The thickly ornamented, steel-reinforced textile block structure backs up to the Los Feliz hills and is adjacent to Laughlin Park, a gated community that many film stars called home during the golden age of Hollywood.
Flanked by agave, flax and giant birds of paradise, steps lead up to the original copper gates, which have a water-and-leaf pattern.
The home has a rectangular design. Its rooms open to a long courtyard that once was an open-air theater where original owners John and Ruth Sowden hosted performances for their film-industry friends.
The first phase of the restoration is well chronicled: In roughly seven months the exterior stonework was restored, three rooms were combined into one to create a large modern kitchen, bathrooms were remodeled and a pool and spa were designed into the courtyard.
The towering concrete pylon fountains that once framed the studio-stage (now the master bedroom) were removed years ago. In roughly the same corners, local sculptor Pascal Giacomini created two 8-foot-tall gas torchieres fabricated from welded steel and chunks of colored cast resin.
A second round of updating commenced in 2008. The interior walls were covered in Venetian plaster, and the off-creme color was changed to bronze and silver metallics. "The metallic colors feel more masculine, which complements the heaviness of the concrete," Balbes explained.
Kiln-dried oak replaced the existing wood floor, which had been sanded down so many times that cracks and nail heads were showing.
A stair-stepped, grid-patterned glass wall anchors the living room.
The vanity and backsplash in the entry powder room also feature a stepped design, inspired by a Mayan pyramid-styled roofline.
In the master bathroom, a brushed stainless steel tub appears to float over a pond with raindrops hitting the water and creating overlapping circles. "The floor design mimics the overlapping circles in the ceiling fixture, which was original to the house," architect Paul Ashley said.
Sliding doors in the master bath lead to an outdoor area with a koi pond.
Most of the lighting was replaced and updated with vintage fixtures, and electronic controls were added throughout the main house. The pool was replastered and re-tiled.
Since he moved in, Balbes has held numerous parties and charitable events, including fundraisers for Project Angel Food, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the L.A. Youth Network and the L.A. Police Foundation. The house also has been rented out regularly for special events, including numerous photo shoots and television location work.
With his focus now on a project in Maui, Balbes is bittersweet about selling the home. "My heart and soul is wrapped up in the Sowden House, but I know it's time to pass it on to someone very special," he said.
The property was designated as a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument in 2003 and qualifies for property tax savings under the Mills Act.
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