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Native beauty

Walter Hubert's Altadena retreat has the look and feel of Old California.

August 29, 2009|Barbara Thornburg

It was 20 years ago when he first saw the land. Located in the foothills of Altadena, the three-quarter-acre property abutting Angeles National Forest was studded with a grove of fragrant eucalyptus. Inspired by the property's natural beauty, florist and event planner Walter Hubert built his Old California-style home around the grove -- without moving or cutting down a single tree.

"We didn't alter the land. We built the house around the trees and worked it into the slope. It's why there are so many elevation changes in the house," says Hubert, who adds with a laugh, "everyone says I'll regret them when I'm in my 80s."

In the meantime, he has this: Six outdoor living spaces resulting from the home's unique terracing, allowing the kind of indoor-outdoor living that so many Southern Californians crave.

"We live in a semi-arid land with a wonderful climate," Hubert says. "We wanted to be able to open the house completely to the outside and have the breezes pass from one side of the house to the other."

Hubert and partner Mark Saltzman can migrate around the various rooms, depending on the season and the time of day.

"We really spend as much time outside as inside," says Saltzman, a former opera singer, now cantor of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.

A cushioned bench, overlooking a small fountain visited by hummingbirds, is a frequent meditation spot at the entry of the house. Nearby, a trellis of wisteria mixed with red passion flowers and a pair of vintage Brown Jordan chaises create a cool retreat after a swim on a hot summer day. Then there's the terrace above Hubert's painting studio, where the couple often go in the evening to watch deer grazing on the hillside.

On the opposite side of the home, a dramatic 27-foot-tall stucco fireplace serves as the focal point for the large patio off the living and dining rooms, outfitted with sofas and tables just like indoors.

A small Zen-like garden outside the yoga studio nearby is a favorite place to sit and read, and off the screening room, an enclosed garden with a vintage lion-head fountain and small Mexican tile table offers yet another sanctuary.

The garden areas and the five-level, 5,000-square-foot house pay homage to Hubert's favorite architect, Wallace Neff (1895-1982). Perhaps best known for Pickfair -- Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks' Beverly Hills mansion -- Neff is largely responsible for developing the architectural look referred to as "California style," which draws heavily on architecture from Spain and other Mediterranean lands.

Hubert grew up in Altadena, attending St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church, which was Neff's only church commission. Later, Hubert set up his business in the architect's office in Pasadena, working with his son, Wallace L. Neff, on the Mission Revival building's renovation.

"The simplicity of Neff's lines, the soaring ceilings, the openness, size and flow of his rooms have always attracted me," Hubert says.

Hubert and Saltzman's Spanish Colonial Revival home, with its lofty ceilings, is partly a reflection of the architect's aesthetic. A spacious great room with an open kitchen anchors the first floor; a dining room and the master bedroom fill a wing on one side, and a screening room and guest quarters lie on the other. Upstairs, a home office accompanies a pair of bedrooms. The house, painted the color of decomposed granite with eucalyptus-leaf accents, has French doors that open off every room to the outdoors.

"When we have parties we usually start at the kitchen counter with hors d'oeuvres, then migrate to the terrace for cocktails by the pool," Hubert says. "During dinner, we open up all the doors to the patio, then after eating, move to sit outside by the fire."

Hubert definitely knows how to set the scene. He's been designing parties for the rich and famous -- clients such as Elton John and Calvin Klein, BMW and Cartier, DreamWorks SKG and Buena Vista Pictures -- at his floral and event production company, Silver Birches, for more than three decades.

"I try to create a certain feeling, whether it's a large event like the night-before-Oscars dinner or a small party in my own home," he says. "There's always a place for the eye to go -- a beautiful fountain, a garden ornament, a profusion of color viewed from a window. I want people to feel the space rather than think it."

Anthony Guthmiller, director of marketing and development for the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, has attended a number of parties at the home.

"They're casual-elegant," he says. "You grab a drink at the kitchen island and then move from one area to another. There's always something unique to look at in each space."

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