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The Ranch, Refined

Twenty years in the making, a revved-up vision of country life rises in Ventura County.

January 24, 2008|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

STEVE SHARPE looked at his land in rural Ventura County and envisioned his future home as an East Coast country estate with arched doorways, white columns, even a formal ballroom. Standing next to him was architect Zoltan Pali, who saw less Monticello and more modern California ranch -- something that could disappear among the orange and lemon groves.

Fortunately, the two men didn't have to argue. The year was 1987, and soon after Sharpe bought the property in Somis, the economy, the building industry and his income as a drywall contractor took a dive. Monticello-meets-Southern California was put on hold, much to his relief today.

The recently completed residence is a dramatic departure from what either man imagined so long ago -- the result of Sharpe's acquired taste for minimal design and Pali's sharpened skills as an architect of sleek, almost transparent homes. This house, Sharpe says between puffs of his cigar, is the product of two decades of personal evolution and architectural maturity -- a design that presents an alternative picture of what country life can be.

"I don't see the house as 'metropolitan' but as a country house responding to its setting," Pali says.

"Rural has always been associated with simplicity, sparseness and function. That is this house. I see it as a simple architectural expression with elements boiled down to their essence with no fussy moves, just large and bold geometries. That is as rural as it gets."

SHARPE'S Lucky Dog Ranch covers 40 acres, blanketed by a lawn the size of a Little League diamond, plus orchards, a tropical garden and a tennis court. The L-shaped house sits at the end of a 1,000-foot-long, tree-lined drive. Set against the hills, its smooth white stucco and metal-panel exterior walls act like a beacon, as welcoming as a lighthouse.

In the backyard, an 80-foot lap pool unfurls like a bolt of fabric toward a concrete pad with a fireplace and the terraced landscape beyond.

Sitting on a sunny deck, Pali remembers those early days, when he and Sharpe first tossed around ideas for the design.

"I thought this, my first house, would put me on the map," Pali says. "Little did I know I'd have to wait 20 years."

Pali had just opened his own firm, since renamed Studio Pali Fekete Architects (or SPF:a, in Culver City), when he started the Sharpe project.

"Thankfully, this idea sat around because of the poor economy, and I had time to continually refine the design based on what the land was doing," Pali says. "By 1992, it was radically different than the initial sketches."

The symmetrical plan evolved into a layout based on a precise grid. Pali took a cue from the ranch's tidy rows of fruit trees positioned 14 feet apart. Walls and stucco screed lines were then spaced at half that measure -- 7 feet -- and windows and doors were placed at 3 1/2 -foot increments. The overall effect is a sense of order and alignment, of harmony and beauty.

The 7,100-square-foot main floor of the house contains living and family rooms, a dining area and kitchen, as well as bedrooms for Sharpe and wife Laura, and their daughter, Estelle, 9. A lower level with about 3,000 more square feet has another bedroom, laundry area and a wine cellar next to a small prep kitchen with a dumbwaiter. Also down below: a three-car garage.

"When some neighbors saw the house under construction, they mistook the outside railing and the driveway into the garage as a loading dock," Sharpe says, laughing. "They couldn't figure out what we were building."

A separate guest wing has a parlor and four bedrooms, including one for Sharpe's elder daughter, Skylar, 20, when she's on break from American University in Washington, D.C.

Inside and out, the house retains little of Sharpe's early vision, the neoclassical details replaced with aluminum doors, pop-up clerestory windows on 14-foot-high ceilings and uniform corridors leading from one doorless room to another. In two powder rooms, Sharpe installed glass ceilings, "which kind of rattles guests when they look up," he says, smiling and clearly enjoying the response.

To some visitors, the look is so minimal it may appear unfinished. In the entry closet and a butler's pantry, walls don't reach the ceilings, as though these modules landed from the sky. The void at the top allows natural light to flow into the space.

"One can make the assessment that its 'style' is modern, and that it is odd to see it in a rural setting. This is true," Pali says.

"But Modernism is not a style but rather a way of living. I know that recently Modernism has become a style, and that frightens me. The over 'coolification' of everything is turning Modernism into a style and sort of a commodity -- something that it should not be. It should remain in the high road, intellectual and philosophical."

Los Angeles architect and author Eric A. Kahn points to other examples, such as Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, a mid-century steel-and-glass masterpiece on the banks of the Fox River in Illinois.

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