FIVE DECADES AGO a young architect made his pitch to Norman Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times: Build a suburban house that embodied forward-thinking design. Make it affordable for a middle-class family. Then document the process in the newspaper, from planning to construction to the completed home.
Chandler jumped at the idea, and the Times Home Magazine House was born. On Jan. 5, 1958, a nine-page spread detailed the architecture by Edward H. Fickett, with interiors by Arthur Elrod. Photos showed the quintessence of California cool: an indoor-outdoor plan with a soaring post-and-beam ceiling.
Today, the house of The Times still sits at the end of a long, curving drive, tucked out of sight in a quiet dell in the Encino hills. The sense of privacy is still profound, and Fickett's design -- with pitched roof, stone and wood siding and beamed carport -- looks as good as it did 50 years ago. In many ways, it's still a house of the times: Current owners Warner Walcott and Jonn Coolidge have sensitively complemented Fickett's architecture with an art and furniture collection that's at once retro yet contemporary -- and unmistakably California cool.
Walcott, a photographer's agent, and Coolidge, a commercial photographer, went to see the house in 2006 when it came on the market for the first time in 40 years. The couple were fans of Fickett's work; their previous residence also was a Fickett.
"We came here and just fell in love with the house," Walcott says, recalling how the three-quarters of an acre felt bigger because of the sense of privacy and quiet. "We jokingly call it happy valley."
Walcott opens the front door and notes that the house retains its original floor plan -- "very natural and open," he says. "There's not a lot you need to, or can, do to it."
The volume and airiness of the foyer are impressive. An open-beamed, cathedral-like ceiling dominates the living room; glass walls front the yard. Light floods into the house, not just from the windows but also from the adjacent hallway. The corridor links the living space to the more private areas in the back, but it also acts as a towering light box: A long bank of skylights forms its spine.
Despite the high ceilings, the house exudes intimacy and warmth, partly because of the wood on the ceilings, walls and floors.
"It's rough-cut red cedar, and we find it beautiful," Walcott says, adding that a restoration specialist vacuumed and brushed years of dust out of the grain.
In some areas, he and Coolidge installed walnut flooring in place of tile that the previous owner had added. Among the benefits: better acoustics.
"We wanted to play off the wood walls and soften the feel," Walcott says.
The wood surfaces are complemented by exquisite furniture and art from the 1940s through the 1970s. In the center of the living room, upholstered modular blocks resemble a string of oversized marshmallows.
"These are Mario Bellini pieces from the '70s," Walcott says. "I love the exaggerated chesterfield tufting and the fastening bolts and carabiners, so you can reconfigure it into a pit or anything else. We collected these pieces from around the world. I love how the softness of them plays off the clean lines of the room."
As architecture aficionados with an interest in preservation, Walcott and Coolidge struggled with the question of replacing original features with modern touches that better suited their needs and taste.
"We debated everything," Walcott says. "There were no quick or easy decisions."
He gestures to the high ceiling of the kitchen, which is narrow but feels open. Sunlight reflects off the white surfaces.
"It was a great old kitchen, but it had some things that were hard for us," Walcott says. "We were torn: The original Heath tile was beautiful. But we needed to increase our counter space, storage space and make room for modern appliances."
In the end, they kept the footprint but changed the countertop, installed new appliances and removed the washer and dryer for more storage.
"We wanted to try to use the products Fickett would have used," Walcott says. "The only place we varied that was for the countertops."
The couple love Corian because pieces can be sanded together to form a single seamless surface. "We're both fascinated by Donald Judd and Richard Serra," Walcott says, "so we love that kind of clean look."
One of the most striking details in the kitchen is a cabinet suspended from the ceiling. The original cabinet blocked the view out windows, so Walcott and Coolidge kept the shape and suspension rods but used glass on both sides instead of painted wood. Now the piece showcases glass objects by Swedish legend Vicke Lindstrand and Italian greats Angelo Mangiarotti and Alfredo Barbini.
"We're out-of-control collectors," Walcott says. "EBay fanatics."
The kitchen opens to the vaulted living room, which in turn faces the backyard. At the center is the kidney-shaped pool that was Fickett's original design.
"The previous owners didn't use the pool, so they decked it over in the exact same shape," Walcott says.
He and Coolidge removed the decking and restored the pool. Now a striking pattern of tile runs beneath the smooth white concrete coping. (Please see separate story.)
Fickett intended the backyard to be a focal point of the house and an extension of the living area.
"It's very comfortable and private," Walcott says. "You can't see our neighbors. We're by ourselves except, of course, for the occasional coyote, deer and raccoons. We even saw a bobcat once. I love that."
Back in the house, he crosses to the hallway and another signature Fickett feature: a full-grown tree, reaching for the skylights from a bed of red rocks.
"The tree placement is original," Walcott says. "There's a break in the foundation, and the tree grows directly in the dirt. We got those rocks off our hill."
The master bedroom, guest bedroom and office are impressive, but none is as striking a transformation as the master bathroom. Earthquakes had cracked the blue floor-to-ceiling tiles, which were impossible to replace. The sunken tub leaked.
Walcott and Coolidge kept the sunken space but shortened it, installing a deep soaking tub instead of a conventional bath.
"Tonally, we were wed to the idea of the Japanese tub, which is made of hinoki cedar," Walcott says. "It seemed to fit in with the feel of the house."
New quartz tiling runs up the walls and reflects the light from the windows, which open to an atrium centered on a trickling fountain.
"This is my favorite room in the house," Walcott says. "It's the Zen feeling; it's wonderful to relax in the bathtub with the windows cranked open and listen to the rain-like sound of water coming from the fountain."
The fact that the couple changed mostly decorative elements speaks to the timelessness of Fickett's architecture, Walcott says. "He was a visionary who built comfortable, beautiful houses that were as perfect then as they are now."