Be a looky-loo for a good cause — see the Showcase House

| April 27, 2023 | 0 Comments

I have to confess, as a connoisseur of historic houses, weekend open houses and designer showcases have always held a special allure for me. For a looky-loo like me, driving through historic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, most especially our own, one gets familiar with architectural styles, architects and the nuances of historic periods, but very rarely, unless invited in or they come up for sale, does one get to see the inside of these splendid houses. Does the language of the architecture continue inside or change? How do the occupants interpret the interior spaces and fill them? I often think of how I would decorate these interiors, how I would respond to the features or quirks of a house, what it would feel like living there. So I was particularly excited to be invited to preview this year’s 58th Pasadena Showcase House of Design, which is being held at one of Pasadena’s grand estates, the 1933 Colonial Revival-style Stewart House.

Stewart House

STEWART HOUSE in Pasadena in 2023. Photo by Susan Pickering Photography.

The house was designed by one of Pasadena’s most celebrated architectural firms, Marston and Maybury, designers of such Pasadena landmarks as the Chinese-inspired Grace Nicholson Building (home of the USC Pacific Asian Museum), the Old Pasadena Post Office, the Shakespeare Club and the Westminster Presbyterian Church. The client was Union Oil Company of California heir Arthur Stewart (grandson of founder Lyman Stewart) and his wife, Ruth Nicholson Stewart. For this home, the architects composed a 1930s version of Dallas’ South Fork, a grand columned manse with a semi-circular tree lined drive set on two acres of the former Rancho Santa Anita.

Adjoining the house was a motor court, a pool complex and tennis court. At the time it included a stable and corral as well. This is the second time the house has been the Pasadena Showcase House of Design, the first time being in 1983.

Decorator showcase houses pose a particular challenge, not only to visitors, but to the architectural historian, because organizers take a magnificent house, remove everything of the owners’ and allow a designer to interpret a single space or room. For this year’s Pasadena Showcase House, these individually-designed spaces are united only by a chosen color palette starting with the Dunn-Edwards 2023 Color of the Year, which happens to be Terra Rosa, a rich dusky rose color.

With more than 30 interiors and garden spaces on view, this could be a bewildering kaleidoscope of color, pattern, texture and styles obscuring Marston and Maybury’s sophisticated layout and rooms. Luckily the creative skill on display — even when it veered toward the contemporary or experimental — was successful in enhancing spaces that might be passed by or considered an afterthought.

BACK TERRACE and lawn for Stewart House entertaining.
Photo by Susan Pickering Photography

What struck me in the midst of all this elegant showmanship was how intimate the spaces were, belying the grandeur of the towering entrance portico with its lantern draped with chains. Visitors pass through this public projection of wealth and power into the private realm of the family typified by lower ceilings, smaller proportions and narrow passages for servants to circulate unseen. The entry hall and staircase are surprisingly understated after such a grand entry, almost a passage to quickly move to the drawing or dining room or wait while the lady of the house descends the stairs on her way for an evening out. Circulation proceeds to the right with the largest room of the house, the drawing room, which branches off to the garden room with an adjacent “speakeasy” and finally to the gilded cigar box sanctum sanctorum, the gentleman’s library.

It became clear that the house was designed to allow flow through the garden room to a terrace, then to the rear garden and lawn as well as the pool and tennis court. The size of the rooms would not allow for the type of entertaining required by a Union Oil executive and his society wife, so, for large-scale entertaining, the massive expanse of rear yard must have come into play. The Stewart House’s rear façade was also columned but with a second-story balcony off the primary bedroom suite and above the garden room. This served well as theatrical backdrop to the backyard entertainments and at night must give off a southern “moonlight-and-magnolias” atmosphere.

Favorite rooms

THE LIVING ROOM in the 2023 Showcase House, with design by Tocco Finale. Photo by Chris Considine Photography

But what of the designs?! My favorite rooms of the house were the mirrored chinoiserie Living Room by Tocco Finale, the Speakeasy and Hall by Sukeena Homes, the Primary Suite by Courtney Thomas Design, the second floor Terrace by Meredith Green Designs and the Artist’s Wunderkammer by Rosemary Home Design. This last room was particularly interesting as Rosemary Home Design was the only firm that referenced the original chatelaine of the house, Ruth Nicholson Stewart, who was an avid traveler, artist and collector. The Art Nouveau-inspired studio with its eclectic collections of flora and fauna as well as handmade furniture by Christopher Grant Ward are particularly worth a look.

The Pasadena Showcase House of Design is open through May 21 daily except Mondays. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 626-606-1600. All proceeds from the tour admissions, shops and restaurant go to the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts philanthropic activities. They include gifts and grants for music education, scholarships, concerts and music therapy as well as to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Music Mobile program which has introduced orchestral instruments to thousands of third-graders, an Instrumental Competition, awarding monetary prizes to exceptionally talented young musicians, and the Youth Concert, which has brought nearly 250,000 fourth-graders to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for exuberant performances by the LA Phil.

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Category: Real Estate

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