is in the courtyard. 

Sharon McDonnell is a travel, culture, food, drink and “green” writer since 1999 in San Francisco, published in Conde Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest, AARP, CNN Travel, Fodors.com, TEATIME, Travel + Leisure, BBC Travel, Going.com, PUNCH, Blue Dot Living, The Telegraph (UK) etc. plus university magazines for Bryn Mawr, Princeton, U of Michigan, U of WA and U of WI and custom content for Silversea Cruises. She loves offbeat ideas, people and traditions, and has taken cooking classes in India, Morocco, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Italy, France, Bali and New Orleans. Read her work at  https://sharonmcdonnell.contently.com
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