When a Celebrated Mid-Century House Becomes a Home

The house Alexandra Becket grew up in has been photographed by Julius Shulman and was recently purchased by Ellen DeGeneres. For her, its value will always be in the stories it holds
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Ellen DeGeneres moved in next door when I moved back home for two years after college.  She rang our doorbell one afternoon to discuss the bamboo along the property line. When I opened the entry gate she peered into the post-and-beam atrium and I heard her gasp.  She was so curious about the house that I ended up giving her a tour. I had no idea she was a comedian, a well-known one at that. This was 2001, years before the Ellen show, her mainstream fame, or her foray into house flipping. She was just a genuinely appreciative neighbor to me.

Ten-plus years later, I was browsing the Taschen bookstore with my husband, Greg. He was perusing a copy of Julius Shulman Rediscovered, and as I peered over his shoulder, I saw a familiar image of lemon-yellow closet doors and a vibrant orange carpet. I gasped aloud in the store, astonished to see my childhood bedroom in a compilation of Shulman’s architectural photographs.

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Becket with her mother and grandmothers

Courtesy Alexandra Becket

My parents bought the house in 1967 from the Rowan family, who had hired architect Robert Skinner to build the hillside home on a former citrus grove. My mom was the first to view the house, and she fell in love with the pine trees, eucalyptus grove, and the boulder-lined stream that led to a small pond. After hearing my mom rave about the house, my dad and grandfather, both architects, decided they needed to see it for themselves. They were impressed by the post-and-beam architecture, floor-to-ceiling windows, and redwood siding that adorned the exterior and interior walls.

For a couple only two years into their marriage, the house was a perfect place to start a family. Tucked off Coldwater Canyon in a small valley below Mulholland Drive, the house was secluded from the frenzy of the city. It was close to the open land of Franklin Canyon, which was accessible by a trail at the cul-de-sac around the corner.

My parents moved in two years after their wedding and had two children soon after. When I came along, seven years later, my dad designed an addition: a long glass hallway that led to my sister’s room, my brother’s room, a bathroom and a playroom. He adapted an already great design and interesting layout into a functional family home for three kids.

I believe we’re highly influenced by the living spaces we experience as a child. My memories are full of mid-seventies orange, yellow and green throughout the house. A shaggy ocher carpet in the sunken, dark living room smelled musky. And a mysterious array of collectibles that my parents and grandparents brought back from travels abroad lined the built-in bookshelves, topped the coffee tables and hung on the walls. The large, colorful Indonesian batik of an elephant that hung in the living room is in the background of many family photos, as well as the African woven wall hanging that was suspended over the fireplace.

A few years ago, as our daughter was turning five, I found myself reflecting back on my childhood home. On several mornings I woke up from vivid dreams of the house, where I walked through the rooms, revisiting the furniture and decor. There were flashes of ceramic tiles, long glass hallways, and seed pods blowing in the breeze from the little tree in the upper garden, which my older sister declared was fairy dust. That tree will always hold a special place in my heart.

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Becket’s childhood home today

My memories of the house are not all rosy, though. I was petrified to walk through that glass hallway when I needed to use the bathroom at night, feeling exposed and unsure of what lurked in the darkness (thankfully only the occasional raccoon or coyote passed by outside). When our daughter recently told me she’s scared to walk to the bathroom at night, I told her I understood her fear, and that I was able to overcome it just like she will.

Behind the kitchen and dining room was a sunken living room which we only used on special occasions. I remember running down the stairs to find gifts waiting on Christmas morning. On cold nights, my sister, brother, and I would have dinner on short wooden stools, set around the coffee table near the warmth of the fireplace. My dad installed a button under the coffee table which we pushed to turn on the stereo. Music blared from the speakers that were built into the lower cabinets around the bar.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the house felt like such a mid ’60s time capsule that I was too embarrassed to invite friends over. As friend’s families updated their living spaces and technologies, my parents held onto what they had invested in when they renovated in 1975. I felt our house was decrepit and left over from another era. It wasn’t until I came back from college at UC Santa Cruz and lived there for a few years that I realized how unique and special it was. I started to play my parents records on the built-in McIntosh Stereo. I threw dinner parties for friends outside on the patio with Sergio Mendez and Brazil ‘66 playing on the turntable. I was now proud to have friends over, to share the cool vintage vibe of the house with them.

I knew when my parents put the house on the market after 40 years, it was likely to be sold to a developer. The flat roof still leaked, despite numerous repairs, the balconies had rotted and collapsed to the lower garden, the pool was in disrepair. Considering the condition of the house and the dated interiors, most buyers/users considered it too ambitious to take on. My dad would have loved to fix up the house, and my sister and I both dreamt of restoring it, but none of us were in a financial position to take it on.

As fate would have it, a couple expecting their first child fell in love with the original architecture of the house and were passionate about wanting to restore and update it for themselves. I held my memories of the house close, but I was elated and extremely curious how the next family would make it their own.

Becket’s childhood home today

A few years later, more strong memories would come flooding back when I received an unexpected invitation. After the Cavic family finished the renovation, settled in and had their second child, I got an email from their architect, John Bertram. He and the Cavics had spoken and wanted to invite us over for a tour. I renovate homes for a living and jump at the chance to see any home after renovations are complete. I was thrilled by the offer to see my own childhood home and immediately set a date to visit.

Bertram, a mid-century restoration specialist, and owner Greg Cavic collaborated on the house. They poured over Shulman’s photos, meticulously studying the original features and designed the kitchen, bathrooms, and common spaces to reflect the original style. I was impressed by their choice of era-appropriate lighting, flooring, tile, and cedar siding. They even added glass louvered windows, which many homeowners would have done away with because of their outdated style and lack of insulation.

The Cavic’s first daughter is the same age as our own. I saw her playroom set-up in the same space where I played. Jessica Cavic explained how much she enjoyed being able to keep an eye on her daughters playing through the full glass windows, just as my mom had. They told me how much their girls enjoyed exploring the back garden, climbing the rocks along the stream, and hanging out by the pond, just as we had. They had a play structure set up right where my parents had put one.

As I walked through, more memories came back of the redwood playhouse my dad built in a corner of the backyard, complete with a kitchen, a functioning doorbell, and curtains on the plexiglass windows. I could envision the veggie garden planted in front of the playhouse and a lime tree left over from the orchard that was there before the house was built. I had a wood-framed easel, a yellow formica art table, and bright orange and yellow kid-sized Pantone chairs, which now get a lot of use an art table in our daughter’s room.

I shared with the Cavics where the hidden trail head was to the Franklin Canyon Reservoir, and that I went for hikes there as a teen to feel a sense of freedom. It provided a great escape into nature when I needed a refuge from tense times at home, during the Rodney King Riots, after the Northridge earthquake, and after September 11, 2001.

The neighborhood became a celebrity refuge as I grew older: I became actress Angie Dickinson’s cat-sitter. She was the sweetest neighbor I could ask for. Gilligan’s Island actress Tina Louise lived in the Japanese-style home across the street. Her front entry was a set of river rock studded stepping stones over a koi pond that led to the front door. I loved the feeling of hopping over the water and seeing the fish swim by as I entered the house. My sister formed a Snoopy club with her daughter Caprice, and she played with Peter Fonda’s daughter, Bridget. The Fondas lived in the spacious pool house of the original estate that was later torn down and replaced with a boxy mansion. Tina Louise’s home was also torn down, as was the swanky ’60s modern behind us. Our house was the last one standing.

And Ellen! Ellen, who when I gave her a tour that unexpected afternoon, recently bought the house. I had hoped she’d end up buying the house after I saw how much she loved it. We’ll see if she ends up living there with Portia or expanding on it in their own way for yet another family.

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Becket with her grandmothers

Courtesy Alexandra Becket

Even though the story of my childhood home includes big names in mid-century architecture and celebrity neighbors, every home has unique stories to tell, held within the memories of the people who lived there. These imprints are felt over lifetimes, recurring as the house is passed onto its next inhabitants. But all too often these beautiful homes, with great bones and storied histories, are torn down. The house my father grew up in, which was thoughtfully designed and built by his father, Welton, was razed in the ’90s, replaced with a faux French mansion.

Fortunately, my childhood home is a stellar example of how a house can be renovated to fit the needs of each family, maintaining its architectural integrity. My appreciation for restoration has increased since I visited the Cavics. It was gratifying to see another family turn the house into a home. That’s what I love about my own career as a home renovation designer, breathing life back into old homes so the next family can add their chapter to the history of the house.


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