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A cramped bedroom, tiny windows, a dingy yard. Is something about your house not working for you? It’s never too late for a second chance, as these four dramatic remodels prove
01. Starry Nights
The start: For architectural designer Peter Vracko, the real estate crash has had its upside. When Vracko bought an unremarkable 1977 three-bedroom, three-bath between the Bird Streets and the Sunset Strip in 2007, he intended to remodel and flip the property, as he had a few other homes in L.A. The recession persuaded Vracko to live there himself. Despite the house’s prime location, the windows were small, the ceilings were low, and the rooms seemed dark. “It was the eyesore of the block,” says Vracko, who is also a contractor. “Definitely the worst home on the street.” Capturing the city views became a priority. After a two-year, $2 million renovation, Vracko now has large sliding-glass doors to take in the stunning vistas, ceilings that are anything but low, and an open layout in the four-bedroom, eight-bath, 4,400-square-foot residence.
The finish: Nearly every aspect of the house was completely redone, from the addition of travertine floors and countertops in the kitchen to muted, indirect lighting throughout. Vracko also installed a one-touch Control4 system that lets him manage the lights, music, temperature, pool, and spa settings. Though the house has new air-conditioning, Vracko took advantage of natural ventilation by installing automated awning windows that allow the upper floors to stay breezy even in summer. “It’s so easy to keep it cool and clean,” he says. He warmed up the backyard with a small saltwater pool, daybed, and TV lounge.
Peter Vracko, owner/architectural designer/contractor: “I love the brightness of the house. The plan was to sell it, but it’s just as well because I love it.”
02. Glam Factory
Hollywood history reaches deep into the global marketplace in a fashion designer’s sumptuous Los Feliz lair
The start: The homage to glamour that movie director Marcel Tourneur erected in the 1920s in the hills above Griffith Park acquired an ardent—and visually savvy—savior when fashion designer Sue Wong bought the house in 2004. Over time owners that included silent film star Norma Talmadge had added to Tourneur’s original vision of an Italianate palace. Others had left a mark more on the home’s lore—Jimi Hendrix camped in one bedroom during the tenure of rock guitarist Arthur Lee—than on the building itself. By restoring the ornate ceilings and fireplaces, then filling the rooms with elegant furniture and fabrics, Wong has not only brought back a gilded age, she's living it.
The finish: Wong prides herself on channeling a period’s zeitgeist in her gowns, and her new home’s ornamentation was certainly a mixture of eras—Italian renaissance, French baroque, Greek neoclassical. To even see the treasures, though, required removing decades of grime. For that Wong brought in Zoltan Papp of Artisan Restoration Center in L.A. He revived a faded Italian-style fresco leading to the solarium, where Howard Hughes had played a grand piano (he owned the house in the 1930s). Papp replaced the peeling gold leaf on the living room colonnade and restored the opulent ceilings throughout. When a find of 18th-century baroque throne chairs arrived, Wong charged Papp with their repair. The house is a rich blend. African statues stand vigil by an art deco chest. Assemblages from modern artist Koji Takei meld with Empire ormolu. What’s next? A little TLC for the stucco exterior.
Sue Wong, owner: “I had been looking for a two-bedroom hideaway but fell in love with the house immediately. It’s a museum in its own right—I took it upon myself to restore its grandeur.”
The screen in front of the living room fireplace and the torchères flanking it were loaned for the film The Aviator. Wong designed the art deco sofa and elaborately embroidered and beaded curtains; the latter were handmade in China. “The colors in the Jayme Odgers painting pick up the Navajo-meets-Viking-meets-Black Forest ceiling,” says Wong.
Wong attributes many of the lion images in the house to MGM director Marcel Tourneur, including the fireplace decoration in what had been Norma Talmadge's master bedroom. In between portraits painted on the gilt ceiling are witty sayings in gothic lettering. “There is nothing permanent except change,” reads one aphorism.
The sitting room that adjoins the bedroom in which Jimi Hendrix lived was decorated with Moroccan fabrics and furniture in a nod to Wong’s bohemian past. Last year she went to the North African country for the first time. “I thought I did a pretty darn good job,” she says of her Moorish styling.
The designer, who fled Communist China with her mother when she was five and a half, opens the frosted-glass doors to the dining room. The doors and their ironwork, which include blossoming irises, are original to the house. The ceiling is decorated with French baroque courtship scenes in porcelain.
Zoltan Papp, restorer: “No one had tried to restore the ceilings improperly, which was good because the buildup acted like a protective coating. Less oxygen reached the surfaces; oxygen combined with the high temperatures we have here is what causes paint to fade. The fireplaces had been heavily used throughout the house, including in the room with a lavish painted ceiling—the Norma Talmadge bedroom. Various owners would burn all manner of materials in them—papers, old upholstery—producing a lot of smoke. The bedroom has tiny windows and is small and cozy, so the soot had piled up there. I had to use my best team: Jozsef Sipos, Ildiko Sinkovics, and Imre Kovacs. They’ve been with my company for ten years. They’re from Hungary, like me, and we spoke to each other in Hungarian as we worked on that ceiling, not unlike how the French and Italian artisans would have spoken to each other as they worked on the house in the 1920s and ’30s.”
03. Guiding Light
The bold new entry to a Pasadena home is both nighttime show and tribute to the woodsy locale
The start: The 1980s house was straining to be modern, but several renovations had left it with a patchwork feel. The location, though, couldn’t be more spectacular: a stand of sculptural Pasadena oaks. When owners John Frank and Diann Kim approached the downtown architecture firm B+U about remodeling their master bathroom, architects Herwig Baumgartner and Scott Uriu saw the potential for evoking the sweep of the trees with a man-made canopy that would also serve as a vibrant entry to the home. The old garage became a new master bath with a courtyard garden shielded from view by frosted-glass walls. The pair also redesigned the kitchen to give it a more open look, using, as they had done in the bathroom, Corian for the countertops.
The finish: From the beginning the canopy was intended to connect the tree-filled landscape to the house. Supporting it is a pylon that extends 30 feet into the ground to bear the weight of the dramatically cantilevered structure. The covering that Baumgartner and Uriu selected has a naturalistic, canvaslike finish they favor over the more glossy alternatives. The LED lights that beam through it were placed to create shadows that enhance the design’s lines. For 40 minutes each night the fantastical takes over as the light changes seamlessly from pink to purple to cyan to magenta.
Herwig Baumgartner and Scott Uriu, architects: “Architectural fabrics are a great material for the ephemeral quality we are after,” says Scott Uriu. “We wanted the lighting design to be just as magical in that you don’t know where the light is coming from,” adds Herwig Baumgartner.
How They Did It
For the canopy, a skeleton was constructed from steel tubing and draped with an architectural fabric—fiberglass dipped in silicon. Philips LED lights illuminate it at night.
1. THE BONES
One thousand feet of tubing that varied from three to six inches in diameter makes up the frame, which was welded together in a Fontana warehouse. The structure weighed about two tons when completed.
2. THE MUSCLE
Tomas Osinski, who worked on the fountain at Walt Disney Concert Hall, originally hoped to transport the skeleton by helicopter. Instead it was cut into five parts and trucked in, then installed by crane.
3. THE SKIN
Most of the 1,800 square feet of fiberglass covering was cut ahead of time based on a computer model. Applying it to the skeleton along with final fitting and detailing took about six weeks.
04. Country Digs
An architect couple keeps the humble footprint but goes for high function in their Solano Canyon home
The start: When Bo Sundius and Hisako Ichiki of Bunch Design bought their 100-year-old house in 2009, the tiny redwood home had been flipped. Not financially. Physically. The construction of Dodger Stadium in the early 1960s closed off the street to the front door, so guests entered from a dirt alley in the back. With a baby on the way, the couple worked fast on the remodel, with a $60,000 budget. Their stove, sink, and newborn son arrived on the same day. “I came home from the hospital, and everything was perfectly installed,” says Ichiki.
The finish: Sundius and Ichiki, who met at SCI-Arc, opened up the 1,250-square-foot space while retaining its footprint. They knocked out the third bedroom and added sliding-glass doors to create an airy, expansive first floor for the living room, dining room, and kitchen. A storage area is cleverly concealed beneath the stairs, and a closet has been transformed into a daybed nook. The couple used reclaimed materials as much as possible, including an oak floor from a Kentucky horse farm. “We picked out the wood slats one by one,” says Ichiki.
Hisako Ichiki, owner/architectural designer: “It was my dream to have a big dining room table for the family. Luckily we had one leftover sheet of walnut plywood. Bo whipped up a table in two days.”
Photographs by Noah Webb. Illustrations by Lucinda Rogers.