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Recasting the ruins

A Decaying Modern House Gets a Face-Lift

October 05, 2003|Michael Webb / photographed by fernando bengoechea

Like finding a bad script with a great story, when a movie executive fell under the spell of a neglected modern house in Beverly Hills, he knew he needed a creative team to turn what architect Annie Chu of Chu + Gooding called "a ruin with good bones" into a sophisticated collaboration of mid-century and contemporary design.The original house was designed in 1950 by Harwell Hamilton Harris, who decided to become an architect after visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House in Hollywood and acquired a reputation for woodsy, modestly scaled residences with Craftsman influences. Built for Harold English, an art-lover and heir to the United Gypsum fortune, the house was bold and luxurious. Its geometric facades and cantilevered decks evoke the cubistic white stucco villas of the late 1930s, and the organic plan echoes Wright's style. It's undeniably modern, but also very different from the informal, lightweight Case Study houses that were going up in the decade after the war.

Subsequent owners neglected the home. "There was no sense of materiality or scale. The detailing had been stripped, and everything was painted white. It looked like foam core," says interior designer Kay Kollar, who collaborated with Chu. After researching original plans and photos, Chu began to remove the alterations, then restored key elements that had been changed. As this preliminary work on the four-year makeover progressed, the house seemed to melt away, and its owner wondered if he'd gotten in over his head. But then, as the abode began to resemble its original beauty, Chu's attention to detail clearly paid off.

Chu and associate Michael Matteucci extended the basement to accommodate a screening room, enlarged the kitchen and guest area in the west wing, and reconfigured the second-floor master suite. Working with landscape designer Jay Griffith, they re-created the four outdoor areas that Harris had planned, only two of which survived. Their goal was to respect the proportions of the original design, restore moldings and add cabinetry, while making the interior more open and less formal than it had been by adding sweeping views from the second and third floors.

"We didn't want to re-create the original exactly and have a museum piece," says Kollar, who added a palette of earthy greens and browns to weave the house into the landscape. "The colors had to relate to each other because every part of the house flows into the rest, and I sampled 250 tones before selecting 15." She fought to put the same high-quality tile in all seven bathrooms, subtly varying the tone from one to another. She collaborated with V'Soske on the design of rugs for the new oak floors, and chose every detail of the furnishings down to the dishes and linens.

Major paintings by Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski contrast with custom and vintage modern furniture. Kollar selected pieces by Vladimir Kagan, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings and other mid-century designers whose sensibilities work with the character of the house. She collaborated with local artisans on the design of new pieces, and together they created a total work of art--indoors and out. The house has become a dialogue between two generations, and, as Chu admits, "I now understand how you can work in the spirit of the past and not be swallowed by it."

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Resource Guide

Chu + Gooding Architects, Los Angeles, (323) 222-6268; Kay Kollar Design, Los Angeles, (310) 286-0296; Jay Griffith Landscape, Venice, (310) 392-5558. Custom V'Soske rugs available through Kay Kollar Design; walnut and mohair sofa, club chair, red leather coffee table, yellow Fortuny silk ottoman, all made to order by Kay Kollar Design with Lloyd's Custom Furniture, West Los Angeles, (310) 652-0725. Kitchen stools made to order by Kay Kollar Design with SVG Iron Works, Los Angeles, (323) 935-8445; stainless steel kitchen at Bulthaup, Los Angeles, (310) 288-3875.

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