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Nowhere to go but up

Stuck with a 20-by-20-foot downtown lot they thought was unbuildable, a Santa Barbara couple take an unusual tack.

January 28, 2007|Jane Hulse | Special to The Times

Santa Barbara — BUILDING a luxury home on a gritty back-alley patch measuring only 20 feet by 20 feet seemed preposterous on its face. But Neil Ablitt and his wife, Sue, just moved into their pint-sized palace, a whimsical four-story tower that suggests the hand of Dr. Seuss.

Each floor has just one room -- in ascending order: bedroom, kitchen, living room -- all atop the ground-level garage.

It's not an arrangement for the weak-kneed. To reach the rooftop patio and its panoramic view, the Ablitts must climb 72 steps from the ground.

"It's an impossible project," said Neil Ablitt, a 63-year-old retired dry cleaner. And it nearly was.

It took four years for the Ablitts and their architect, Jeff Shelton, to get approval from the city of Santa Barbara, partly because of the project's improbable downtown location. The entrance to the lot is down an alley behind a popular nightclub on a stretch of State Street, the city's main commercial strip. The couple's immediate view takes in the trash bins lining the alley and the unadorned back sides of buildings housing restaurants, a bar, a T-shirt shop and a metal plating shop. There's not another house in sight.

And you won't see the Ablitt house from the street either, unless you crane your neck. The white stucco exterior is dotted with 57 various-sized windows and topped with a colorful tiled dome.

Inside, the same sort of brightly colored tile is everywhere, zigzagging up the walls and across the floors in bold shades of blue, yellow and green. A 108-foot-long banister, carved from black walnut, snakes along the Italian marble staircases. In a playful touch, gargoyle-like faces that are carved from limestone poke out of walls throughout.

"It's a work of art," Ablitt said, from the house. "We're living in art."

An unapologetic champion of urban living, he isn't put off by the proximity of boisterous nightlife and the occasional homeless person wandering by.

And you won't hear him complain about the scarcity of closet space in his dream house. Since 1993, he and his wife had lived in the cramped confines of a 37-foot sailboat. Their new home has a freezer -- a luxury they've gone without for 14 years.

"Initially, I wanted to make a statement," he said. "Show that you can build small, comfortable and luxurious."

After a month of living small, the couple have no complaints. Their legs are holding up, they don't worry about safety and they say they've gotten used to the noise, although, as Ablitt observed: "We do know when the bars close."

Ablitt, who grew up in the Santa Barbara area, is accustomed to taking chances. After 12 years in marketing for Caterpillar Inc., he turned entrepreneur. But a venture manufacturing roller skates fizzled, as did another, selling mobile drilling equipment in Mexico.

After returning to Santa Barbara, Ablitt, who comes from a long line of dry cleaners, founded Ablitt's Fine Cleaners & Launderers in 1984, setting up shop on family-owned property downtown. It was the same year he bought the tiny, commercially zoned lot where his house now sits so he could serve on the local parking board. When he later learned that due to the lot's size there was little he could do with the dismal patch near his dry-cleaning business, his $6,400 investment seemed doomed.

But in 2002, he got Shelton -- who was working on a nearby house -- to tackle the challenge of designing a home in a space with the footprint of a two-car garage. The affable architect was already making a name for himself in Santa Barbara with his stylishly whimsical designs.

What followed were four frustrating years of seeking approvals for a slew of modifications to the city's building code. The outcome is a solid concrete house 53 feet tall that covers virtually the entire Lilliputian lot -- forget setbacks, forget yard.

Because a garage is required by the building code, that became the first floor, but the Ablitts may use it for an office, laundry and storage -- allowable if the space can still be used as a garage. The three floors of living space above total 699 square feet, excluding the stairs.

The bedroom above the garage holds little more than the bed and two small built-in dressers, each situated beneath about two feet of closet rod to hang clothing. The slender adjoining bathroom has a shower -- no tub.

"I try to get down to what people need," Shelton said from his Santa Barbara office.

One flight up, the kitchen showcases the couple's love of wine. Nooks for bottles are built in, near a temperature-controlled wine cooler. Up above, the living room has just enough space for a couch and a couple of chairs.

A second staircase to the roof and its patio -- required by the city because of the height -- turned out to be a plus because it enabled Shelton to tuck in another tiny bathroom under the stairs.

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