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INNER LIFE

It's Spanish, reinterpreted

What happens when an artist moves into a breezy hacienda? She transforms it, letting it speak volumes about its setting.

September 25, 2003|Andrea R. Vaucher | Special to The Times

The Spanish-style stucco looks surprisingly modest by comparison to most other houses in this Brentwood neighborhood -- what you can see of it, at least. Dense foliage obscures all but the entry and a sliver of red-tiled roof. Not even the windows are visible through the profusion of bamboo, oleander, ficus and ferns, and only the circular drive, with its exquisite hand-laid mosaic of polished rock and pebbles, hints at what's to come.

As soon as collage artist Marina Forstmann Day opens the huge oak-paneled front door, it looks as though the whole place is performing sleight of hand. The foyer leads directly to French doors framing voluptuous gardens that extend as far as the eye can see, and then some: out to the interior courtyard, down to the pool, off to the tennis courts of the two-acre property. The house gradually begins to reveal itself room by room, 9,000 square feet of intimate spaces that add up to a cozy grandeur. Like Day's work, it is a collage of textures and colors -- burnished woods, pale-peach stucco walls, red clay Saltillo tiles -- and of elegance and simplicity, of modern and ancient.

A massive wrought-iron chandelier in the dining room is laden with crystals as large as the palm of a hand. Orchids and ivy drip from a baptismal font dating back to the Middle Ages; outside, a nymph, whose twin is reportedly in the Borghese Gardens in Rome, cohabits a fountain with lily pads and tall reeds.

Day, granddaughter of the founder of Forstmann Woolens Co., grew up in Greenwich, Conn., in a French-style villa and came west when she married the scion of an old California family. In the early '70s, they bought the 1923 Brentwood stucco because, she says, "coming from Connecticut, I was so attracted to the age of the house. I didn't know at the time that it was a John Byers."

In the 1920s and '30s, Byers, a self-trained Santa Monica architect and contractor, built some 30 homes in Brentwood, Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades -- nearly all of them in the Spanish vernacular. He was a passionate student of Hispanic cultures, specializing in adobe and stucco structures and decorative tile and woodwork installed by master Mexican craftsmen.

Over the years, the Day house became an upscale reinterpretation of Byers' rendition of a Spanish hacienda, with its signature Mission-tiled roof and interior courtyards. The original 3,000-square-foot structure was remodeled at the outset by architect Hap Gilman. "It was very primitive, with corner fireplaces and armoires and no closets," Day says. "It had been boarded up for two years with the debris of a life in the driveway."

For 10 years the Days lived there with their young son. "But then we had another child and were bursting out of the two-bedroom situation," she says. "For a while, we looked for a bigger house, but what I really wanted to do was stay and transform this one."

That project, Marc Appleton's first major residential commission, began in 1980 and lasted two years. Appleton, who now has offices in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, had just started his own firm after working for Frank Gehry for three years. "I was still wet behind the ears," he recalls.

"This was my first lesson in trying to create a home not for me but for someone else," says Appleton, who years after the remodel met his wife, actress Joanna Kerns, at one of Day's parties. "From this project I learned that architecture involves a fair amount of compromise."

Day wanted more of an indoor-outdoor flow and feeling than the Byers house had. She insisted upon Dutch doors for all outdoor passageways to keep out the dogs as much as to let in the plants, which amazed her with their fast and furious growth. "She didn't want screens," says Appleton. "Bugs and birds flew in and out."

He took his cue from his grandmother's estate designed by George Washington Smith in Santa Barbara. With its three interior patios and outdoor staircase, Forestal was a place where "you traveled inside and outside and back in again."

Day also wanted a homey family-style house, but her then-husband wanted a more lavish setting for serious entertaining. To keep the new house cozy, Appleton created a floor plan that sprawls in an inconspicuous way, and Day then created spaces within spaces. Bedrooms are hidden around unlikely corners or up outdoor staircases. Though the kitchen, which Day calls "the heart of the house," is vast and designed with entertaining in mind, the adjacent breakfast room has a snug, comfortable feel with its fireplace and old television.

"It's a real tribute to Marina that no matter where you are in the house, you are in an intimate space," Appleton says.

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