Across the country, spring is the season for house tours, a chance for the house-proud to strut their stuff, and for communities to bond, celebrate and fundraise.
The tours, which generally raise money for historical societies, garden clubs and other non-profits, also provide communities with a chance to celebrate the season by basking in the aspects of their towns they hold dear, and in the beauty around them.
“Our annual spring house tour is our main fundraiser of the year,” said Nancy White, president of the Larchmont Historical Society in New York. “And it’s a really wonderful way of bringing the community together.”
The theme of this year’s Larchmont event was “Seabreeze House Tour,” and it featured self-guided walks through five elegant homes along or near Long Island Sound, followed by a reception at a yacht club.
Tours don’t have to be quite so swank, though, to celebrate a community’s character.
Lexington, Virginia, just held its 82nd annual house tour, hosted by the local Blue Ridge Garden Club in conjunction with a statewide “Historic Garden Week.” During that week last month, over 3,000 volunteers at 47 clubs raise an estimated $600,000 for preservation of historic gardens around the state, including important restoration projects at Monticello, Mount Vernon and at the governor’s mansion in Richmond.
With the theme “From Old Roots, New Shoots,” Lexington’s tour this year featured four newly renovated old homes along Main Street. There was a bluegrass band and plenty of fresh flowers picked, donated and arranged by an army of passionate volunteers.
Joan Harden, co-chair of the tour, said that one year the tour featured log cabins, and next year’s theme will be vineyards and gardens.
“It takes about 16 different committees to pull off a good house tour. It’s a ton of work and takes about a year, but everyone has a great time,” she said.
Although many communities plan annual tours between April and June, they can also be held less frequently and at different times of the year.
“It’s not easy to get houses for tours so we make our tours less frequent, but very specific,” said Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society, in Connecticut. The town is famous for its midcentury modern homes, and tours are held only once every other year.
Organizers across the country say they occasionally opt for kitchen tours or even seasonal tours, for example in winter to show off holiday décor.
“It’s incredibly generous of homeowners to open their homes to their neighbors and the public, and a lot of people don’t want to do that,” White said. “You have to be creative sometimes to make it happen, and it’s important that people understand that they don’t have to open their entire home.”
Larchmont’s “Seabreeze” tour featured most living areas and bedrooms, but certain areas in each home were discreetly cordoned off.
Ticket prices can range from $25 in Lexington to $75 in Larchmont and more in New Canaan, where visitors are taken to homes by bus.
Some general guidelines:
Tours tend to include a minimum of four locations and a maximum of six. Many feature music and a speaker, and frequently a meal or cocktails at the end.
Docents must be present in the homes, both to inform visitors about special features and to keep an eye on the property. Docents “make sure there are umbrella stands and floor mats, and remind anyone with spiked heels to remove their shoes,” Harden said.
Visitors’ guidelines should be clearly stated, including whether or not children, shoes or photography are permitted, and where visitors should park.
White said there’s a lot to organize, down to details like buying balloons to put outside the houses, and designing and printing tickets and brochures.
She recommended getting help from real estate agents, who are familiar with many homes and how to show them. “Including a house in a tour is a great way to generate interest ahead of a sale,” she said.
Those who allow their home to be included in a tour should put away small, precious items. And be elsewhere on the day of the tour.
“People do make comments and you don’t necessarily want to hear them,” White said.
Harden said she had opened her home to tours in Texas and in New Jersey, and recommends the experience to others.
“It feels great being a part of this. It’s really not about your house. It’s raising money for a good cause and it’s the charitable thing to do,” she said. “You’re contributing to something important and are not really doing much. I always just vacuum and dust and say, ‘Come on in.'”