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From a sketch pad, a new home blooms

Learning as she goes along, an amateur designer turns a dated 1950s house into a modern duplex.

May 15, 2008|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

Janna LEVENSTEIN tells first-time visitors that they can't miss her L.A. home. It's the only modern one on the street: a bright, sleek, indoor-outdoor living space, a tree-cloistered mini-greenbelt where every room opens onto nature.

"My house was the ugliest, I think -- a maze of small, dark, ugly rooms," she says of the original 1950s design. The transformation is impressive, particularly when one learns how she achieved it.

A voice-over actor, Levenstein hired a draftsman for about $60 an hour to draw the old house, which she purchased two years ago. Then she used tracing paper over that illustration to figure out how she wanted to reconfigure the house. She faxed that sketch back to the draftsman, who entered it into his computer-aided design program.

Next, she hired a UCLA architecture student to tutor her in Google's free SketchUp software, which lets users play with their house plans in 3-D. Levenstein spent hours at the computer, imagining umpteen variations on how to reshape not just the rooms, but also the exterior walls and windows.

The result is a house divided: two units instead of one. That was the goal -- a flexible, urban plan that takes advantage of the way the property is zoned. She uses the two-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath unit at the back of the property as her home. The one-bedroom front unit serves as a guest house and office.

"I was single. I didn't need 2,200 square feet of space," says Levenstein, who calls on a structural engineer to make sure her plans are sound. "It seemed smart to create two apartments, one to live in and one I could rent out or use for work."

The second unit has been there for a stream of visiting family and friends, as well as for parties, she says. "Food is prepared in front, and guests can leave their jackets there."

Levenstein, 37, was an arts major who had just graduated from Bennington College in Vermont when she arrived in L.A. 13 years ago. Her first stint at remodeling was a house in Laurel Canyon, where she lived for six years while pursuing her voice-over career.

"I was so happy working on that house," she says, "and I sold it for a profit when I was ready to move out."

She then lived in a bachelor apartment on Doheny Drive, "content to rejoice in my first-ever healthy bank account," she says. But she soon bought another house, fixed it up and sold it. Flipping became a passion. One remodel above Sunset Plaza in Los Angeles turned out so well, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects included the house in its spring tour -- an honor for someone with no formal training in design.

With an artist's instincts and a no-fear philosophy, Levenstein seizes possibility where others might shrink from danger. She has no trouble hacking away at walls, replacing virtual drywall with insets of virtual glass and reconfiguring rooms until a house comes alive.

"It's the way I was brought up," she says. Her mother, a psychotherapist, and her father, a lawyer, live life to the fullest, whether that means rafting the Zambezi River or hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. The lesson, she says: Be unafraid.

Which brings us back to Levenstein's house-turned-duplex, down the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"I went nuts doing the inside," she says. The home's modern look comes mainly from the immense amount of glass she installed -- walls, windows and doors framed in brushed aluminum that look custom-made.

"That would be way too expensive for my budget," she says. The doors and windows, pieces designed for offices and retail stores, were ordered from L & D Aluminum Doors on Normandie Avenue in L.A.

"I even took them measurements for openings that weren't regular sizes, and they made it at a modest cost," she says.

Her bathroom windows are commercial mini-doors that open outward toward trees. The master bath is Carrara marble, purchased for a "really low price" from an L.A. tile shop that was going out of business. To make it look less ordinary -- "and more Zen" -- Levenstein had the stone scored in a rectangular pattern by the workmen who installed it, she says.

Two small rooms were combined to form a large new master bedroom, where gauzy curtains hang from a hospital curtain track recessed into the ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling glass looks out on the backyard grass, which Levenstein says has become "part of the carpet of my room."

Corner glass brightens the open-plan kitchen, living room and dining area. A Levenstein-designed dining table -- glass on a stainless steel base -- was influenced by Le Corbusier, she says. The table and its steel stools were made at a now-defunct metal fabricating shop in El Monte.

The high-gloss stool tops match the gleaming kitchen cabinet doors, all coated in "BMW white" paint from the Annex Automotive shop on Pico Boulevard in L.A. Levenstein had the doors made of medium density fiberboard and installed on cabinets from IKEA.

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