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Disney Exec's Unreal Estate : New English Tudor Has the Illusion of Being Weathered

December 15, 1990|LESLIE HERZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANAHEIM — Seven years ago, Tony Baxter drove by a house in the hills and fell in love with its basic floor plan. Although he couldn't afford to buy the home, the then chief designer of Disneyland's Splash Mountain and Fantasyland kept its image in the back of his mind as he continued to channel his creative energies into other Disney dreams.

Three years later, after he was promoted to vice president of design for the future Euro Disney Magic Kingdom outside of Paris, Baxter was ready to begin developing his personal vision: a house similar in concept to the one he had seen, but enhanced with the fanciful touches for which he is known.

First, he purchased a 5/8-acre view parcel of land high in the Anaheim Hills.

Next, he developed a crude foam-core model to test his thoughts.

After discussing that model with designers and contractors, he spent two weeks building a refined quarter-inch scale edition with all the exterior minutiae--from a birdhouse and weather vane to miniature people.

Finally last year, Baxter began building the real thing--a 3,100-square-foot English Tudor cottage with peaked slate roof, arched dormer windows encased in stone, eight gables and a turret.

It's been a manic-depressive experience ever since.

"I go through roles between being real excited and real depressed," said Baxter, 43, sitting at a desk in the garage and fielding questions from workers who wandered in and out. "With so many decisions to make, it's a labor of anxiety, not love.

"I thought I'd be in by summer, but it's those Disney details that take so long."

Those details also cost a lot more than he had originally planned, as the $500,000-estimate to build the structure quickly mushroomed to almost double that. And it's those details that make some people think he's demented, including workers and friends who say the house looks like a cross between a German Fantasyland and Mr. Toad's residence.

"They laughed at first," Baxter recalled. "It's hard to translate these things to traditional trade groups, but the model was tremendously helpful.

"They still think I'm crazy, but with the model they see it can be done."

The idea, Baxter said, is to create something that has "real-world integrity."

Despite all the time, expense and anxiety, it's worth it to know he's succeeding, he said. "It's all tricks," he explained, adding that a builder recently came by and remarked that the house will look a century old when completed.

"That's what I want--a house that looks like it has been there forever."

On one side of the home, a portion of the wall is peeled back, giving the appearance of age. All wood looks old and worn. Hand-sculpted and painstakingly painted pieces of cement emulate other materials and create a softened patina that emulates the wear of water having run down its surface for 100 years.

Wood and cement are the building blocks of the illusion. Wood was specially hoed to look hand-hewn and then sandblasted. Cement was carved and treated to look like aged brick, wood, stone and stucco.

"I'm used to it because when we did Fantasyland we used the same techniques," he said. "It's a combination of theatrical architecture done for film and the realization of real-world structure. The main difference is that with a film set, you use plaster and hemp, and if what you create rots in six months, it doesn't matter. In a house that has to last, you can use the same effects, but with a pallet of things used in traditional construction, like steel and wood."

Although the house is just over 3,000 square feet in size, it looks much larger. That effect is created by reducing the scale of the upper floor, a technique employed for many Disneyland structures. The scale reduction also adds charm and a feeling of comfort, he said.

Baxter spent many long hours studying half-timbered design, a type of old-world construction in which large timbers form the basis of and actually support the structure.

"That was the structural system of that period," he said. "Essentially they took a huge oak tree, smoothed it out, set it up and filled in with loose bits of stone and brick. But in today's world, two things keep us from using it--building codes and the cost of huge timbers."

An important factor of his home's integrity, he stressed, is that the Cottage Tudor half-timbered look is carried through from the exterior to the interior with careful attention to reality-based principles of engineering and architecture. Therefore, unlike typical Tudor-style homes where pieces of wood are haphazardly slapped on to suggest half-timbered construction, the wood on Baxter's house is designed and placed where it would actually carry the stresses of the building.

"You see tons of these California Tudors, just borrowing and pasting together forms," he said. "It might look attractive I suppose, but there's no structural integrity because it doesn't add up to anything and you're losing the original purpose of why it was done that way.

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