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Spurred on by passion, charity and even profit, ambitious organizers and proud homeowners welcome in throngs on tours of their modern homes

It was the final countdown for the first-ever 'Sacramento Mid-Century Modern Home Tour,' and all seemed well.

During the first six months of 2010, the tour's three organizers had spent "thousands of hours," they say, researching architects and houses, begging people to open their houses, finding classic cars to park outside, digging up docents to talk about the houses and prevent theft, and getting the word out.

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The 'Sacramento Mid-Century Modern Home tour' of 2010 surprised everyone by drawing an overflow crowd of more than 1,300.

They'd set a goal of attracting 500 people and, by gosh, it looked like they would hit the mark. And hit it they did. But the ticket orders kept pouring in.

Gretchen Steinberg, the lead organizer, approached the 11 homeowners who'd agreed to open their homes to the public. Would it be okay, she asked, to let a few more people visit?

Sure, they all said.

Then, the night before the tour, the tour website announced: 'Sold Out.'

On tour day, however, the Sacramento Bee listed the event—as a 'best bet'!

The paper was "literally on the presses as we announced we were sold out," Steinberg says. Dozens showed up at tour headquarters, the Sacramento Executive Airport, only to be turned away. "Some people pitched a fit," she says.

As it turned out, the tour went well, and its organizers learned a crucial lesson: Never underestimate the appeal of a modern home tour.

Self-guided tours of historic or architecturally significant homes have been a big deal at least since the early 1970s, when the historic preservation movement took hold. In San Francisco, for example, the Victorian Alliance has been running its annual tour for 40 years.

'Modern' phenomenon

Modern home tours are a much more recent phenomenon, dating to the resurgence of interest in mid-century modern architecture that started in the 1990s. They have grown increasingly popular in recent years as interest in modern homes has grown. Today, there's no better way—shelter magazines and the internet notwithstanding—to appreciate a home than to get inside.

"I think modern design is a growth industry," says John Klopf of Klopf Architecture, a San Francisco firm whose Eichler remodels have been part of the 'San Mateo Highlands Eichler Tour,' "and tours are a great way to get people out and involved with their community and see some cool design."

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Modern home tours have grown increasingly popular in recent years as interest in modern homes has grown. Above, at a San Mateo Highlands Eichler Tour.

Klopf has also shown off his architecture using virtual online tours. "But going to the house," he says, "you can't replace that." From the start, modern tours began as neighborhood ventures, where typically a group of Eichler homeowners band together to show off their pride-and-joy remodels. Preservationists put tours on too, to boost awareness of mid-century architecture.

In the San Fernando Valley, for example, the 2006 'Spectacular Vernacular' tour of the Palmer & Krisel neighborhood Corbin Palms spurred a strong sense of the value of the architecture there, neighbors say.

In Palm Springs, a small city that is particularly rich with modern architecture, several groups of local preservationists for years have been leading tours of modern neighborhoods and other modern buildings, and sponsoring open home tours, including PS ModCom and the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation.

'Palm Springs Modernism Week,' an annual event, includes both walk-past and going-inside home tours, of entire neighborhoods, of gardens, and of famous local homes.

The success of Modernism Week says much about the increased popularity of modern tours. "Modernism Week is like 11 days long and brings in billions and billions of dollars," says Robert Imber, a local preservationist and tour guide. "It's just huge now."