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High and Dry

For Jerry and Renee Wallace, living in a five-story, historical water tower in Seal Beach is exciting. But it has also required some adjustments.

November 16, 1996|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Mike Kingsbury decided to throw a surprise party for his wife's 40th birthday, he wanted it to be different.

And it was.

It's not every day you get to party in a five-story water tower.

Guests knew the recent party was going to be unusual as soon as they got buzzed through the front door of 1 Anderson St., just off Pacific Coast Highway in the Surfside community of Seal Beach.

After taking an elevator from the lobby at street level to the third floor, 55 feet up, then ascending a circular stairway two more floors, they entered the upper level, where they were greeted by a 360-degree view of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

From this vantage point, about two dozen guests clinked champagne glasses and watched nature's pyrotechnics as night fell and the lights up and down Orange County's Gold Coast flickered on.

"It's incredible," said Barbara Kingsbury, who was enchanted with the tower and her husband's surprise. "We got here just in time to see the sunset--a rich orange and red harvest sky with a sun that dipped behind Catalina Island."

The home's history is as rich.

On this spot in the 1800s, a wooden tower was used to store water for railroad steam engines. In 1940, it was replaced by a new tower with a framework of Douglas fir capped by a 75,000-gallon redwood tank. Water from artesian wells below was pumped into the tank. The Sunset Beach-Surfside Land & Water Co. operated it until 1966, when Huntington Beach bought the site from the private company.

The tower functioned until 1975, when Huntington Beach abandoned it as part of its water system. The city later deeded the tower and its property to Seal Beach with the caveat that Seal Beach would renovate the tower and maintain it as a historical and navigational landmark.

In 1984, the tower was bought from Seal Beach and converted into a 3,000-square-foot home by George Armstrong, an optometrist and former Long Beach City College instructor, and Robert Odell, an anesthesiologist. Armstrong, his son Dan and Odell spent three years designing it.

The home has three bedrooms, four baths, an elevator and a maid's quarters, all inside the 87-foot-tall structure, which sits on no more than a 35-foot-by-35-foot lot. Two garages were built between the tower legs.

Armstrong and Odell later put it on the market for $4.6 million. In 1994, Jerry and Renee Wallace bought it and refurbished it.

"I love it here," said Renee Wallace. "In fact, our other home [in San Juan Capistrano] is not as fun. When we moved in, it was like being at Disneyland. When visitors tour our house, we both get a lift watching how fascinated they are with everything."

On a recent day, offshore winds blew out the usual coastal fog and smog as the Wallaces enjoyed a bird's-eye view of soft-breaking waves at Surfside and Santa Catalina sparkling like a jewel on the horizon.

"When you get a Santa Ana breeze, the view is so clear that Catalina looks like you can swim there," Jerry Wallace said.

On occasion, the Wallaces rent the tower out, as they did to the Kingsburys, for weddings, anniversaries and other special occasions (day use is about $1,500), as well as by the week (fees are $2,500 to $4,000, depending on the season).

"We're really very particular about who uses it, you know. It isn't the kind of place you would rent to a frat," said Jerry Wallace, 53, a retired Lynwood fire chief who has had a successful career in real estate and other businesses.

It was Renee Wallace, 38, owner of Shear Pleasure hair salon in Belmont Shore, who originally noticed the tower while driving to work.

"I would always drive by the tower and say to myself, 'Gosh, I wonder what it would be like living there?' " Renee Wallace said. "One day, I told Jerry, 'Honey, I want it. I would love to live in it.' "

Her husband, eager to please, said: "I bought it because she wanted it."

Moving in wasn't so easy.

"Everything big has to be pulled up over the railing if it doesn't fit in the elevator," Renee said. "We bought a couch and a few other things and they had to be pulled up over the side."

For the previous owners, moving out was difficult. Their customized table was too large to haul through the elevator.

In a conventional home, the owners would simply have taken the table out through a garage or large front doors. But here, it didn't even fit down the curved stairway so they opened one of the large windows, hooked ropes to the table and lowered it. Unfortunately, a gust of wind blew the table away from the tower, causing it to return in a wide arc, smashing the tower's balcony railing.

After negotiations, the Wallaces had the table reinstalled on the top floor, where it's the center of attention. A winch retracts the table into the ceiling cupola when not in use. With a 22-foot circumference, the table has enough room for a fire pit. When raised into its cupola position, people gazing aloft will see an Old World map on the bottom of the fire pit.

There is also a small space for dancing when the table is in the raised position.

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