That Was Then, This Is Wow

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years. She can be reached by e-mail at

One day in 1994, when Pamela Berstler and Alex Stevens were in the middle of a radical whole-house remodel, a worried-looking neighbor stopped by to inquire, “You’re not going to do anything different to the front, are you?”

When Berstler answered, “Uh, no, not much,” she wasn’t actually fibbing. After all, the remodeled house, which was originally built in 1941, has a front door, just like before, and original wood siding and the same number of windows.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 29, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 29, 1998 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 5 Real Estate Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit--The credit on the above photo, which ran with the “Pardon Our Dust” story in the March 15, issue, was inadvertently omitted. The picture was taken by architectural photographer Gary Isaacs.

But if you consider that the front of the once-gray house in West Los Angeles is now painted dark green and bright orange, with lavender windowsills and eaves, and that there is now a second-story deck peeking over the roof that is reached by lavender stairs with magenta railings, then perhaps Berstler was being a little sly.

“The idea was old house, new house,” said Berstler, a garden designer, pointing out that the siding on the left front side of the house is original, while the salmon-colored stucco on the right is new.


Actually, the house is at least 75% new after the massive, drama-filled remodel, which was completed last year.

The original house had two bedrooms and one bathroom; the “new” house has three bedrooms and two baths, including a new master suite with French doors overlooking the backyard.

Plus, the house has new floors, a new roof and mostly new walls. Because the couple have offbeat tastes, many of the materials used are odd, old or both.

For instance, the big industrial light over the dining room table was salvaged from a warehouse in Baltimore. Many of the doors and windows, along with the claw-foot tub in the new master bathroom, came from the L.A. Wrecking Co.


Closet doors in a hallway are made of perforated aluminum sheets. And the furniture is mostly from thrift shops, in accordance with Berstler’s vow: “I won’t pay more than $7 for a chair.”

The remodeled kitchen is both old and new, with contemporary cabinets built of Finnish maple plywood and the home’s original 1940s chrome wall oven.

Adding visual excitement is an older refrigerator that was hauled to an auto body shop for a coat of bright red enamel paint.

“I’d pit my kitchen against any other,” said Berstler, pulling a homemade pound cake from the oven.


In the backyard, a jungle of flowers, succulents and vegetables in raised beds has replaced what was once a patchwork of concrete slabs with small holes cut out for rosebushes. When the concrete was excavated, Berstler discovered a layer of plastic sheeting and a deeper layer of stones. The previous owners “didn’t want any weeds,” she said.

But the last few years of serious composting and amending the soil have created a natural environment that attracts hummingbirds, dragonflies, squirrels, frogs and grasshoppers.

As the transformation of the house and garden progressed, other nearby residents, most of whom live in more conservative-looking homes, were curious. Berstler recalls disembarking a city bus near the house when a fellow passenger remarked, “I wonder what they’re doing to that house. I hear the husband is an artist.”

To satisfy that curiosity, Berstler made up invitations for a post-remodeling open house and hand-delivered them throughout the neighborhood. Two hundred neighbors and friends showed up to help the couple celebrate.


A massive transformation wasn’t Alex Stevens’ original intent in 1993 when he bought the house for its quiet neighborhood, its location near Santa Monica, an affordable price and a giant Chinese elm tree in the frontyard.

And as for the dark, tiny house with its mishmash of added rooms--an awkward bedroom space had been built between a bedroom and the garage, and a somewhat rickety sun room had been tacked onto the kitchen--well, he figured he’d find a way to make it all work out. “I knew it would be a project,” said Stevens, an art director with Columbia TriStar Pictures, “but just not how much.”

However, the 1994 Northridge earthquake altered his house and his perspective.

“The earthquake started to separate parts of the house,” said Stevens, who figures the rooms were added on as the previous owners had more children. “It was obvious the parts were separating from each other. We ended up tearing apart the whole house.”


Happily, the couple applied for and received government earthquake loans, which upped their budget for the remodel to $100,000.

To start the process, the couple found an architect who helped solve some of the biggest design questions. For instance, which of the motley rooms do you scrap and which do you salvage? And how do you coordinate the various heights and shapes of cobbled-together roofs for each of those added rooms?

According to the architect’s plan, the added bedroom space would be eliminated, the sun room would be integrated into the design and a new master bedroom would be built.

The front of the house would be topped with a hip roof, while the rear of the house would be topped with a flat roof and a deck. And because the deck would be framed and fitted with plumbing--with the first-floor foundation and framing heavily reinforced--it could easily be built into a second story.


Satisfied with the plans, Berstler and Stevens followed convention and asked three contractors to make bids. The lowest bid was $40,000, and the highest bid was $80,000. The couple didn’t think too much about the discrepancy because their architect had recommended the contractor who presented the lowest bid.

And so, feeling supremely confident, the couple began the remodel. Almost immediately, though, things began to go awry. The architect, whom the couple won’t name and say they have “divorced,” made numerous changes in the design and seemed to be unaware of the cost of those changes.

“Both of us were totally unrealistic,” Stevens said.

“And naive,” Berstler interjected. “So he should have been the realistic one,” concluded Stevens, who surmised later that, though the architect was very experienced in designing expensive homes for wealthy clients, he perhaps lacked experience designing for regular folks on a tight budget.


And, of course, as the plans changed, the contractor raised the cost. “We forgot about the ‘twice as much, three times longer’ axiom of remodeling,” Berstler said. Plus, the couple worked long hours at the time and could not supervise the project and its many changes. “We would come home after work and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Berstler recalled. “If we ever do it again, one of us has to be on the job every day.”

But even if they had been home, they still would have had to deal with the now-infamous steel I-beam, an integral part of the roof, which was delivered to the site 6 inches too short. The blame for the gaffe was never determined, swirling among architect, contractor and steel contractor. Finally, the beam was made to work.

Eventually, the couple ended up firing both the architect and the contractor, later finding subcontractors and artisans who satisfactorily finished the job. And Berstler even learned to weld.

After it was all done, the price tag for the remodel had jumped to more than $120,000, and even then some things, like the living room ceiling, remained unfinished.


But with a bright and cheerful home, the couple do not begrudge the experience. In fact, they were exhilarated by the creativity and collaboration of remodeling, including agreeing on lavender steps and chartreuse walls.

“You have to be prepared to throw out your preconceptions,” Stevens said. “You will arrive at it together, even though you start at different points. It’s like that with any collaborative creative process.

“You really have to respect the process.”