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Innovative or Wacky, Owners Call Them Home

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Southern California has always been a place where reality and fantasy intertwine in commercial architecture. Most home design, however, has remained remarkably predictable, even ordinary.

But a few Southland homes stand dramatically apart from their neighbors in appearance. It’s as if their builders tossed out the rule books to create houses unlike any others. Here are five homes that would cause most people to ask, “That’s a house?”

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Santa Barbara’s Whale House, easily one of the most unusual anywhere, is a work of housing art that took engineer/developer Michael Carmichael and a crew of 20 workers three years to build.

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When he looked around his wooded one-acre lot in Mission Canyon, Carmichael wondered how he could design a house without destroying the natural beauty of the site. Finally, he thought, “Why not go with the free-form shape of the property?”

Inspired by the fanciful creations of Antonio Gaudi, a turn-of-the-century Spanish architect, Carmichael let his imagination run wild. The resulting house has no straight lines, no flat walls, no conventional floor plan. In fact, nothing about the house is conventional, including the entrance, which is edged with rocks to look like a whale’s mouth full of teeth. A window high above the front door resembles the whale’s eye.

Three levels of living space wind around a rock-covered elevator shaft. Some stained-glass windows look to the outside, but most windows overlook the open interior courtyard full of oaks and sycamores. Curving rows of cedar shingles make up the outside skin of the house.

What is life like in such an unusual house? Tobias Hildebrand, the house’s current occupant, described it as “very, very peaceful . . . almost magical.”

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“I feel like I’m in the world’s most luxurious tree house,” he said. “It provides a natural and nurturing environment that encourages flow and creativity and helps me focus.”

During construction, the city of Santa Barbara required Carmichael to erect a 10-foot fence around the property, to prevent gawking passersby from getting into accidents. Now, with mature vegetation providing additional cover, the Whale House is seldom seen.

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Privacy is harder to come by in the seaside Orange County community of Sunset Beach. But it helps when your house sits 87 feet above ground.

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While utilitarian objects have been converted into homes before, few of these have resulted in structures as dramatic as the Water Tower House, located at Pacific Coast Highway and Anderson Street.

The house, which from below resembles a large wooden tub on stilts, takes full advantage of a 360-degree view with windows in each room and an observation deck at the kitchen/dining level.

Former owner George Armstrong bought the 45-year-old abandoned tower and the ground it sits on from the city of Seal Beach in 1980, and embarked on a four-year project to make the interior space livable.

Armstrong began by cutting the tower off its supports and lowering it to the ground to do the remodeling. Then he removed the outer wooden skin, saving most of the original material to reuse (and protecting its status as an historical landmark). Adding four feet to the diameter and six feet to the height of the tower, Armstrong created a windowed, trilevel, 2,900-square-foot round house from the original shell.

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When the building was completed, the tower was hoisted back up to its elevated position overlooking the ocean, Huntington Harbor and northern Orange County. An elevator moves passengers from ground level to the three living levels above ground.

The Water Tower is the perfect home for a person who loves privacy and an unobstructed view of the ocean. “I’ve lived in many beach locations and this has it all,” said current owner Bob Odell.

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Far inland, in Mockingbird Canyon near Riverside, another one-of-a-kind house is almost impossible to see from the street--much of the house is underground.

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Earth-sheltered is a more accurate term than underground because Riverside’s building codes didn’t permit a completely underground house when Solar Terra was built in 1982.

Conceived at the height of interest in energy conservation, the house has a conventional feel inside and plenty of natural light, although the structure was built into a north-facing slope and uses the insulating power of its underground location for heating and cooling.

Architect Charles Brown called Solar Terra a “back to the future” house because man has used the inherent heating and cooling features of the earth for eons. “We added mechanical systems because we didn’t have enough faith or experience with the natural technology of earth heating and cooling,” Brown said.

Owners Scott and Pam Bergy haven’t felt like pioneers in the 11 years they’ve lived in the underground home, even though it came equipped with sophisticated UC Riverside monitoring equipment.

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“Solar Terra proved that earth-sheltered houses like this work,” said Scott Bergy, a commercial pilot. “And we’ve saved thousands of dollars on electric bills.

“The biggest problem we’ve had with our home is when a tree root pierced the bedroom wall. It had broken through the outer rubber lining of the house,” Bergy said.

Architect Brown designs more-conventional houses these days, but still has a soft spot for Solar Terra. “We were trying out the technology then, anticipating much-higher energy costs in the next few years,” he said. “Everything in the house was the best that could be done. The house still makes us proud.”

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When Catherine Gallagher, a clinical social worker, spotted a picture of the Glass Pyramid House, about to be auctioned in foreclosure, she was intrigued.

“I had just decorated a condo that I adored,” she said, “but I was drawn to this most unusual of houses. When I saw it, I knew I wanted to live here.”

Set on a Sierra Madre knoll, out of view of neighbors, the pyramid house is visited by wild animals more often than by curiosity seekers. Gallagher and a maintenance man send the occasional trespasser packing.

The original design of the 2,900-square-foot pyramid, built in 1972, brought visitors into the house across a koi pond and through a heavy, round door to the partially underground lower level. But the steps became mossy and the door was hard to roll. Now Gallagher uses a ground-level door as the main entrance into her glassy domain.

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The lower level of the three-tier house enjoys a constant temperature, because it’s partly underground. In summer, a fan pulls in cooler air through screened openings in the floor of the ground level and expels warm air at the top of the pyramid. In the winter Gallagher wears sweaters and uses a portable heater. By utilizing both above- and below-ground living areas, she keeps her electric bill at a reasonable $60 monthly average. In all seasons, house plants relish the abundance of light.

“Much of the fun of living here is sharing this wonderful space with friends,” Gallagher said. “They can’t understand how I can live in a glass house until they come over and see what a practical and comfortable home it is.”

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Another of the Southland’s unusual houses is located in a quiet corner of Riverside where it points its nose in the air at a 30-degree angle: It’s a World War II airplane, converted into a home.

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Towed to the isolated site and lifted into place almost 50 years ago, the Airplane House rests serenely aloof from the outside world.

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In Beverly Hills, the most visible of the Southland’s unusual residences, the Spadena House, or the “Witch’s Cottage,” as it is called, is a stop on the star-home tours even though the owner is not in the movies. The house is the star.

Described by architect Charles Moore as the “quintessential Hansel and Gretel house,” it was originally built as the office for a movie studio in 1921, and later moved from Culver City to its present location.

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With a steeply pitched roof gable over the entry, shutters that hang askew and small leaded-glass windows, the Spadena House appears modest in size from the street. Yet it has two master suites and a 3,500-square-foot interior that is charming and spacious. “We can’t live like the seven dwarfs,” said Doris Green, who has owned the house for 27 years.

The cottage’s fame has grown during Green’s ownership, forcing her to learn to garden in her front yard without being distracted by onlookers. “I used to run in the house when people came by,” she said. “Now I’m in a lot of pictures with my gardening clothes on.”

When the moat in front of the house began leaking, Green filled it with dirt, and planted a cottage garden with cuttings from the neighborhood. Otherwise, she has scrupulously maintained the Witch’s Cottage in all its original fairy-tale exaggeration.

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What kind of homeowner chooses an unusual house? Often a surprisingly conventional person, according to Dr. Gladys Whipple, a Pasadena psychiatrist. “People can express a streak of unconventionality in their personality by choosing a house outside the norm,” Whipple said.

No matter how you evaluate the advantages of owning a house that is different from the neighbors’, there is one very big downside. When you want to sell, you have to find a buyer willing to take on the care and tending of a whale, keep up with the maintenance of a water tower or live with the unrelenting interest in a fairy-tale cottage.

The Bergys want more room, Green wants less, Odell’s business has moved north and the owner of the Whale House has relocated.

So how do you sell a one-of-a-kind house?

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Slowly.

The Water Tower House has been for sale intermittently for five years. Recently, however, said agent Elgin Johnson with Coldwell Banker in Costa Mesa, the house received commercial zoning, and interest has picked up. The listing price is $1.9 million.

Diane Brown of Westcoe Real Estate in Riverside has been searching for the right buyer for Solar Terra for more than three years. The house is priced at $399,000.

The Witch’s Cottage has just been re-listed, with John Bruce Nelson & Associates of Beverly Hills, at $2 million.

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Agent Tobias Hildebrand of Fred Sands’ Montecito office is marketing the Whale House for its investor-owner at $995,000. While waiting for a buyer, he rents out the house for small special events, such as weddings.

(The Glass Pyramid and the Airplane House are not for sale.)


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