BRILLIANT ENTERTAINING

While this home’s classic exterior reflects the rich history of its Bucks County, Pennsylvania, neighborhood, the owners weren’t afraid of adding a splash of color indoors. Interior designer Gregg Kiesel had a green light for a palette featuring brilliant yellow, cobalt blue, and periwinkle and the goal of tailoring the 10-year-old home for entertaining. "It had to be designed to be used," says Kiesel, who is based in New Hope. "Not only does this family entertain–a sit-down dinner for 50 as well as a wedding have been held here–but the house is home to a parrot, two dogs, and cats. It had to be user friendly, but we didn’t want it to look that way."

The setting is idyllic: 10 acres with a circular drive leading up to the house surrounded by a pond with swans, gardens, and a natural stone pool. For the living areas, Kiesel set about creating a space that flowed by uniting colors of the main-level family room, kitchen, dining room, living because we wanted an open floor plan. There is no red room, no blue. The concept was to keep it uniform so that guests were guided from a place to place and it was never a limiting space."

Once yellow was chosen for the walls, the challenge was to keep the color uniform without being boring. "In the main living areas we went with a blotted look, while in the kitchen and dining area is a strie–different yet united." Kiesel estimates it took about three months to find the perfect shades and treatments for the walls. "Once that was determined, the rest easily came into play." The basement level of the house supports the entertaining and inlcudes a professional-style prep kitchen and 5,000-bottle wine cellar, as well as an office and entertainment/exercise area. In addition to the master suite on the main level, there are four guest bedrooms on the second floor.

As Kiesel balanced the need for the home to be a showplace, he frequently refocused on its need to be serene. "This is the place of complete solitude for them, too," he says of the 50ish couple, both corporate executives, who have several homes. "It is their meditation and their retreat away from everyone.

An important element of the peaceful orientation of the home was opening it to the surrounding scenery. While a previous homeowner opted for no window treatments, Kiesel found that too severe and opted for minimal, silk swags or, in some places, drapes and swags. "The last thing we wanted to do was take away from the lovely view," he adds.

In the living room, interior and exterior scenery are blended with a landscape painting of a cloud-filled blue sky flanked by French doors. The arrangement "gave the homeowners the illusion of going straight out to the yard–both the real landscape and the painting are soothing, despite the bright colors," Kiesel says.

Throughout the main level, custom-made furnishings are modifications of the homeowners’ classical preferences. Another favorite of the homeowners was both pattern and tone-on-tone fabrics, so the designer indulged in striped fabrics and a trellis-design carpet, as well as elaborate damasks. Notable pieces in the house are sketches by Matisse and a wall niche bronze statue entitled "The Maiden," that originally belonged to the Carnegie family Surveying the project, the designer notes, "it is serene and peaceful because everything is in its place. It is pristine, despite being a well-used home."

2001: A Space Odyssey for the kitchen

A husband and wife in Connecticut found they spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room of the house. Whether preparing meals, entertaining friends, or working on their business, they always seemed to gravitate to the space. But the more they looked around, the more they realized that their existing kitchen–with its low ceiling and dark-stained cabinets–was pretty ho-hum. If this room was going to be so important to the family, shouldn’t it look and feel spectacular? The owners envisioned a space that was big, bold, and, most importantly, not the least bit boring.

Enter designer William Diamond and architect Anthony Baratta, the NewYork-based design team known for headturning, eye-popping interior schemes (page 38). "The clients said, ‘We want to do something gutsy.’ And no one is as crazy as we are," quips Diamond, who joined design forces with Baratta about 20 years ago. Armed with limitless imagination and an unwavering sense of detail, they crafted a total transformation of the kitchen. "We wanted it to be like a kitchen in an English country home," says Diamond. "They were these big kitchen halls, with huge ceilings."

The designers gutted the existing kitchen and two adjacent rooms to make a combination prep area, dining pavilion, and home office. They also removed a bedroom and a bathroom directly above the kitchen, creating a two-story ceiling topped with a cupola. "We did this wonderful tray ceiling made with little pieces of planking," says Diamond. "It was built like the hull of a boat."

Exaggerated arches, from the glass-fronted cabinets to the windows in the dining pavilion, lend a palatial quality to the space. In the center of the kitchen, a glass-topped skylight well seems to rise to the heavens. "That’s very Diamond & Baratta," Diamond says about the larger-thanlife size of the room’s details. "We find scale very exciting."

Something else that sends the designers’ pulses racing: color. In their projects, the team likes to use what they call "totally off-primary" colors. "The red is ‘barnier’ than classic red; the yellow is more golden," says Diamond. In this kitchen, floor tiles in a playful checkerboard of butterscotch yellow and barn red lead the eye to the long, farmhouse-style work island. The dining pavilion exudes sunny warmth, thanks to a striped wallcovering in golden yellow and buttery cream.

In keeping with the look and feel of the kitchen, the designers selected furnishings that were at once grand in scale and graceful in detail. Barstool-height Windsor chairs painted a green-tinged mustard color cozy up to the center island. The furnishings feel right at home inside this architecturally endowed kitchen. "The room doesn’t feel enormous," says Diamond. Instead, there is a graciousness to the space that makes it inviting and livable.

Sitting pretty

Resting comfortably on the terrace of the historic Joab Center House, circa 1812, in Greenport, New York, is a selectiion of mid-19th-century Gothic Revival chairs. The intricate decoration and styling of these and other Gothic-style elements make them idea accent pieces in a wide range of relatively simple interior settings.

A myriad of lovingly preserved Federal and Georgian-style public buildings and private homes punctuate the rural landscape of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Architect Laura Kaehler focused on blending the area’s history with the scenic beauty of the local farmlands, forests, and tidewater tributaries flowing into the Chesapeake Bay when designing a home for the owners of a 500-acre horse farm in the area.

Kaehler embraced her clients’ vision of creating a residence that looked as if it was built around the same time that America’s forefathers established this nation. From her office in Connecticut, Kaehler collaborated on the project with interior designers Deborah Lipner and Andrea Robinson and landscape architect Diane DeVore. As a result, Kaehler says, "The house has a seamless design and looks as though it evolved gracefully over time. We were really in sync with one another and worked as a team throughout the entire project."

Following the example set by prominent settlers more than 300 years ago, Kaehler designed a formal two-story brick residence flanked by a pair of less formal wings. Resplendent with architectural details indicative of large-scale residences built in Maryland during the early 1700s, the main section of the 7,500-square-foot house has a central hail with a dramatic floating staircase, a living room, and a dining room. The kitchen, bedrooms, and study are located in the adjoining wings.

Hiding the home’s true age, Kaehier buried all evidence of modern heating and plumbing by installing radiant heat beneath the hardwood floors and by concealing vents behind crown molding. Some other tricks used to maintain the home’s classic appearance: The timeworn color and patterned mortar of the structure’s facade replicates bricks found in area homes built around 1760, and the terrace work features bluestone pieces with chiseled edges separated by rows of soil planted with fresh thyme in the Colonial fashion. Inside, the dining room walls are painted and glazed to give an aged look.

Lipner and Robinson also used the farm’s pastoral landscape for inspiration. "When planning the interior, we wanted to bring the eye out to the landscape," Lipner adds. "The colors found outside inspired the palette. The pastures, trees, and plantings were all reflected in the color scheme."

American gothic

David Scott Parker’s initial connection to Gothic Revival design arose by chance, but looking back, it seems predestined. "About a dozen years ago, I was doing a project for a museum that included an intact room by [19th-century American Romantic architect] A. J. Davis," says Parker, an architect and antiques dealer. "In the course of the project, people kept referring me to this man in New York, Lee Anderson, who was supposed to have this amazing collection of Gothic furniture. I called him and we set up a meeting, during which we discovered we are related…he is a distant great uncle of mine."

It turns out that Parker and Anderson both grew up in New Harmony, Indiana, the site of an early 19th-century utopian community "Lee has been a great influence on me. He is considered by many to have the finest private collection of Gothic Revival furniture in the United States and his passion for the style is contagious."

As he learned more about Gothic Revival style, Parker began to seek out dealers and sources for what would become an important collection of his own. In 1995, he bought a vintage Carpenter Gothic house near Fairfield, Connecticut, to accommodate not only his collection, but also his two growing businesses–David Scott Parker Architects and Associated Artists, a company that deals in museum-quality pieces made from 1850-1920. The circa 1880 main house has three rooms up and three down, and it is connected by a covered breezeway to a detached modern office that houses the architecture practice.

Originating in France during medieval times, Gothic style’s chief elements–peaked windows, elaborate tracery, and trefoil or quatrefoil motifs–were adopted as popular features of American architecture in early Colonial times. The enduring style can still be found thought the country in examples as diverse as 17th-century churches in Virginia and garden follies such as one Thomas Jefferson designed but never built. Probably the first use of Gothic design for a private home in America was Benjamin Latrobe’s 1799 Sedgeley, outside Philadelphia.

In America, the term Gothic Revival was introduced in the mid 1800s to describe application of the Gothic style from the 1700s through the early 1900s. Originally interest in Gothic was stirred up by the books of 18th-century English writers and aesthetes such as Horace Walpole, A. W. N. Pugin, and Batty Langley Its appearance in American homes can be attributed to America’s godfathers of Gothic: A.J. Downing and A.J. Davis. These two–partners at times–popularized Gothic in several books featuring "picturesque" landscapes inhabited by romanticized cottages, many of them designed by Davis. "Davis is interesting because he was an architect who was also a furniture designer," says Parker. "In the same way, my firm is interested in being involved in all aspects of design."

As a native of New Harmony, Parker likes to note the connection between his hometown and Gothic Revival. "Robert Dale Owen was the son of the founder of New Harmony, and also a congressman who helped create the Smithsonian Institution. For the plans, he turned to his brother, David Dale Owen, a geologist and draftsman. He returned a design for the building in the Gothic Revival taste, considered by the Owens to be the only style suitable for America’s institutions because it was the only truly Christian architecture." Ultimately, the project was turned over to James Renwick, who used the drawings as a basis for his final project

Parker is an inveterate collector who bought his first antique at the age of 12. He has amassed a variety of collections but admits to an affinity for Gothic Revival pieces. "I didn’t set out to have a house full of Gothic furniture," says Parker. "It was acquired through interest rather than decorating needs. It is among the most architectural of styles, and that appeals to my eye."

Gothic gallery

When most people think of Gothic style, they often imagine gigantic cathedrals with elaborate stained glass windows and grotesque gargoyles, not mid-19th-century wallpapers. However, Gothic style did not disappear after the Middle Ages. It was incorporated into 18th-century design motifs and experienced a resurgence in the Gothic Revival period of the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, Gothic designs were applied to furniture styles, fabric designs, tableware motifs, and wallpaper patterns in England and America.

"I think Gothic Revival wallpapers reflect an inner source of peace and comfort. They create an atmosphere in a room that is traditional and has withstood the test of time," observes John Bucemi, president of Classic Revivals in Boston. "While not much of the original survives today, it was a strong decorative statement that changed decorating styles in Europe and America."

The term Gothic originated in the 16th century, but the style actually grew out of the early medieval Romanesque style and began in France with the building of St. Denis Cathedral in 1140. The hallmarks of the medieval style include flying buttresses that stabilize walls, allowing for more windows; vaulted ceilings; pointed arches; and carved tracery designs.

During the late 18th century in England, Gothic elements were used on garden follies or mock ruins on large estates, and in country house interiors. These motifs, applied without regard to an original meaning or purpose, were sometimes referred to as "Gothick."

By the 19th century, Gothic style was further revived with more attention paid to historical accuracy, as well as moral and religious meanings. Championed by a number of design reformers, including A. W. N. Pugin, who published Gothic Furniture in 1835, Gothic Revival was seen as a Christian style with moral or ethical qualities that also referenced an English medieval past.

As technology improved wallpaper manufacturing in the 1800s, papering became the preferred method of wall decoration. In Gothic Revival interiors, wallpaper provided color and contrast with woodwork, copied forms from original medieval structures, and often incorporated more two-dimensional patterns and stylized natural forms. Pugin designed wallpaper patterns for clients that combined family crests, mottoes, and private symbols into heraldic decorating schemes. The style’s popularity grew after Pugin designed a Gothic Revival decor for the 1850s rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament that included vibrant wallpapers.

By the mid-19th century, copies of medieval patterns were replaced by more geometric medieval design elements combined with botanical forms. English designer Christopher Dresser followed this style in his early wallpaper designs, which he acknowledged were heavily influenced by Pugin’s interpretation of Gothic style. Dresser’s versions used the structural elements of plants as abstract ornament. He flattened botanical forms and abstracted Gothic lily and carnation designs with arches that reflected both architecture and animal skeletal forms.

"A lot of Dresser’s work was derived from Gothic Revival," says Bucemi. "No designer in any era operates in a vacuum, but is influenced by historical styles and social trends."

In the United States, Gothic Revival was at its height as an architectural style in the 1830s. Gothic rustic cottages and villas were featured in books by American architect A.J. Davis and landscape designer and writer A.J. Downing. English romantic novels by authors such as Sir Walter Scott also sparked America’s fascination with medievalism.

With the 1872 publication of Charles Eastlake’s A History of the Gothic Revival, and Gothic Revival’s inclusion in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the style became entrenched in American design lexicon. However, American Gothic-style wallpapers often departed from Pugin’s purist ideals and took a less serious approach. Also, they were not always placed in pure Gothic Revival-style homes, but were introduced into interiors of home styles from several eras.

"There were so many wonderful American Gothic Revival wallpapers," says Joanne Warner, curator of the wallcovering department at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. "While all the tastemakers of the time period were saying how incorrect these Gothic adaptations were, people were buying them and using them throughout the United States."

As the century waned, Gothic Revival wallpapers were replaced by American styles that did not reference England’s history but looked to the nation’s own past observes Warner.

Today there are many high-quality reproductions of Gothic Revival wallpapers in original colors or new tones. "Don’t be afraid of Gothic Revival wallpaper, and don’t be afraid to use its strong colors," advises Bucemi. "Wallpaper is an instant way to transform a room, and when Gothic Revival paper is put in a home setting, it creates a seriousness and warmth."

A Colonial … Revolution

"WE DON’T DESIGN HOUSES for fearful peop1e," says designer William Diamond, as his partner, architect Anthony Baratta, chuckles. Indeed, it takes a passion for color and a thirst for the unusual to live in a space that pairs yellow plaid with a glossy blue-and-white check and pools of cobalt blue, golden yellow, and barn red. This is signature Diamond & Baratta: taking traditional elements such as wing chairs and area rugs and jolting them attention with unexpected colors and patterns.

"It’s American, classic, and steeped in tradition, but newer and fresher," Diamond terms their design style. And the owners of this Westchester County, New York, home were ready for whatever Diamond & Baratta could dream up. "They’re very secure people," Diamond says about the couple, parents of three young children. "They said, ‘We love what you do, and we want you to design our house.’"

"I could imagine myself living in just about anything they did," says the wife. "I wanted the house to be cheerful, friendly, and comfortable. And since children are such as big part of our life, I wanted every room to be usable."

The homeowners didn’t flinch when the duo created designs for three very bold, very different plaid fabrics in the family room, and huge blocks of barn red and bright white flooring throughout the foyer. "Either you love color or you’re afraid of color. These clients weren’t afraid," says Baratta.

But this house is about more than just color; it’s also about detailed architecture, which is another key element of a Diamond & Baratta project. In this situation, the team had the opportunity to totally transform the interior details and layout. "This is a 1911 Colonial [-style structure] that through the years was bought by people with a penchant for renovations," the homeowner says.

"The house was built in the late 19th century in a series of three stages," says Baratta. "A 1950s renovation wiped out the original design."

The designers added a wing in the middle of the house to give a sense of order to the interior. Then they went from room to room, creating unique details: fluted columns in the foyer, a strip of chunky dentils in the family room, a double cornice in the living room, a web-patterned oval window in the master bedroom. "All the details are done loosely so it doesn’t look like someone just picked out the moldings recently," says Baratta. Instead, the designers say, it looks as if a "crazy carpenter" from the early 1900s has been let loose.

Co-founders of their own mutual admiration society, Diamond and Baratta each credits the other for a particular piece of unusual design. Their combined skills are put to the test with every project, for which they create overall designs, as well as plans for flooring, furniture, and wallcoverings. "Tony has a wonderful sense of architecture," says Diamond, while Baratta praises Diamond’s dynamic eye for color. Together, they enjoy turning the world of design on its proverbial ear. "We always try to push the envelope a little more," says Diamond. "We believe in joie de vivre."

IT’S A CLASSIC: THE WINDSOR CHAIR. In early 18th-century England, Windsor chairs were made specifically for gardens. With plank seats and turned spindles on legs and back, they were highly portable, yet sturdy. It didn’t take long for Windsors to make their way into British homes, or to have relatives pop up across the Atlantic. American craftsmen put their own spin on the design, creating highly ornate turnings or opting for unadorned tapered legs. The reproduction sack-back Windsors, shown here, represent one style. Others include low-back, fan-back and writing arm.

IT’S A CLASSIC: THE WING CHAIR.

The "wings" protruding between the back and arms of this chair are more than decorative; they were designed to protect against drafts. The wing chair has been an American favorite since the late 17th century, but labor-intensive upholstering often made early models very expensive. By the l8th century, it was cheaper to buy a factory-produced wing chair than to reupholster an older one. Today, a wing chair with or without a skirt still Invites one to curl up with a quilt and a good book.

IT’S A CLASSIC: PLAIDS!

Generally, plaid is defined as a fabric woven of colored yarns in a cross-barred pattern. According to Scottish tradition, a plaid was a long, rectangular piece of cloth worn across the left shoulder by Scottish Highlanders. These cloths were in the tartan pattern, with bands and lines in colors representing a particular clan. These days, the terms plaid and tartan are used interchangeably. In home furnishings, the colors of a plaid usually reflect personal taste, not family heritage.

Peak of Sophistication

Designer Charlotte Moss blends classic elements, both antique and reproduction, and pulls off a sophisticated, yet livable, traditional look

Trying to pin down designer Charlotte Moss, metaphorically or geographically, is not an easy task. She’s a moving target. She can work a corner of a formal living room around a chinoiserie cabinet, add sex appeal to an alcove of a master bath by installing a 19th-century beaded-wood chandelier with live candles, or use a collection of antique American flags as the takeoff point for decorating a boy’s room. She appears to be equally at home in a mountain house in Colorado, picking through a flea market in Paris, or combing the collections at Colonial Williamsburg for inspiration (she has just been named interior design director of its licensing program). And you’re likely to find her working in any of those modes or in any of those places within days of each other.

Or, you might find her perched on a library ladder in the living room of her Long Island, New York, country house, searching for a reference among books or her prized collection of design magazines. Moss uses her home as a laboratory of sorts, recombining furniture and accessories. "Things are constantly moving," she says. "I think clients should be the same way. There’s not just one way to do something. We change. We grow."

She likes to revisit former clients’ homes–like the two shown on these pages–in order to see rooms with a fresh eye and make adjustments. "Those pictures we put in the master bedroom, let’s move them out now. And that lamp on the table, let’s put it on the desk in the library and get something more important for she’ll suggest. "I was always redoing my own room when I was little, and helping my mother rearrange the living room. That’s what keeps things fresh. It suggests open-mindedness."

Moss grew up in Virginia and was influenced as much by her mother and grandmother’s mannerly, hospitable ways as she was by her surroundings. "My mother was a great homemaker, and my grandmother was a natural. I don’t think there is anything she couldn’t do."

Moss brings that same energy to decorating projects. There was a time she would take on as many as a dozen clients at once, all the while tending her shop. The store, now closed so she can focus frill time on larger jobs, sold occasional furniture and accessories, antiques, and custom pieces, and was a magnet for decorators in search of items that brought 20th-century zip to traditional rooms–such as leopard print wastebaskets and silk lampshades.

Her rooms emanate warmth. She uses brave colors on walls, like the raisin hue in the dining room of a descendant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (page 28). She works out medleys of patterned fabric to add richness to a scheme, as in the great room for the Orensteins, whose home is shown on pages 23-39. Pools of lamplight are important to Charlotte and are provided by elegantly shaded table lamps made from handsome objects she’s found. Candles, she notes, are always apropos in dining rooms.

Moss stresses the importance of working a room in profile, as well as in plan, from the get-go: "I always say to my clients, ‘Picture yourself standing around a cocktail party elbow-to-elbow, when no one can see anything on a tabletop. What are they looking at? You’ve got to think about moving the room up. You want movement.’" Hanging an intricate chandelier, like the one made of antlers at the Oren– stems, is one way of ensuring motion. So is massing artwork to dominate a wall behind a bed or over a fireplace-she does both in the Roosevelt house. The use of commanding curtain treatments, at windows or to crown beds, also does this job for her.

Movement and mix are interlinked, and key to the success of her style. "I think there’s not a room I’ve done that doesn’t have mix, whether it’s country of origin, period, wood vs. painted finish…whatever. All those things that have come together from different places give a room patina, give it excitement," she says. The range of elements she assembles are consciously balanced by classic shapes, whether custom-made or antique. "A classic is something that has good lines. But it also works over and over again, no matter how you treat it, color it, or paint it." The trefoil ottoman in the Orenstein living room is one of her favorite examples.

One of her colleagues calls Moss "the new old guard." Her taste is refined, and that she lives the life for which she decorates lends validity to her choices. Moss is a contemporary woman who grants herself free access to a multitude of traditional styles (antique and reproduction) and the right to combine them within one house or within one room. "It’s all about the mix, not about the match," quips Moss. "You have to throw things off a little…by planting a simple geranium in an extraordinary 18th-century Limoges cachepot, or by standing a little American 1930s chair next to a Regency cabinet of great value."

Touring the heart of Arkansas

STUNNING SCENERY AND a year-round temperate climate draw visitors to Arkansas, "the natural state." Its central area is home to Little Rock, the capital, set on a bend of the Arkansas River; Pine Bluff, noted for its historical murals; and the resort town of Hot Springs, which encircles Hot Springs National Park and where Bathhouse Row re-creates the turn-of-the-last-century era of "taking the waters." Our 275-mile journey begins and ends in Little Rock.

LITTLE ROCK

Riverfront Park, stretching for 10 blocks along the Arkansas River, is a center of activities with its festivals, promenade, amphitheater, concerts, and riverboat excursions. Nearby are the River Market district, a cluster of shops and restaurants; the Museum of Discovery with many science and technology exhibits; and the 1836 Old State House, the oldest extant capitol west of the Mississippi. Today it holds a museum of Arkansas history. Under construction nearby is the Clinton Presidential Library. Also of interest are the Decorative Arts Museum, the Arkansas Arts Center galleries, and the Aerospace Education Center, offering a virtual-reality flight experience. Five original Little Rock dwellings form the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, where guides describe life on the Arkansas frontier. The Central High Museum & Visitor Center (across from the high school that is now a national historic site) commemorates the 1957 segregation conflict, when the federal government integrated black students into the previously all-white school. Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts has festivals and offers walks through its gardens. The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau distributes guides for three walking tours and a driving tour: MacArthur Park Historic District of antebellum and Victorian homes, the Downtown Riverfront district, and the Governor’s Mansion area.

PINE BLUFF

Little Rock Convention & Vistors Bureau (800) 844-4781, www.little rock.com. Museum of Discovery (800) 880-6475. Old State House (501) 324-9685. Decorative Arts Museum, Arkansas Arts Center (501) 372-4000. Aerospace Education Center (501) 376-4629. Arkansas Territorial Restoration (501) 324-9351. Central High Museum (501) 374-1957. Wildwood Park (501) 821-7275.

On Route 165, stop in Scott to visit Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park, the remains of a civic and ceremonial center for a Native American culture dating to 650 A.D. The visitors’ center displays excavated artifacts and a slide show. Also in Scott is the Plantation Agriculture Museum, which interprets the history of plantation life and cotton farming in Arkansas.

A dozen murals make the walls of Pine Bluff’s buildings an outdoor art gallery, depicting such scenes as Main Street in 1888 and life on the Arkansas River in 1900. The Arkansas Railroad Museum exhibits a restored steam engine and railroad memorabilia. The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame chronicles the careers of entertainers with Arkansas roots. The Band Museum depicts the history of the band movement in America and displays hundreds of instruments dating to the early 1700s. The Martha Mitchell Home, built in 1887, is the birthplace of the wife of President Nixon’s attorney general, John N. Mitchell. The Convention & Visitors Bureau has information on tours of other 19th-century homes. Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park (501) 961-9442. Plantation Agriculture Museum, (501) 961-1409. Pine Bluff Convention & Visitors Bureau, Arkansas Railroad Museum, Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, and Martha Mitchell Home, (800) 536-7660, www.pinebluffsonline.com. The Band Museum (870) 534-4676.

HOT SPRINGS AND HOT SPRINGS

NATIONAL PARK

If you have time before reaching Hot Springs, stop in Sheridan on Route 270 to explore the Grant County Museum/Heritage Village, a collection of 21 restored buildings, one featuring a Depression-era cafe.

Set in the Quachita Mountains and surrounded by lakes and the Quachita National Forest, the town of Hot Springs has drawn visitors to its 47 thermal springs since the 143- degree waters were declared a "place of peace" by Native Americans. In 1541, explorer Hernando DeSoto lingered for days to enjoy the waters. In 1832, a federal reservation was set up to protect the springs, and by the 1870s it was known as "The National Spa." Until the early 1900s, Hot Springs attracted visitors from all over the world to its thermal baths, thought to be therapeutic for a variety of ailments. Opulent bathhouses and luxurious hotels rivaled the famous spas of Europe, and Hot Springs was called the "Baden–Baden of America." The reservation became a national park in 1921. Today, Buckstaff Bathhouse on the Row still offers baths, whirlpools, and massage, as do five other hotels and spas in town. The most elaborate bathhouse, Fordyce with its stained glass ceilings and DeSoto Fountain serves as a visitors center and museum. Gui ded walking tours of the springs are offered from March through October; visitors can take self-guided walks anytime. The downtown historic district’s Victorian buildings house shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Guided gallery walks are offered on the first Friday of every month. Several cultural festivals take place annually, including a music festival in June and a documentary film festival each fall. The Convention & Visitors Bureau provides a booklet for a self-guided tour of historic downtown and information on a tour visiting President Clinton’s boyhood home, schools, and hangouts. For a view of the area, visit the 216-foot Hot Springs Mountain Tower atop Hot Springs Mountain.

Leaving Hot Springs, take the Scenic Route 7 Byway through the Ouachita National Forest for sweeping vistas, picturesque creeks, lakes, state parks, and country stores.

Grant County Museum/Heritage Village (870) 942-4496. Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau (800) 543-2284, www.hotsprings.org. Buckstaff Bathhouse (501) 623-2308. Other five bathhouses (800) 772-2489. Hot Springs Mountain Tower (501) 623-6035. Hot Springs National Park (501) 624-3383.

RUSSELLVILLE, MORRILTON, AND CONWAY

"Renaissance of a River," at the Arkansas River Visitor Center in Russellville, chronicles the waterway’s history. Arkansas Tech University’s Museum of Prehistory and History displays Native American artifacts. In Morrilton, the Museum of Automobiles exhibits vintage cars. At Conway, the Faulkner County Museum has a general store, jailhouse, and exhibits. The Cadron Settlement Park replicates an 1814 blockhouse and features the Cherokee Trail of Tears Memorial.

The Arkansas River Visitor Center (501) 968-5008. Museum of Prehistory and History (501) 964-0826. Museum of Automobiles (501) 727-5427. Faulkner County Museum (501) 329-5918. Cadron Settlement Park (501) 329-2986.

Virtually There: Virtual tours would make a great addition to any builder’s Web site

DON’T EXPECT VIRTUAL TOURS TO REPLACE model homes. Models, which convey a sense of quality to buyers, will probably always reign supreme, But virtual tours have their place as a complementary tool. In fact, offering virtual tours at your sales office or on your Web site can reduce the number of plans you need to build models for and boost the sales of un-modeled floor plans.

Virtual tours come in two broad flavors: three-dimensional, digital renderings made from floor plans, and videos of existing models. Each has a different purpose.

DIGITAL TOURS

Rendered tours are used to sell un-modeled plans. They generally include minimal furnishings and landscaping, and exterior photos can be blended into them. For example, virtual tours of Diamond Ridge, a 15-unit Meeker Cos. development in Dana Point, Calif., put renderings into the real landscape. Viewers see the virtual models inside and out, the housing development bordering the property, in the more distant background, Interstate 5, and a bit of smog at the base of the mountains. Interior shots include basic furniture and some actual scenes Out the windows.

Focus 360, a leading developer of rendered tours based in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., designs Meeker’s tours so viewers can add or remove optional rooms or furniture with a single mouse click. Color schemes–such as cherry vs. maple cabinets, or black granite vs. verde granite countertops–can be changed the same way.

Rendered tours can be quite effective. For instance, they’ve made two of the five un-modeled plans at Del Webb’s Anthem Golf & Country Club near Phoenix top sellers, according to Jacque Pappas-Petroulakis, director of public affairs. Other builders echo that. "Tours developed from plans are getting so good that it’s hard to tell the difference between them and real models," says Eric Elder, senior vice president of marketing and i-strategy for the Calabasas, Calif-based Ryland Homes.

This October, K. Hovnanian Cos. of California, in Irvine, was to launch a virtual tour for a development of about 100 executive homes in Encinitas, Calif. "We have nine plans with 30 elevations," notes Maggie McIntee, director of marketing. Those plans, however, include additions to basic plans — such as optional rooms over a garage or the addition of a second floor. Virtual tours let people see all the way around and let them see more than they could with floor plans alone.

The technology is often used to supplement actual models. "We’re building four models and including five virtual tours," McIntee says. "It’s important to see the quality of the homes." Elder agrees. "People don’t need to see the exact floor plans anymore, but they need to feel the quality and get a sense of the product."

VIDEO TOURS

Video tours of actual models — which usually include 360 degree views of specific rooms — are what potential buyers would see if they walked through a decorated, furnished model with a video camera. They have a different purpose than rendered tour plans. Instead of selling un-built models, they let potential buyers pre-qualify properties before coming on site. Video tours also help builders cross-sell their communities and draw buyers from a wider geographical area. According to Stefan Markowitz, president of MBK Homes in Irvine, video tours "help refresh the experience." After looking at many different homes and many different builders, buyers may forget what features were in what home. A video tour on a Web site can help them remember.

Video tours of modeled homes "show what we offer in different parts of our market and let us show the entire product catalog on site," explains Peter Orser, executive vice president of Quadrant Homes in Bellevue, Wash. They can also be used with rendered tours: Quadrant buyers can view actual models, then look at a rendered version of an un-built model.

At SummerGrove, a mid-to-upper level Pathway Communities development south of Atlanta, video tours are proving helpful in corporate relocation. "We use them extensively to attract relocation buyers, who are more Web-savvy," explains Dan Camp, vice president and general manager for Pathway in Peachtree City, Ga.

Often, these buyers use the Web to screen developments and houses. "In numerous cases, one spouse is house-hunting alone. Seeing the virtual tour–in this case, an online video tour of a model–has led some buyers to sign a purchase contract on the spot," he says.

Quadrant’s Orser says that video tours give prospective buyers "the opportunity to choose certain models from other Quadrant communities. Buyers can take a virtual tour instead of driving to another community to see its plan modeled."

THE PAYOFF

Elder says that virtual tours have let Ryland reduce the number of models built per community from three or four to two or three. Simply reducing the number of built models by one results in a savings of $100,000 to $200,000 beyond the cost of the house. In the ’80s and early ’90s, un-modeled plans sold at a rate of 10 percent, compared to 50 percent for modeled plans. Virtual tours are equalizing that equation, Elder notes.

Elder says that unique visitors to Ryland’s Web site are up 25 percent, an increase he credits to virtual tours. "And with virtual tours, the time spent on our Web site has increased six-fold," he adds. The users weren’t all simply browsing, either. Two developments in Silicon Valley and the Bay area were completely sold using virtual tours rendered from plans. And when compared to selling from plans, virtual tours develop more realistic expectations. "Buyers are less likely to say something like, ‘The ceilings are lower than I expected,"’ Elder explains.

The buyers most comfortable with virtual tours are, not surprisingly, the same buyers who are most comfortable with technology. For Ryland, that generally means Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; Denver; and Charlotte, N.C. In the Seattle area, Orser notes that "people who preview on the Internet tend to be second-time buyers who are technologically capable." For K. Hovnanian, that means "hot markets" like its Encinitas development. To expand that technology to other sites, "the development would have to be in a guaranteed market [one with ocean views, 10,000-square-foot lots with 20 feet between houses or a golf course] with a huge interest list," McIntee says. With all that going for the Encinitas development, "it feels now like we don’t need other models," she says.

Holy Grail: Medieval meets early American Prairie in this compact forest home

WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU CROSS Walden Pond with King Arthur’s castle? A custom home nestled deep in the woods of the central Midwest, where one can just imagine the king holding court in the central hail while old Henry revels in peaceful views of a forest-framed pond.

The owner — no stranger to these characters as a history and literature buff –had acquired hundreds of wooded acres in this Midwest farm country. When deciding to build, he produced a typical owner’s wish list: a tight-budgeted cottage with architecturally interesting spaces that maximize views. He contracted with Oakstone Homes, a custom builder in Columbia, Mo., to build the home.

Realizing that a small home in the forest spelled d-a-r-k, Mark Simon, a partner in the architectural firm Centerbrook and chief designer for the project, went to work on the challenge. "It struck me that we needed to have some central space that would bring light down through the whole house," says Simon. That led the design team of Simon, Charles Mueller, and Todd Delfosse to create a central mini-atrium. "If you can’t afford a whole courtyard," notes Simon, "this is the next best thing." A windowed rotunda crowns the central meeting hall of this 2,450-square-foot home. The hall itself then opens into all rooms via doors and interior windows, eliminating the darkness found in most old compact farmhouses.

The design team felt that because of the wooded site it was important to capture the spirit of early Americana. "It seemed it would be regionally contextual to use the spirit, if not the precise methods, of the early American Prairie house," explains Simon. Indeed, the view driving toward the house, along a logging road and up a steep embankment, isn’t that different from what you might have seen a century ago. One chimney and three faux chimneys add architectural "authenticity."

Cedar shake siding and a generous eave around the perimeter reflect both the essence and the sheltering function of an early settler’s abode. Windows can remain open to capture breezes even during summer rains. The overhang also keeps out the hot summer sun but lets the lower angles of the warm winter rays in.

As a visitor strolls closer, it becomes clear that this early American complex is really a contemporary home with extraordinary appeal. A front dormer is actually an attic artist loft. Forty feet from the home, a two-story red structure with a gambrel roof poses as a barn but functions as a sculptor’s studio.

The project team indulged the owner’s interest in medieval culture by using bracketing around the home’s exterior and inside the central hall, a subtle nod to the castles of the Middle Ages. Another of the owner’s passions–books–is addressed with an upstairs study. There, oak floors, bookcases, and cozy window seats provide ample opportunity to escape with Celtic mythology.

Capitalizing on the bucolic setting, a rear-screened porch provides a respite from summer insects. The deck above is shared by the master and guest bedrooms and affords sunbathing opportunities during the "shoulder" season. Bracketing is repeated on the porch and deck, reinforcing the medieval theme.

To save money, Simon designed the home as a simple box and used creative cost cutters, like white-painted millwork in the central hallway and reddish painted bookcases in the study. But the overall feel of the home is far from basic. The design team used monumental proportioning to give the effect of graciousness and volume.

The home’s symmetrical elevation gives it a formal outside appearance and adds to an air of grandeur. But just inside the front door that symmetry shifts. The stairs and rotunda are set off center to accommodate the side-entry, two-bay garage, well hidden from visitors arriving in the front.

Interiors are simple and informal. "Making interesting spaces with standard materials was the key," says Simon. "We didn’t go overboard in plumbing or lighting fixtures." Main rooms feature red oak floors. Bathrooms have ceramic tiles on floors and halfway up the walls. The living room, an inviting, warm space, has as its centerpiece a wood-burning stove set in a dramatic alcove. The alcove is lined with tiles that look like brick but without the mass and weight.

The kitchen is a simple space with rich but practical details like a granite-topped island and ample built-in storage. The island houses cabinets and counter space to give more play to the windows, which in turn pay homage to the woods and bring in light. Windows play another important role in the home: They eliminate the need for air conditioning. An upstairs window band provides natural ventilation to counter the central Midwestern summer.

Wayne Guariglia, president of Oakstone Homes, says it took a good deal of site work to put in a road and to carve a space about 200 feet around the footprint of the remotely located home. The tight space dictated unusual care in delivery and handling of materials. Another challenge was the degree of architectural specifications. "We had never encountered the volume of detail in the specs that we did on this job," says Guariglia. "Centerbrook was very focused and excited about the project and was closely involved in it. What was remarkable is that there was such good cooperation between the architect, the owner, and us."

The result is a home that is all at once cozy and magnificent. As Simon notes, "I like the idea of making something simple and still have it be this interesting. You get closer and realize that it’s just an interesting place to be."

Jan Mitchell is a freelance writer for the housing industry living in the San Francisco Bay area.