RETREAT: Landscape designer Jay Griffith gave the backyard a clean look.… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
On Oct. 9, 1927, the English actor Lionel Atwill placed a hand in the wet concrete on the porch of his Pacific Palisades home, a courtyard estate modeled after the mid-1800s California hacienda in the classic novel "Ramona." It was a charming touch to a grand-for-its-time house built by John Byers, a self-taught Santa Monica architect gifted in Monterey and Spanish Colonial design.
Atwill's handprint remained, but subsequent owners' renovations threw his hacienda out of focus. Some rooms were cavernous and dark, others were cramped. The floor plan was quirky and inconvenient. The kitchen and master suite were oddly configured nightmares.
Even so, David and Lucinda Schiff, the owners since 1993, made it home. They raised three kids in the rambling one-story house and even retained the previous owner's shrine: a full-length reproduction of an antique photograph of Atwill, framed by swag curtains.
"He was a B-movie actor with an A-plus house," says David, founder of the Schiff Co., a talent management and production firm.
The house, indeed, had bones. But to unravel the bad alterations and update the floor plan and furnishings, the Schiffs tapped architect Lewin Wertheimer, landscape designer Jay Griffith and interior decorator Sasha Emerson. The goal, completed with much care and consideration this spring: a house and grounds that work for modern living without compromising the integrity of Byers' original design.
Renovations began at the front gate.
"Jay said it looked like a Taco Bell in Santa Fe," Lucinda says.
The gate was replaced and the front yard, once a motor court, became a broad lawn with a minimalist, rectangular fountain made of rusted steel. Wertheimer placed a new, three-car garage at the corner of the lot, allowing Griffith to replace a long driveway leading to the original garage with a private garden off the master suite.
When it came to the 7,000-square-foot house, however, Wertheimer says he and his contractor, Alisal Builders, stayed true to the footprint.
"We worked within the existing volume," he says, "but completely reconfigured it."
To add light, he raised ceilings and added glass skylights. French doors in the living room and kitchen let in more sunshine in and also improve the flow of traffic through the house, providing easy access to the courtyard and the rooms on the other side of it.
"Why not walk from your bedroom through the garden to your kitchen?" Wertheimer says. "This is California. You can do it most of the year and it's such a great experience."
The new French doors also greatly improved the appearance of the living room and kitchen exterior — an important consideration in a courtyard home. The doors replaced a hodgepodge of entryways and a sore-thumb New England-style bay window, resulting in a cleaner façade. An elevated concrete terrace punctuated with upright posts looks contemporary but also echoes the original hacienda columns on the front porch.
Byers' architecture had modesty and integrity, Wertheimer says.
"He did not use a million different materials and window casings and details," the architect says. "He used stucco and wood and came up with a language that was appropriate throughout."
The biggest challenge was finding the right balance of new and historical elements and deciding when to stop — when leaving defects was the best solution. The hand-planed columns on the front porch were seriously damaged and had been patched together.
"We could've replaced them,' Wertheimer says, "but it was clear to me and Lucinda that they needed to be left just the way they were in that rustic, imperfect state."
The dilapidated shake shingle roof, however, had to go. Instead of using fake shake shingles or terra cotta tiles, Lucinda suggested a corrugated metal roof, which reminded her of the tin roof structures in her native Puerto Rico.
Other issues were not so simply solved.
"One of Byers' weaknesses, which may be a reflection of the times, is that the flow of his houses is not as predictable or as gracious as one might want in houses we live in today," Wertheimer says.
Part of the house's charm is the long hacienda galleria, formerly a covered walkway that provides access to two bedroom suites. It is now enclosed with operable windows and glass doors that make it look like a corridor solarium.
But reaching two additional guest bedrooms at the northwestern end of the house wasn't so easy. They required a walk directly through the master suite.
"I was told that one of the owners had 11 kids," Lucinda says. "I don't know how they managed that."
Wertheimer divided the huge master bedroom with a library wall and French doors, creating a sitting room that faces the courtyard and provides guests passage to their quarters.