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A wrinkle in time

Looking old is the point at this Pasadena home, whose owners construct a little history.

May 01, 2008|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

THE MOSAIC on the ceiling looks as old as the 1921 house. Actually, older. Griffins guard one side, twin phoenixes another. Grapevines coil across a trellis.

The motifs are ancient. But the artwork? Completed last month.

It took a house painter from Sierra Madre to propose the idea. The son of one of Mexico's most prominent muralists to guide the execution. A researcher at the Boston Public Library to keep it historically accurate. And Pasadena homeowners with a passion for the past to commission it.

Standing underneath the 300-square-foot artwork, Andrea Moriarty offers this simple explanation: "My husband wanted something fabulous."

Fabulous, and old. Rather than obliterate all signs of age, as is so often the goal in Southern California, Andrea Moriarty and husband Sean have taken their Spanish Revival further back in time, lending a sense of the past that goes beyond the structure's actual years. Their house is proof that youth may reign in the entertainment world, but in the realm of home decor, the authentically aged -- or anything with a reasonably convincing patina of time -- can still command attention, not to mention top dollar.

For further evidence, one need only look at the latest offering from Mountain Lumber Co.: oak flooring made from century-old Guinness brewing vats and sold for $28.50 a square foot -- triple the price of the Virginia company's other reclaimed wood, Vice President John Williams says. Yes, the scent of beer is gone, he adds. All that's left is a distinctive color, grain and history.

Such examples help explain why sellers of old doors, windows, brick and the like have been so successful, with sales increasing about 45% since 2003, says Brad Guy, president of the nonprofit Building Materials Reuse Assn. He attributes the growing interest to homeowners' environmental awareness, as well as to the rich appearance and novel provenance that can come with such architectural elements.

The Moriartys, like so many others who find comfort and beauty in the design of eras past, have moved beyond faux finishes and carefully selected antiques. Sean, a Ticketmaster executive, and Andrea, a former middle school math teacher who often begins sentences with "Do you know what's interesting?" have literally built age into their home.

Since buying the property in 2001, they have added layers of history that befit a house with four Batchelder tile fireplaces. ("Do you know the story?" Andrea asks. "Batchelder was originally from Boston, but he made his success here selling tile to contractors.")

And with each addition, the number of stories attached to the house has grown.

ONE windy night recently, Andrea was awakened by a banging board. In the morning, she noticed a panel on her bedroom wall had shifted, exposing a secret compartment. Inside were three sets of cremated ashes carefully wrapped in paper -- "like origami," she says -- and labeled with names that she later traced back to relatives of previous owners.

Then there was the tower. One closet door led to outdoor stairs that climbed to a rooftop sleeping porch. "The story is the original owner had this tower built so he could escape from his sister-in-law, who lived at the house but was afraid of heights," Andrea says.

To make the space look older, a once-flat roof was vaulted and covered in tongue-and-groove ash. Local carpenter Kelly Corcoran installed African ribbon mahogany beams with Craftsman-style flourishes and inlaid red padauk. Decorative painter Dan Gallagher applied metallic Venetian plaster to the walls and an original frieze near the ceiling.

Elsewhere in the house, the Moriartys installed period-correct tiles, wrought-iron light fixtures and old oak floor planks. But the most extensive project has been the library ceiling's epic mosaic -- compelling partly because it's not a mosaic at all, but rather acrylic paint brushed to look like 140,000 separate marble tiles.

Gallagher recalls Sean Moriarty's original request: "He wanted something of a grand nature," the painter says.

So he started by looking through photos of mosaics installed in the Library of Congress in the 1890s. That's when Gallagher stumbled on a picture of a barrel-vaulted ceiling created around the same time for the Boston Public Library.

"I wanted to do something special for this family, something that talked about their love of books and life," says Gallagher, who had become familiar with the Moriartys' taste during seven years of painting the exterior and interior of the couple's 5,500-square-foot house.

He also wanted the ceiling art to be something that would last and could be moved, so he bought a 20-by-22-foot canvas, the same kind used for stage and movie sets.

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