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Urban Living in a Country Barn

September 01, 1996|Aaron Betsky

With its open floor plan and sparse contemporary furnishings, this stone barn in the vineyards of Napa Valley looks more like a city loft than a country house. Which is exactly the point, say architects Elizabeth Ranieri and Byron Kuth. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake made a mess of the 116-year-old structure, the owner took the opportunity to open a gallery and office for a small private art foundation in what had been an antique shop downstairs. She asked the San Francisco-based architects for a complete redesign of the structure--gallery and office on the first floor, a new home with plenty of space and light on the second.

After discovering that the building had no foundation and needed extensive seismic retrofitting, Ranieri and Kuth, working with local architect Jim Jennings, set to work. They repointed the stone, rebuilt the wood floors (rift-sawn maple was first matched, then bleached) and replaced the roof with pitched rafters to stabilize the walls. By installing a perimeter skylight, they created the open room that dominates the second floor and the illusion that the ceiling floats above the entire space like a tent.

"The owner wanted a loft, but she is also a pragmatist who wanted a couple of rooms," Kuth says. The architects solved the problem with flexible walls. The kitchen features a "utility wall" that rolls out on wheels to define the space. A small corner with pivoting translucent screens becomes a private bedroom. And finally, the designers conceived an addition, a small concrete tower that serves as a cozy salon.

Ranieri and Kuth labored to find just the right finishing touches. The utility wall is covered with book-matched sycamore veneer; the bathroom wall, lustrous automobile paint. And, though they many fixtures were fabricated, Ranieri laughs: "We now know every door handle you can buy in the Bay Area."

Once a primitive stone shell, the building has emerged a thoroughly modern home in which living isn't rigidly compartmentalized. "We started with something practical and built up a poetic order related to use." Practically poetic, this loft opens up a space for the imagination.

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Styled by Jody Thompson Kennedy

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