There were five reasons Claudia Christian needed to upgrade the basement of her Los Feliz home last year: Three adult and two baby opossums had pushed their way through openings in the walls and taken up residence.
Christian, an actress, got this news while in Germany filming "Half Past Dead" with Steven Seagal. Her housekeeper called to report that one opossum was nesting in the fireplace, one under a bench and another under the treadmill. They had left droppings all over the house and bullied the cat out of its food.
Christian's 1914 two-story, 6,000-square-foot house sits on a knoll with a view of Los Angeles. It has movie-star quality, with classical revival architecture, a grand foyer, two master suites, three offices, four wood-burning fireplaces, five bathrooms and a pool. But the basement, with its dirt and cracked concrete floor, lacked any flair. Hundreds of old wires from defunct electrical and alarm systems, a maze of pipes and ducts, and clamminess from leaking moisture made walking to a storage space in the basement an unpleasant obstacle course.
"Revolting, disgusting, gross, dirty, dusty," is how Christian described the space. "I didn't feel it was safe."
Humidity and mold ruined boxes of photographs--from Christian's childhood, modeling days and early acting career--that she had stored there since she bought the house two years ago. "That hurt enough to snap me to my senses."
To bring the basement's quality up to that of the house, Christian turned to her friend Michael Weiss, a carpenter and all-around handyman who is part of a clan of friends known as the McStaggers.
The McStaggers dress in full regalia for medieval festivals and party a lot, often at Christian's house. Weiss is known as Haggis McStagger, while Christian has earned the moniker Trouble McStagger. "It's much more like family than friends," Weiss said.
Topping Christian's wish list for the 720-square-foot basement: a wine cellar to help fuel her parties. "We drink a lot of wine," she said. The budget was initially set at $10,000.
Once Weiss considered the basement's possibilities, he realized he could turn the rest of it into a dungeon-type space to provide more room for socializing and an appropriate place to show off Christian's collection of "edged weapons"--including knives, swords and daggers.
Eventually Christian gave him free rein, trusting him to create the space he imagined. "I can look at anything, and I can see the finished product," Weiss said. "I'm very talented to begin with, and modest too."
Working on the basement part-time, Weiss took five months to complete the transformation, with help from a few friends. The job lasted from February to June of last year, at a final cost of about $20,000.
As in most remodeling jobs, getting the site prepared was a major chore. The first step was moving Christian's belongings to the backyard and protecting them from the weather. That was followed by a thorough cleaning.
For most of the job, Weiss wore a dust mask. On days he didn't, "I regretted it," he said, adding that a construction project in a "dark and dank" basement is rife with "unpleasantries."
Next he removed old wiring, primarily from defunct alarm systems, and moved electrical cables and heating and cooling vents to out-of-the-way locations.
"You were ducking every two feet," he said. Some pipes were put behind a half-wall so they are accessible for repairs but not visible.
The electrical work proved "most vexing" for Weiss, Christian said. She recalls bringing Weiss a glass of wine one afternoon and seeing him holding his head in his hands with a book on electrical wiring open in his lap. Everything had to be done just right with "ultra-new, ultra-safe wiring," he said, adding that he won't take shortcuts. "I'm hyper-paranoid about it." When he was done, a licensed electrician inspected the job and confirmed that it was up to code.
After that, the support posts were either replaced or reinforced, depending on their condition.
Another big task was pouring nearly 50 bags of concrete to level the floor, which had been laid at different times over the last seven decades (1935, 1948 and 1979, according to a file containing building permits that came with the house). Some parts of the basement had never been paved.
The last project before construction could begin on the wine cellar and storage spaces was insulating the walls to keep out moisture.
This involved bolting redwood 2-by-4s to each wall, which took two weeks of drilling, applying solid foam sheets, then covering all walls with either Tyvek house wrap or two layers of plastic. Once that was done, cedar panels were installed. A dropped ceiling was added to hide irregularities that could not be amended. The floors were lined with slate.
To construct the wine cellar, a 112-square-foot section of the basement was fitted with a well-sealed self-closing door. Christian wanted a basic wine cellar; this one can hold 2,000 bottles. Because she was in a hurry to get the cellar completed for a television video shoot at her house, Weiss bought the wine racks ready-made for $3,000.
In the wine cellars Weiss has done since (they are now his specialty, and he considers clients requesting wine cellars the most fun), he prefers to custom-build the racks in his workshop.
Temperature and humidity control are critical for a wine cellar, and Weiss studies the topic diligently. According to his research, the ideal storage temperature is 55 degrees; a $1,200 air conditioner was added to achieve this. If the room is too humid (more than 80% relative humidity), mold will grow and the labels will be prone to falling off. If the air is too dry, the wine will evaporate through the corks. To control dryness, Weiss prefers a low-tech system that involves a water-filled copper bucket and a towel to wick the water up and into the air.
To give the rest of the basement the dungeon look he was after, he decorated with medieval-looking lamps and benches and displayed a collection of weapons with a yard-sale picture frame. Posts and a counter covered with thin copper sheeting provide a lavish look.
Weiss created an 8-by-10-foot Moroccan bed, set in an alcove, where guests can relax and socialize. He built the platform from sturdy outdoor decking material and two sewn-together futons. His favorite job was making the lush draperies that give the bed its opulent coziness. When he found fabrics too expensive in Los Angeles, he headed down to Mexico to make his purchases. He found Gothic-looking couches there as well.
For a final touch, a sign proclaiming "Welcome to the Dungeon" was painted by another McStagger, actress Alexandra Tydings, who played Aphrodite, the quirky goddess of love, on the TV series "Xena Warrior Princess."
The Moroccan bed is a hit, especially during parties of more than 20. At a recent get-together, Weiss found a throng of revelers lounging there, talking and drinking wine. Christian said her friends love napping on the bed. "It's quiet and dark--no clocks, no lights, no noise," she said. "It's incredibly womb-like."
The wine cellar is likewise put to good use, though keeping it stocked is an ongoing struggle.
"Claudia entertains a lot," Weiss said. "I'd come back with 20 to 30 cases [of wine], and a few weeks later it would be gone."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Builder: Koru Custom Wine Cellars, Michael Weiss, (626) 339-6679, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lamps/tables: Kenza Imports, Los Angeles, (323) 930-1768.
Wall sconces: Arte de Mexico, North Hollywood, (818) 753-4510.
Copper sheeting: Industrial Metal Supply, Burbank, (818) 848-4439.
Building supplies: Terry Lumber Co., Burbank, (818) 842-2177. Also, artisan markets in Tijuana and Rosarito, Mexico.
Where the Money Went
Fine carpentry... 4,000
Heat, air and
ventilation system ...300
Wine air-conditioning ...1,200
Wine racks ...3,000
Wine for cellar ...2,000
Kathy Price-Robinson writes about remodeling. She can be reached at www.kathyprice.com.