A chorus of “Eww!” reverberated around the historic mansion.
The voices belong to roughly two-dozen middle schoolers all crowded into a child’s bedroom that is filled with toys and furniture from over a century ago.
They had just learned that long ago, mattresses were commonly stuffed with straw, making them very attractive to bugs.
They move from room to room, each wearing shoe covers or padding around in socks to preserve the antique hardwood floors, with the temptation to slide instead of walk proving too much for some to resist.
The kids are part of the Pasadena Museum of History’s Junior Docent program, receiving training on how to conduct tours of the museum’s Fenyes Mansion.
The intended audience for these young tour guides is part of what makes this program unique.
When they have completed the seven-week course, the Junior Docents will give 3rd and 4th graders tours of the mansion lasting about an hour and 15 minutes, detailing what life was like a century ago.
Brad Macneil, the museum’s education program coordinator, believes that this approach helps hold the interest of the young audience.
“They become young teachers,” he said. “The coolest thing is to watch the interaction between the 7th and 8th graders and the 3rd and 4th graders because it’s not like an adult giving a tour, it’s like their older brother or sister.”
The program has been active since 1988, drawing from several public and private schools in the Pasadena area. All of the students are part of their school’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program.
The students must demonstrate superior organizational skills to obtain permission from their principals to participate since they must miss school time, said Macneil.
“We only want kids in this program that really want to be in it,” he said.
Macneil said that the program encourages each student to put his or her unique mark on the tours they conduct.
“We let them bring their own personalities in,” he said. “They can each do their own tour, somewhat, with their own language, so it’s not like rote where everyone is saying the same thing.”
The mansion boasts many pieces of antiquity, and leaves no shortage of objects and stories for the budding tour guides to discuss.
It was constructed in 1907 for the Fenyes family. The influence of the family’s matriarch, Eva Scott Fenyes, can be felt throughout its 16 rooms.
Fenyes was an accomplished watercolor artist and patron of the California plein air art movement. She created depictions of adobes and missions in the American southwest that in many cases are the only surviving records of the structures, according to the Autry National Center’s retrospective on her.
“She was absolutely prolific,” said Jeannette Bovard, media consultant for the museum. “Her work is lovely and very detailed.”
Fenyes was also a world traveler, evidenced by the many figurines and trinkets on display throughout the residence, from Chinese Buddhas to Grecian figurines.
“It was one way a person of her stature could show her education,” said Bovard. “If a person who is sufficiently knowledgeable sees [a figurine], they’ll know she’s been to Greece.”
The mansion has also served as a filming location since the earliest days of cinema, beginning with the 1912 D.W. Griffith film “When Kings Were Law.” More recently, the grounds have been used to film the 1978 Peter Sellers film “Being There,” as well as “The Social Network” in 2010.
The museum is seeking volunteers to help mentor the Junior Docents and other educational programs. They ask anyone interested to contact visitor coordinator Natalie Hollett at 626-577-1660, ext. 26 for more details.