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Steve Emmons

A House That Rises Above the Rest

May 14, 1985|Steve Emmons

There are not many communities left that can be dominated by a single, grand house. It must drive some people crazy in places like Newport Beach or Nellie Gail Ranch, opposite Mission Viejo. You spend and spend and spend, and you still can't have the whole show to yourself.

If you're going to pull it off nowadays, it takes more than mere money. It takes a native, not hired, streak of originality and the imagination to recognize an opportunity when it crops up.

Which leads us to George Armstrong and Bob Odell's house, in which the two bachelors have lived for only a few months.

Officially, it's in Seal Beach, but just barely. It's really in what used to be the independent colony of Surfside, and many of the locals consider it part of Sunset Beach.

Whatever. Without a doubt it dominates its community and is probably the most original and striking house in all of Orange County.

You've seen it if you've driven along Pacific Coast Highway through Sunset Beach in the last year or so. It's the house at the ocean side of the highway that looks like a redwood water tank. It's intended to look that way.

It's perched more than 80 feet up atop the cross-braced wooden stilts that used to be part of the Sunset Beach Water Tower. The old tower has been the community's landmark since the tower was built in 1940.

This is some house. The usual real estate description--two bedrooms, dining room, 2 1/2 baths, Jacuzzi, maid's quarters, wood interiors, ocean view, 3,000 square feet--are just too bland in this unique case.

To start with, there are two front doors. The first at the usual street level, which leads you into a marble entry hall and onto an elevator, but the second is at the elevator landing 40 feet up on an open platform among the tower's posts and braces. You can either turn to your left and into the Jacuzzi or to your right and into the house itself.

Once inside the house, the rustic appearance of a wooden water tank gives way to the calculated luxury of a wood-paneled town house.

A circular stair takes you to the first floor--the dining level with a kitchen and a combination living room and dining room. A window wall faces the ocean. Two huge sliding glass doors can be pulled aside to let the sea breeze in and the guests out onto a balcony. From there the view is merely beautiful. It gets better.

The next floor, reached by spiral staircase, contains the two bedrooms, both looking toward the beach and along the coast. Here the view is magnificent, but still, it gets better.

The last section of spiral staircase takes you to the top floor about 75 feet above the ground. This is the house's showplace.

Standing or sitting, it doesn't matter, for here you have an unhindered view in every direction. There is no high-rise competition anywhere nearby.

Turn on your heels and, atmosphere permitting, you can see through the circle of windows Signal Hill, Long Beach's harbor and skyline, the coast to the north and south, Huntington Beach, Huntington Harbour and beyond that, urban Orange County. If you can't see it through the haze, stained glass windows in the cupola overhead simulate the view you would have seen.

Here the house's owners--Armstrong, 57, a Long Beach City College professor, contractor and developer, and Odell, 38, a Long Beach anesthesiologist--put their desks facing the sunset, a point of view that is theirs alone.

Compared to the calculated luxury of the rest of the house, this floor is almost Spartan. There is a table and chairs ready for card games and some small sofas for watching TV. A table with a fire bowl will be suspended from the ceiling and lowered for social occasions. (The house is still not entirely finished.)

Yet this floor is by far the most beautifully decorated. There is that view.

"I find myself there a great deal," Armstrong said. "I really enjoy being there early in the mornings when the sun comes up.

"The house is both tranquil and exciting, almost schizophrenic," Armstrong said. "It's very exciting for parties and guests, and I'm really pleased with the response from people who see it. On the other hand, there are times when it's beautifully tranquil--at night, when you hear the waves."

The house literally rises above it all--the inquiring stare of neighbors and the noise of the highway.

Even above the usual building regulations. Armstrong and his son, who is also a contractor, designed the house and closely supervised its construction, but had they tried to start from scratch, they would have gotten only chuckles from local and Coastal Commission authorities.

But local preservationists, looking for someone to preserve the old landmark after the Seal Beach City Council voted to tear it down, approached Armstrong. He bought the tower, formed a partnership with his friend Odell ("I didn't have the means to build it myself") and with the city's blessing raised a restored "water tank"--his magnificent house.

He won't say how much it cost or the amount of its appraisal. "When people ask me what it cost, I tell them, 'Five years of my life.'

"To me, it's a piece of art, really. They can determine its value when someone purchases it. Maybe that's being egotistical, I don't know. I just feel the worth is not predicated on what was spent on it."

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