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L.A. at Large

And the House Lived Happily Ever After

Movie sets are usually dumped after the picture's done. But this one will become a school's dream library.

November 07, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the unlikely story of how a public school finagled a movie-set house to make its dream library. The tale of the house from the film "Life as a House" is a sweet story of perseverance that bears some parallels to the plot line of the film.

In the movie, terminally ill architect George Monroe, played by Kevin Kline, wants to build his dream house before he dies. He battles the skepticism of his family, a battalion of bureaucrats who try to slow him down with rules and regulations and an angry neighbor who does everything in his power to stop construction.

In real life, New Line Cinema has given the house--or at least its smooth, sanded planks of Douglas fir--to Brentwood's Kenter Canyon School, an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Against the odds, the school's parents plan to reincarnate the house as their dream library.

In both stories, the house is the main character.

In the movie, Monroe's dream house slowly transforms everyone who comes in contact with it--his troubled son, his neighbor, his ex-wife and her new husband.

Kenter Canyon parent Scott MacGillivray hopes the same thing will happen with the new library. "This is like an old barn-raising," he said. "People team up and feel good. This is what we are teaching our kids--that together we can accomplish anything."

Kenter Canyon School is a charter school nestled in one of L.A.'s most affluent neighborhoods. Parents are heavily involved in the school. In addition to hours of volunteer labor on campus, parents have contributed between $10 and $3,000 each for programs such as grass playing fields, a librarian and new chalk boards, said MacGillivray, an architect who is co-chairman of the school's library committee.

But the library scheme is of a scale that dwarfs even the previous projects that Kenter Canyon parents have undertaken.

When studios finish shooting a movie, they usually raze the set and dump it. It's quick and prevents liability problems. But in the case of "Life as a House," one person working on the film fell so deeply in love with the house--a Greene & Greene-inspired Craftsman--that she couldn't bear to see it demolished.

On the eve of the house's destruction, the film's costume designer Molly Maginnis, a Kenter Canyon parent, brought fellow parent MacGillivray, who brought a contractor, yet another Kenter Canyon parent, to see the house at its location on the grounds of the shuttered Marineland Aquarium on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

MacGillivray came to the site hoping to salvage lumber for a trellis structure at another school. But when he saw the 1,600-square-foot house, he was stunned by its size and workmanship. The lumber alone was worth $75,000, he thought. The craftsmanship twice that.

MacGillivray had a better idea: Keep the house intact and convert it into a library for Kenter Canyon School.

"We were going to build what would have been a simple plaster building," said MacGillivray. "We had been collecting grants, doing meetings, conferring with the teachers. We hadn't even designed the building. Then this came in."

After nearly two weeks of negotiations with New Line Cinema, a confidentiality agreement that prevents the contractor parent who took possession of the house from publicly discussing the arrangement, reams of red-tape from the school district, and an insurance policy to shield the studio from liability, the school got the house.

As far as the moviemakers are concerned, said Rob Cowan, who co-produced the movie with director Irwin Winkler, "What they got was a pile of lumber. Very nice lumber."

That was a Thursday in March.

A team of 20 professional carpenters--whose labor was donated--descended on the cliff-side dwelling in Palos Verdes and, working through drizzle and mud for 31/2 very long days, deconstructed it, timber by timber.

Now the disassembled house sits in storage at an undisclosed location, until the parents can raise the estimated $600,000 to reincarnate it as a library. The budget for the books, computers and the reconstructed house is identical to the cost of the simpler library originally planned.

Parents have raised about $265,000 so far, including $15,000 from a screening of "Life as a House," made possible by the studio.

To ensure that the reconstructed house meets stringent regulations of the state architect's office, the school hired engineer and USC architecture professor Janek Dombrowa to redesign the interior.

The new library will go up in front of the school in a muddy courtyard area called "the swamp." Parents say it will be the gem of the campus--an inspiring building that will double the size of the current library. They hope to begin building in June.

"Life as a House" production designer Dennis Washington created both the main character's ramshackle cliff-side dwelling, which represents George Monroe's chaotic life, and the dream house Monroe builds in its place, once he decides to get his life on track.

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