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From Eyesore to Exclamation Point--at Quite an Expense


If you want to understand how a remodeling project can snowball from low budget to no budget, from ordinary to over the top, you should hear from a couple whose remodel did just that.

When Gilberto Martinez, an architect and contractor, and Shannon Sullivan Martinez, an attorney, bought their West Hollywood probate-enmeshed home from the courts in 1993, the relatively low $150,000 purchase price seemed, nevertheless, like an unreasonable amount.

After all, the 1920s two-bedroom cottage was little more than crumbling plaster, termite-devoured walls and plumbing clogged from the bathroom to the street. The couple called it a "major fixer."

"Our families hated us," said Martinez, a native of Cuba. While his relatives, who live nearby, wanted him and Shannon to live closer than when they had a rented abode over a garage in Brentwood, the family felt that the dilapidated, 1,300-square-foot house was not a good investment.

And the couple were not without misgivings, knowing that you can't really anticipate all the challenges in a remodel--including expensive electrical and foundation problems--until you are irreversibly into the demolition stage.

"We were scared," Shannon recalled.

Still, the couple jumped in, and budgeted $30,000 to make improvements. Between the time the remodel started in late 1994 and the time they moved in early in 1996, however, powerful forces blew the budget into a fourth dimension.

Those forces were Gilberto's artistic vision and creative passion, coupled with Shannon's support for her husband's desires.

"It's his career," she figured, and urged him on: "Honey, do what you want."

By the time it was over, $380,000 had been spent on the remodel, not including Gilberto's labor.

Of course, other than the footprint of the original structure, barely a vestige remains of that earlier shack. What sits on the lot today is not only a new sleek, contemporary home built of the finest (and most expensive) materials, but it's also somewhat difficult to describe.

When asked to define the architectural style, Gilberto wouldn't. Or couldn't.

"He doesn't like to be labeled," Shannon explained.

Perhaps all viewers--and there have been many who stop, gawk, stare, sketch and knock on the front door for a look inside--must decide for themselves how to categorize the design.

The house is basically two sage-green stucco boxes, with a salmon-colored entry tower in the middle.

One side of the tower is all right angles, while the other side appears to be squished in and is covered with layers of stainless steel. "Gumby wall" seems an apt description.

In the center is the front door, made of aluminum and glass; it is custom-made, heavy and very expensive. Walking through the doorway, you think, "Is this a home or an office building?"

Inside, it only gets weirder. To the right of the front door, a large window is set at an angle into the wall.

"It angles in, it angles up," Martinez said. The high foyer is lit by a large skylight.

And on the floor, tiles are set at two different angles, one set angling into a bedroom and guest bathroom, and another angling into the living room.

The living room is furnished with two leather and chrome chairs and an oddly shaped green chaise longue, the design of which Gilberto sketched on a napkin and had made by his father's West Hollywood company, H&G Custom Upholstery.

While employees were making the chaise longue, "they hated it," Gilberto said, but when the piece was done, the craftsmen came to appreciate its beauty, he said.

On the wall hangs a large portrait of Louis Kahn, whom Gilberto describes as "next to me, one of the greatest architects."

Beyond the living room are the dining room, furnished with a glass table (chosen to make the space seem larger), and the kitchen, with maple laminate cabinets, black granite counters and a stainless steel refrigerator. To the right of the living room is a hallway leading to the master suite and a set of double doors opening to the backyard.

From the kitchen, another set of double aluminum-and-glass doors leads to an arbor-covered backyard patio and another deck bordered by a brilliant yellow wall.

Nearby, the garage is festooned, like the front of the house, with an oddly angled metallic wall. This time the wall was layered with galvanized metal rather than more expensive stainless steel, one of the couple's few attempts at moderation.

Throughout the house are aluminum windows, recessed ceiling lights and clean, stucco walls with an intricate series of light, heat and air conditioning switches (35 in all), vents and outlets. Shannon's father, a mechanical engineer, designed the air-conditioning system.

Ironically, in spite of the hard surfaces and angles, the interior of the house feels calm, comforting and down-to-earth.

Martinez explained the cause of all these sensations:

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