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Through The Looking Glass

The transparent walls of a photographer's retreat blur the lines between a classic modern structure and its tranquil and timeless garden

July 08, 2001|SUSAN HEEGER

In 1955, The Los Angeles Examiner ran a story called "The House that Hangs in the Sky," on the Hollywood Hills aerie of a research mathematician and his wife. Simple, stylish, yet economically built, this two-level "crystal box," as the writer described it, had enough pizazz for Mr. and Mrs. Albert Wohlstetter, who enjoyed dancing, cooking, reading Shakespeare and watching their daughter Joan at her ballet bar. All three of them appear in a photo--Dad with a book, Joan with the cat, Mom setting out the hors d'oeuvres--amid Eames chairs and views of local hills, which loom mirage-like through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Designed by architect Josef Van der Kar, with a garden by landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, the house proved "that the box form, often condemned in recent years, need not be rigid and uncomfortable," the piece said. Sliding doors opened rooms to decks. A flexible floor plan--with moving panels that closed off or revealed parts of the space--invited different ways of using it. So transparent were its walls, so vivid its surroundings (the rustling gardens appearing close enough to touch) that it resembled a streamlined treehouse. Ageless. Timeless.

In fact, nearly a half-century after its print debut, photographer Cliff Watts walked through its doors, saw its simple frame against the green and thought, "I'm home." Enchanted with Modernism, he'd hunted for three years for a house to buy, but "there was a coldness to some of the architecture from the '50s," he remembers. This house was warm. Artistic but unpretentious. And it belonged so completely to its setting."

Watts, whose poetic portraits of actors, musicians and other luminaries have appeared in such magazines as Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, was lucky enough to be the property's second owner. All its original, practical details had been preserved--cork floors, plywood-veneer walls swathed in painted burlap, acoustic-tile ceilings. The work it needed was cosmetic. Even paint colors had endured for decades: exterior walls of pale blue, the interior stairwell a fiery gladiola-red and a floating panel amid the living room's enclosing glass a sunny yellow.

While Watts saw himself as the conservator of a treasure, he did make a few changes. He updated bathrooms, replaced tile ceilings, painted the living-room panel white and installed shelves for his extensive book collection. "As respectful as I felt here, I had to decide what would make me comfortable," he explains. Which is also how he approached furnishings. "Too much period stuff can turn a house into a museum," he says. "Since I moved here from a '20s duplex, I've actually sold mid-century furniture and bought Chinese, Italian and Moroccan pieces, things that weren't mass-produced, to use together." Such a medley reflects his point of view--his interests in crafts, exotic cultures and materials that manage to meet and spark each other. It's a personal, not a trendy, vision. It welcomes a bit of clutter, which is seen by some as anathema to a '50s house.

"There's an illusion," Watts says, "that life was simpler back then, that people didn't have dogs and balls, ashtrays and magazines."

They did, of course, and they had neighbors, too, who began increasingly to fill the views around their homes. As civilization encroached, the Wohlstetters, once nearly alone on their mountaintop, planted bamboo to screen their terraces. Then, to create more interest near the house, they had their gardener, Isamu Hirahara, add bonsai pines and azalea sweeps to Eckbo's mounded lawns and geometric walks. More bamboo went in around the swimming pool, where free-form poolside benches and an equipment shed, which Van der Kar patterned after Piet Mondrian, remain unchanged. So does the overall shape and spirit of Eckbo's garden, which celebrates the house and canyon.

In the landscape, as in the house, Watts' tack was to step lightly. Working with gardener Jesus Frausto, he cut back overgrown vines, shrubs and eucalyptus, pruned the bamboo, watered and fed specimen ferns and citrus trees and filled bare spots with compatible plants. One of his favorites is a 75-year-old tree aloe he found for the pool terrace--a sculptural, palm-shaped succulent that adds whimsy to its setting and thrives in a tough spot. "I can't tell you how I love that tree," says Watts, who grew up in San Jose in a '70s tract, where he raised houseplants and vegetables.

So far, he grows neither in his new house or on its green half-acre. But he's taking his time adding items to the mix. "You can become so visually inundated by images that they mean nothing," he reflects. "Here I'm trying to move in a different direction."

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