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Marriage as a Merger of Tastes

A union of households means a blending of design preferences and belongings.

March 04, 2001|BARBARA ABERCROMBIE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He likes big houses with flowing space and views. I like small houses with cozy rooms and privacy. He likes modern, sleek lines and bold finishes; I like antique, mellow with age and use. He had a large contemporary house in Palos Verdes, and I had a small 1930s Tudor in Hermosa near the beach.

Remarrying in late middle-age is not simple under any circumstances, and in our case finding the right house to accommodate our different tastes plus all the stuff we'd accumulated separately over the years was further complicated by his allergy to cats. So we were looking for not only the "perfect house" but a house with separate quarters for my cats, Stuart and Charlotte. We began to consider having a two-house marriage.

Then, four months before our wedding, our beleaguered Realtor (his sister-in-law), announced that she had found our house. Impossible, I thought, but when I saw it, I knew she was right.

Designed by John Byers in 1929 for actor George Bancroft, it was on the beach in Santa Monica. The house was big but the rooms were small and cozy. There was a view but there was also privacy. And an isolated third floor, with two guest rooms and office space for me, could provide a home for Stuart and Charlotte.

An awful optimistic chirpiness comes over me when I fall in love with a house. I told my husband-to-be, who liked the location but was dubious about the condition of the house, that all we had to do was paint the walls white, rip up the pink carpeting in the bedrooms, refinish the floors and do a little something to the kitchen.

I rationalized the very musty odor of the house, the odd attempts at remodeling (a courtyard wall had been filled in with 1960s glass bricks), the damp basement containing two safes large enough to hide half a dozen bodies, the padded doors in the guest room, the general disrepair of every square inch of the place (no one but a caretaker had lived in it for years) and convinced myself, and finally my future husband, that this was the house of our dreams. Not only a house where all our children, grandchildren and our friends could gather for celebrations and parties but also an outstanding investment.

This was early summer of 1997. Had I known that it would be summer 1999 before we moved in and that this would become my job for two years, would I have been so chirpy, so madly in love with the house?

Certainly not so chirpy. My cheerful optimism would soon curdle into ongoing glumness, a kind of trench-like mentality, but I had fallen in love with the house and that fact never wavered.

We both agreed that we wanted to preserve the integrity of the house, to restore, not remodel. The beautiful plain bones of Spanish Mission Revival shone through the neglect and mildew. We wanted to keep the proportions intact, even if it meant having 1929-size bathrooms and closets.

He suggested hiring an interior designer. I said absolutely not, I knew exactly what I wanted.

I had a vision: white slip-covered furniture, Oriental rugs on the oak floors, antiques, built-in bookcases and walls inside and out painted pure white. What I didn't realize, of course, is that there's more to interior design than that. I didn't realize that restoration requires hundreds of decisions. Per day.

Building a new house would have been far easier than restoring an old one.

I didn't know that the original windows with the wavy glass I found so charming would have to be replaced at a cost I forbade everyone connected with the project to ever mention.

I didn't know that walls would have to come down for earthquake retrofitting or that we would spend months trying to match the original plaster.

I didn't know that whole bathrooms would end up being jettisoned or that I'd become an expert on toilet design.

I didn't know it would take us six months just to get the building permit.

I began to carry samples of tiles in my car to whip out for comments and advice at every opportunity. "I just happened to have these tiles in my car and was wondering if you could tell me what you think," I'd say.

We began work with an architect, who designed an office for me out of a jerry-built porch on the third floor, and figured out ways to open up the master bedroom, which was oddly long and narrow.

And we had very intense meetings with the Santa Monica Building Department over earthquake retrofitting, added structural costs involved with putting on a tile roof, and the department's decision that we needed to install sprinklers in every ceiling. I was beginning to realize why this house had been such a bargain.

We hired my son-in-law to be contractor.

"Mom, don't do it," begged his wife (my daughter). "Don't mix family and business,"

But we wanted somebody we could trust and whose work we knew.

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