THERE'S no house in Southern California quite like the refurbished half of a historical gem owned by Gary and Norma Cowles, a retired couple who fell in love with each other and then with a palatial 1915 Pasadena fixer-upper.
The mansion by architect Bertram Goodhue, who also designed Caltech and the Los Angeles Public Library, was split in two in the 1950s. The Cowleses' part languished in disrepair until the couple bought it in 1998 and nursed it back to glory.
Their remodel, an exhilarating three-year saga, involved an imported troop of seventh-generation Moroccan mosaic tile artists, who'd tiled Yves Saint Laurent's Marrakesh retreat. The tilers toiled in Pasadena for three months, creating a Moorish mosaic spa for the Cowleses' master bath while living in a motel at the couple's expense.
And then there was glass artist Mark Tuna, hired by the couple to design huge handcrafted, leaded windows. And Melinda Taylor, who had designed the Disney Concert Hall gardens and was retained by the Cowleses to create their own Eden-like grounds. And don't forget the restorer, David Bell, who spent three months on his back, 12 feet above ground, as he revived the ornate coffered living room ceiling to its original splendor. "First, he washed it gently with distilled water," Norma says. "Then he touched it up with color and a bit of gold.
"I know it sounds over the top. But we loved this place so much that once we got started, we couldn't stop. We just hung on for dear life until it was finished."
The 10,000-square-foot Spanish Colonial Revival-style home, which the Cowleses bought from music producer Phil Spector, was on a lushly landscaped acre. It had rodents, rotting timber, asbestos and lead paint inside and out. But the place had great bones. And with the help of the right architect and interior designer, the house is now a triumphant blend of classical and contemporary: a comfortable, livable mansion -- you might even call it cozy -- that retains the grandeur of Goodhue's vision.
Built originally as a winter home for New Jersey financier Herbert Coppell and his family, the 16,000-square-foot house on 5 acres had the Moorish touches that were one of Goodhue's signature themes.
It was one of the biggest houses in Pasadena at the time, and the only one built there by the architect, says Romy Wyllie, author of a new book on Goodhue and founding chairman of the Caltech Architectural Tour Service. Some likened it to the palace that a Florentine of the Renaissance era might have built, she writes in "Bertram Goodhue: His Life and Residential Architecture."
The mansion was split down the center of its entry hall by investors who wanted to prevent it from being torn down or turned into apartments, as was happening elsewhere in Pasadena, Wyllie says. The smaller half, 6,000 square feet, has been preserved by its owners, who are the Cowleses' next-door neighbors.
Architect Erik Evens of KAA Design Group in Los Angeles calls the Cowles job one of the more interesting of his career. "It's one of the oldest homes we've worked on and among the most extensive renovations of a historical building." But it had been so badly treated, he says. First it was split, then it was the victim of a series of bad remodels, leaving a warren of tiny rooms.
"What Gary and Norma wanted from us was to recapture the romance of this once-great house, which was named \o7mi sueno\f7 [my dream] by its original owners 92 years ago, and then became their dream house as well." They wanted Evens to keep the architectural integrity and, at the same time, make it livable for today. "That was a tall order."
He says the first task was to bring the house up to earthquake code, which involved removal and replacement of hollow clay tile exterior walls, once popular but no longer used because they're brittle. "We replaced the tile with reinforced concrete, like putting a cast on a broken leg to stabilize it."
They left the living room and entry hall intact because the rooms were untouched Goodhue originals and then, essentially, redesigned the rest of the place, upstairs and down.
"We opened it up to light and air, added windows, doors and balconies," Evens says.
"We had to deal with Pasadena's preservationists, who zealously guard architectural heritage. They wanted us to preserve everything original and remain true to Goodhue's intent," he says. "Ironically, they wouldn't allow us to reproduce exactly what Goodhue had done. When we were adding windows and balconies, for example, they made sure the new windows weren't exactly like the originals. That's so future historians will be able to distinguish which were Goodhue's and which were added."