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A new vision of the classics

Working at a feverish pace, Xorin Balbes brings new vitality to grand old homes, but preservationists aren't entirely happy.

January 10, 2003|Susan Freudenheim | Times Staff Writer

LATE on a Thursday night, guests are streaming into Xorin Balbes' quasi-Mayan-style mansion, an otherworldly apparition that looms over Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz. Inside the sculptural front gates, guests ascend a narrow, tomb-like staircase to reach the living quarters. The stone stillness of an Indian goddess sculpture sets the tone at the first turn, and another similar sculpture does the same at the top landing. Silently, they give notice that this is not an ordinary place.

"It's great, isn't it? Isn't it great?" Balbes asks a visitor entering the house for the first time. Unabashed in his enthusiasm, he bubbles over with pride for this architectural treasure, virtually every inch of which he has infused with new life.

Known formally as the Sowden House for its original owners -- artist John Sowden and his wife, Ruth -- it was built in 1926 by Lloyd Wright, son and artistic heir to Frank Lloyd Wright, and is considered one of his most important works. When Balbes bought the house just over a year ago, he paid $1.2 million for what he calls "a wreck." Yet in seven months of frantic labor, he and his crew restored all the stonework, opened up the kitchen from three tight rooms into one large modern space, added new upscale bathrooms, created a pool and spa in the central court and, along the way, spent $1.6 million.

Balbes did all this on an impulse after falling in love with Wright's eccentric architectural forms, which reminded him of a temple he encountered in Edfu on a spiritual journey through Egypt.

"When I walked into this house, I didn't move," he remembers. "I said, 'I have to buy this house.' I turned around and walked out and got my checkbook. There's some connection for me."

With his ability to juggle many different projects simultaneously and to get things done quickly, Balbes has made a lucrative business of fixing up and turning over residences in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Montecito -- about 20 in the past six years. Some he has called home, albeit briefly; others were just business projects. In each case he applies his self-taught flair for high-end, flamboyant design while collaborating with others more expert in architecture and restoration, including, on his two most recent projects, architect Paul Ashley.

For Balbes, everything is simultaneously nuts-and-bolts and cosmic. He spends big money on major properties but talks constantly about spirituality and heart. His design philosophy is quirky, if successful: "I look to see where the energy is stagnant or there is no flow, to open it up, to create energy and flow and movement. So that life actually gets into all the corners of the space."

Some preservationists argue that he's been too liberal in his changes to an architectural gem like the Sowden House, but Balbes tosses off the criticism with a polite shrug. "I can respect them," he says, "but nobody else is stepping up to the plate to buy this property."

Since he moved into the house in April, it has been the site of constant public events, and has provided entree to a new, very public life for Balbes, who is extremely outgoing, openly gay and who laughingly says without being asked that he's looking for a partner. He has already hosted about 15 parties there, many of them charitable events for which he paid all or most of the costs, among them fund-raisers for Project Angel Food, the Los Angeles Conservancy, L.A. Youth Network and the Los Angeles Police Foundation. He's also rented it for special events.

This penchant for opening his home to hundreds of the rich and famous to benefit the needy could be seen as shrewd even while it is generous. Balbes has gotten a great deal of notice for the house from these parties, and the fact that he decided to put the house on the market at $4.4 million in late December, after living there for less than a year, is consistent with his pattern of moving quickly from project to project, at a profit.

A restless energy

Xorin was not always his first name. Randy Balbes was born in 1957, grew up in Michigan and, at 20, moved to Los Angeles, where he started a company that manufactured belts. Five years later he sold the business and took off for Paris. He then moved back to Michigan to work in the family window covering business, House of Blinds, but as the business grew, he became restless, and sold his holdings to his brothers. In 1987, Balbes moved back to Los Angeles, determined never to work again. He did a lot of volunteer work instead, including cooking for Project Angel Food, which delivers food to people with AIDS-related illnesses, and to which he still has strong ties.

In 1996 Balbes took a trip to Egypt and Africa that was supposed to last three weeks and ended up lasting more than three months. His journey from Egypt to Israel, Jordan, Kenya and Ethiopia resulted in "the most profoundly religious experience," he says. He came away a changed man.

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