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INNER LIFE

A fixer turned fabulous

The eccentric Montecito ranch whispered 'tear-down' to some, but not to David Florimbi and Nancy Simon. They opened it up to light, color, art and wit -- and found their heart's desire.

November 17, 2005|Barbara King | Times Staff Writer

Montecito, Calif. — THE spine stiffens and the spirit goes cold. Here, on a bosky Montecito lane, is a house so improbably huge and overbearing, it takes on a momentary aspect of menace in the half-light of late afternoon.

This must be the one -- no other house in sight -- but how can it be? Is this really the sort of place two serious artists -- a conceptual painter and a fiction writer -- would live in? Two practitioners of Buddhism, in a place of such startling exaggeration, such frippery? Doesn't compute. Check that address again. OK, whew. A case of mistaken identity.

David Florimbi and Nancy Simon's house is directly across the street, obscured by a fence. An electronic gate slides open, revealing an unimposing structure that is no less a jolt to the expectations than the architectural extravagance just beyond.

After all, this is what's known as "the estate corridor" of Montecito, so a certain augustness would be perfectly in keeping with the demeanor of the region. Instead, the angling one-story house of dark green wood has a humility that renders it all but invisible in juxtaposition with its bigger, grander neighbors. At 3,200 square feet, the ranch-style homestead is less than half the size of most of the residences surrounding it and one-fifth that of the palazzo across the lane.

"Theirs is the most modest house in the area," says George Logan, the Realtor who sold it two years ago to Florimbi, a painter and former TV producer and Simon, a short story writer and former theater director now at work on a novel.

But don't be deceived by its lack of ego. It has a big personality. As soon as you step inside, you enter an environment of uncommon originality, the realization of a personal vision so sure of itself, the utterly simple becomes an artistic dazzlement. What's most remarkable is that the little house, incongruous in a world of stately traditionalism, would have been destined for demolition had Florimbi and Simon not recognized its buried potential.

Florimbi, just back from his studio in downtown Santa Barbara, exits the carved front doors and invites his guest into the free-flowing, white-washed interior of his home -- dashed with luminous colors in the art and accessories -- that gives off an air of capacious hospitality.

He and Simon, who has gone to pick up their 12-year-old daughter, Sophia, from ballet practice, have yet to fully transform the house they redesigned themselves and moved into a year ago after a massive remodeling. There is still the garage to convert to an at-home work space for Florimbi, a piano room to a dining room, the tiny guest house to a writing retreat for Simon.

"Everyone else who looked at this house wanted to tear it down," says Florimbi of the 1940s'-era house and, indirectly, of what is a familiar practice in Montecito: replacing the understated with the overstated. The only comparable remaining houses in the estate corridor are the guest houses, according to Logan, a third-generation Santa Barbaran whose grandfather was an estate caretaker.

"We said, why? When we first saw it, we weren't hit with, 'This is an amazing place,' " says Florimbi. "But we did think, 'This could be an amazing place.' " That is, if you had the pluck and the aesthetic vision to see past its flaws and peculiarities, and take it on.

"It was a house that, politely, you would say was 'unique,' " says Logan, "totally lacking in the basics of how you get from room to room. It was like a house that seemed to be turned on its head."

But the site was evocative -- or probably was. You couldn't really tell if there was a view because of the thickly overgrown landscaping. A hillside tightly hugged the rear of the house, giving it a pushed feeling. Rooms were claustrophobically small, with no flow. The entrance was awkwardly placed, parking was far below the level of the house, the backyard was largely concrete, the floors were laid in white tile or white wall-to-wall carpeting. Flowered wallpaper covered walls, pink tile one of the bathrooms.

Not a pretty sight, and needless to say, not holding much promise for the unimaginative or the image-conscious.

Despite the outspoken skepticism-bordering-on-disbelief of some of their friends, the couple bought the property. They had reason to trust their instincts. Twelve years ago when they moved to Santa Barbara from L.A., they bought and renovated El Hogar, the 1914 studio-residence, inspired by Andalusian farmhouses, of architect George Washington Smith.

"It was in a sad state of disrepair," says Logan, "but David instantly saw the interplay of light that is a trademark of Smith's designs. It took a great deal of creativity to bring the original focus back into reality. In essence, he re-created a masterpiece."

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