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Producing a period piece

Lawrence and Betsy Bridges had simply planned to renovate their Italianate home. But soon the 'project' became a 'concept,' one only a maverick filmmaker could dream.

December 18, 2003|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Lawrence Bridges is used to thinking on a grand scale. As a creator of Super Bowl commercials for Nike and Coke, he makes major productions out of something as simple as taking a sip of soda. So when he and his wife, Betsy, decided to renovate their Pacific Palisades house, he saw a chance to turn their 1928 Italianate Revival villa into an elaborate Spanish-style estate that could double as a set for a Hollywood period movie.

"Just days before the contractor was about to start work, Larry goes, 'What's the concept?' " Betsy said. "I said, 'What do you mean, the concept? I thought the concept was patching the walls, tying the foundation together and redoing the floors.' He said, 'No that's not what the idea is.' " He wanted a theme for the entire production.

Inspired by a recent trip to Peru, it didn't take the couple long to come up with an idea: They would remake the house to resemble a grand casa from 18th century Cuzco -- with richly dark wood floors, shimmering glazed walls, hand-colored tiles and Moroccan stenciling. "We quickly realized what a deep, albeit newly minted, passion we had developed for South American art and architecture," said Betsy, whose great-great-grandmother was Peruvian. "We were no longer content with just re-staining our light oak flooring and slipcovering our existing furniture."

"We wanted Peru," added Lawrence.

Betsy went to work as the production manager, bringing in Santa Monica interior designer Jean Zinner to help transform the deteriorating 6,000-square-foot house, built for Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage, into something extraordinary.

It would not be easy.

The once popular movie star hangout -- where Barbara Stanwyck used to cook spaghetti dinners on Sundays after Borzage, Clark Gable and other Hollywood friends finished their polo games -- was showing its age.

Sometime before 1990, when the Bridges purchased the property, the previous owners had stripped the structure of much of its character, bleaching the floors white and plastering the walls with black paper. The 1994 Northridge earthquake and the 1997 El Nino rains had left the place teetering on the edge of its foundation.

There were other complications: The Bridges quickly discovered that replicating an ancient decor from Peru was almost impossible. "Very little furniture was available for sale or easy export to Los Angeles, other than our dining room chairs, which came from the Nazca region, and a reverse-painted mirror," Betsy said.

Even so, the couple refused to revise their plans for the house, which they share with their 13-year-old daughter, Melanie. Lawrence, famous for his unconventional approach to filmmaking, knew they could always improvise. The couple -- assisted by Zinner -- went about assembling a team that included local furniture and tile makers, painters and a muralist to replicate what they could not import or unearth in antique stores. Lawrence enlarged the pictures he had taken of the interiors of a variety of Peruvian locales, including the lobby of the El Libertador hotel in Cuzco, to show the artisans. Betsy, meanwhile, combed through literature on early 20th century California and Mexico for inspiration -- expanding the project to include other Latin American influences.

Malibu's Adamson House was a major source of ideas, beginning with its extensive use of Malibu Potteries tile and ceiling and wall stenciling. A stack of secondhand books on Mexican furnishings, printed in the 1950s, provided the couple with detailed drawings of carved chairs and cabinets. The recently published book, "Casa California," by Elizabeth McMillian and Melba Levick, became a bible of sorts, with detailed colored pictures of Spanish-style houses in Southern California.

Trips to Santa Fe, N.M., stimulated a host of other ideas. "The heavily notched and brightly colored rooflines on the St. Francis Auditorium were reproduced in the dark, wooden built-in shelving and painted ceiling beams in the living room," Betsy said. "We reproduced a pair of gorgeous 19th century iron sconces we photographed in a shop on Canyon Road."

Lawrence remembers agonizing for hours over the proper texture for the walls. He tried to recall, as best he could, how the walls looked in a restaurant at the El Libertador. "It was hard to get the exact sense of it in my head," he said. "I was afraid that the walls would turn out too bold, with too much texture. I didn't want it to look like Taco Bell."

His quest for creative control sometimes unnerved the construction crew. He jokes that he set up a "grumbling room" on the 1 1/2-acre estate where "the concept contractor" could go and complain.

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