The ornate 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival by esteemed African American architect Paul Williams had sailed untouched through the decades. That undisturbed quality pulled at Gina and Rod Guerra as they weighed acquiring the 7,700-square-foot home and its more than one acre of gardens in 1999. “The house is not so grand that you don’t enjoy living in it,” says Gina of Williams’s design for the La Cañada Flintridge site. “Nothing seems too big. It’s intimate.”
First, though, came issues that arise in any home left alone to age: the ancient water heater, leaking roof, and outdated wiring and plumbing. But whenever they grew weary of the work, the Guerras would look upon the airy atrium—with its bas-relief plaster scenes from the Bible, Batchelder tile fountain, and intricately embellished archway—and experience that frisson of timeless elegance. Or Rod would retreat to his office with its sumptuous wood paneling and marble fireplace. They speculated on whether the stairway’s stained glass window mirrored the landscape outside and rejoiced at uncovering an arty ceramic lamp beneath a coat of paint in the breakfast room.
The garden held the most surprises. A grotto constructed in the faux bois style, with sculpted concrete mimicking branches and stone, was a puzzle until they used a hose to send water coursing through the labyrinth, much as it did when the pump had been working. Another faux bois structure they dubbed “the Teahouse.” “I reached down to lift this bucket,” Gina says, pointing to what appears to be a wood pail outside the teahouse, “and I couldn’t raise it an inch.”
The Guerras made a point of buying the baroque furniture in the dining room, a holdover from when actor Dennis Morgan (God Is My Co-Pilot) owned the house in the 1940s. In a 1946 Movie Show profile, Morgan recounted how the hand-carved 19th-century Italian table, 12 chairs, and several giant sideboards (“for large quantities of silver and china we don’t have”) had come from the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The house now brims with the belongings of the couple and their three daughters, Natalie, 17, Olivia, 14, and Marisa, 13. Though each girl appreciates the house, Gina says, she was especially moved when, in talking about downsizing after the girls are grown, Olivia burst into tears. “But I want to get married here,” she said.
Photographs by Nicole LaMotte