Inside Author Susan Orlean’s Midcentury Modern Home

She has written about everything from taxidermy to orchid thieves. But it’s her side hustle renovating houses that’s having a big impact on L.A. architecture

As the sun streams through a bank of tall casement windows, Susan Orlean enjoys a rare moment of repose. Clad in a black Commes des Garçons turtleneck, the acclaimed writer relaxes on one of two nubby, black-and-white midcentury couches in her living room.

“They came with the house,” she says when asked about the provenance of the furnishings. The house in question isn’t a humble abode near the Valley. It’s a four-bedroom, three-bath, 2,900-square-foot, multi-angled masterpiece that was built in 1946 by Austrian maverick Rudolph Schindler. Orlean and her husband, investor John Gillespie, bought the showpiece in 2017 and have been restoring it ever since.

“The workers and the Porta-Potty are still here,” she quips.

While most people know Orlean as the award-winning New Yorker staffer who was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 2002 Oscar-winner Adaptation, writing is hardly her only occupation. For years, she’s devoted much of her time to building and renovating homes of architectural renown.

Photo by Corina Marie

“Making houses is so much like making books,” Orlean says. “With both, you have certain pieces of information—your building blocks—to put together in the most interesting way. You play with form to make the final product not just functional, but expressive.”

Built into a north-facing hillside, Orlean’s residence is nothing if not intriguing. As was Schindler’s predilection, he bowed to the site’s weather and terrain, inviting sunlight into some spaces and filtering it into others, creating rooms at descending levels, the angular roofline mirroring the flow. In another typical Schindler move, the rooms are adorned with built-in cabinets, desks, and nooks that make furniture extraneous. Four—count ’em, four—modernist stonework fireplaces stand sentry over gleaming hardwood floors. Schindler described it and his other noteworthy creations as “space as a medium of art.”

But when Orlean and Gillespie purchased it, the innovations were indistinguishable from its decay.

“The back half of the house was at a six-foot pitch because the foundation had cracked. There was icky carpeting throughout. Every inch of the mahogany and Douglas fir interior was painted gray,” Orlean recalls, a shudder jostling her narrow shoulders. “The kitchen was a 1960s remodel. The bathrooms were terrible.”

Photo by Corina Marie

The 75-year-old home needed all the basics: roof, electrical, plumbing, flooring. The couple also made various significant cosmetic updates. A custom mahogany bathtub, hand-built to their specs, was shipped in from Vermont. Interior scaffolds were installed so that artisans could carefully scrape gray paint off the ceiling and uncover the gorgeous mahogany beneath it, a process that took workers months of lying on their backs to complete.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Orlean attributes her love of houses to her dad, a real estate developer who took her with him when he went to see the model homes and apartments he was building. Her love of writing, though, is wholly her own.

“I wanted to be a writer from day one,” she says. “I never wanted to be a ballerina or princess.”

Photo by Corina Marie

Orlean’s voracious curiosity has yielded scores of New Yorker stories and eight nonfiction books on such disparate topics as umbrella inventors, Tonya Harding, treadmill desks, taxidermy, gospel choirs, a female bullfighter, orchid thieves, and the L.A. Public Library. In November, she launched a new column at the magazine dedicated to obituaries. Her newest book, On Animals (Avid Reader Press), came out in October, and is a lifetime’s collection of essays about creatures ranging from household pets to racing pigeons to tigers.

Fittingly, her first big architectural foray was an old farm. In 2005, she and Gillespie built a three-bedroom glass-walled modern marvel on a 56-acre former dairy in New York’s Hudson Valley. Architect James Cutler, best known for designing Bill Gates’s Pacific Northwest compound, created the striking building, which featured a two-sided, indoor-outdoor fireplace and towering windows in lieu of several exterior walls.

“It was terrifying, making irreversible decisions, seeing a giant earthmover chewing into a naked hillside,” Orlean recalls. She and Gillespie and son, Austin, now 16, lived there until 2010, a time Orlean calls her Green Acres period.

“I wrote Rin Tin Tin [the sixth book] there, in my tiny studio next to the chicken coop,” she recalls. (The family kept the home as a retreat for years but sold it for nearly $3.5 million this past spring.)

In 2007, she and Gillespie visited and fell in love with Los Angeles—and a smaller Schindler home in Studio City. The previous owners had renovated it, but Orlean and Gillespie lavished the house with “a lot of cosmetic nips and tucks.”

It was there that she started her 2018 best-seller, The Library Book.

“We converted the garage into a huge workspace. I had so much material,” she recalls. “It was great to be able to spread it all over the place.”

The family, who love to entertain, eventually outgrew the 1,500-square-foot home, leading them to buy their current Schindler. While there are still small projects to be done, she says the renovation is mostly complete.

“When you walk into this house, there are a million details,” she says, waving at the now-pristine ceiling, “but we’re aiming for an overall experience. Same with books—you don’t want people to notice a particular word. You want the reader to have an experience that’s holistic.”

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