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HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS: Stories about people and
their living spaces.

Hay! That's an Idea

Linda Sullivan always loved Vermont farms. What's a Valleyite to do? She had two of them dismantled, shipped West and converted into a one-of-a-kind rustic retreat.

May 06, 1999

Linda Sullivan has infinite patience and passion for things she likes--and near-zero tolerance for almost everything else. A small army of architects, designers and craftspeople--all hired and fired as Sullivan built her home--can attest to that.

What Sullivan likes, residentially speaking, is 200-year-old Vermont barns. She now lives in two of them, conjoined by a 38-foot-tall silo. This is not the usual habitat for hill-dwellers above Ventura Boulevard in the west San Fernando Valley. It's not usual anywhere in L.A., where expensive homes are often worn, like gowns at the Oscars, as gaudy signatures of status.

Sullivan's barns are just the opposite. From the street, you don't know they're there. From the outside of what looks like her simple gray house with red trim, you can't tell that it is one of the most unique and ambitious residential structures in all of Los Angeles.

Once inside, you quickly get the picture. It's a trip back in time to 1800, when two sturdy farmers settled near each other in Vermont, close to Canada's border. To build their barns, they trudged to the nearby forests and chopped down 90-foot-tall cedar and fir trees.

Then they hacked and whittled at the huge timbers, creating posts and beams that locked together, without a single nail, in the manner of a child's Lincoln Logs. Each piece fit so precisely and tightly into one another that the two barns would stand solid and useful through two centuries of howling blizzards and searing summers.

Such a rough-hewn place--vast, silent and sheltering--was where Sullivan had always fantasized she could live.

"It's been with me forever," Sullivan says, straining to recall childhood travels with her parents, when she first encountered the serenity of barns lit by slivers of sunlight and smelling of timber mixed with new-mown hay. And, of course, she associates barns with animals, "all species of which I adore."

But she never dreamed she'd get the opportunity.

Disaster Forced Her to Make a Change

Fast forward to 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994. Sullivan is asleep in the rambling 1950s ranch on 4 1/2 acres where she has lived for 20 years. Suddenly, the Orient Express seems to be crashing through her living room with unearthly roars and rumbles. When Sullivan, who is divorced, realizes it is an earthquake and not a dream, she quickly phones to check on her loved ones--and check in with her contractor, Michael Russo.

Russo remembers it well. Awakened in his Palos Verdes home, he heard Sullivan hollering "Help!" and begging him to come over. He was in her driveway by 6 a.m., and he knew immediately, he says: The house, which he had just spent seven months improving, and on which Sullivan had just lavished a half-million dollars to achieve subtle increments of perfection, was literally split in half. Like Humpty Dumpty, it could not be put together again.

After a mighty duel with her insurance company, in which Sullivan reportedly won about $3 million, and a period of mourning for the ruined house she had loved so much (she had purchased it from the family who originally settled the property and built the house), she decided not to attempt to clone it. She'd build a barn instead.

Architects were hired to begin developing plans while scouts traveled the Vermont countryside. They found two working barns in perfect condition, which Sullivan purchased. She then hired Vermont experts to diagram and dismantle the barns, numbering each piece of wood so the barns could be reassembled.

The tons of wood, and the slate roofs that had topped them, were carefully transported by flatbed truck to the San Fernando Valley.

Meanwhile, another cadre of specialists toiled in L.A. to formulate plans to make Sullivan's barn-house structurally impervious to any natural disaster.

"If there's ever another earthquake, Sullivan's house is where I want to be," says Russo, a third-generation builder.

To understand what Russo calls "the enormity of this project," he explains that the barn-house stands on a foundation topped by a truss floor joist (similar to the ones used to support bridges), which is topped by a platform, above which the floor of the house is built. The foundation consists of 57 caissons, 36 inches in diameter, going 60 feet down into the ground. These are webbed together with 750 cubic yards of structural concrete, which is approximately the equivalent of what would be used to build the foundations for about 10 homes, Russo says.

The barns arrived in neatly stacked pieces, each of which was tested for existing problems and treated to prevent future ones. The wood passed all tests with flying colors. But the multitude of architects and designers, who'd been working on plans for what to do with it, did not.

"They just didn't get what I wanted," Sullivan says. "So I got rid of them." Ditto for the interior specialists who'd been assigned to come up with ideas for dividing the barns into living spaces.

"They wouldn't listen to me," Sullivan says. "So I got rid of them too."

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