Small House, Big Charms

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's no wonder that Michelle and Robin Bentler love their home in Santa Ana's Floral Park neighborhood. It's as close to Mayberry, U.S.A., as they could get without sound-stage backdrops. Somehow you expect to see Opie coming down the street whistling with a fishing pole over his shoulder.

"We moved here over two years ago because we love the sense of community," says Michelle Bentler. "I grew up on the East Coast, so I love neighborhoods where people are out walking at night and children are playing in the street. It was difficult to find an area like that in Orange County, but we finally found [that] here. There are even times when entire streets are blocked off and there are neighborhood parties."

This sense of community is especially important to the Bentlers, who are expecting their first child in November.

When they moved into their circa 1923 bungalow, they changed very little about the house. "That's what's so nice about this neighborhood," says Bentler, an intensive-care nurse at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. "Most of these houses have been redone so nicely."

From the charming breakfast nook with its built-in shelves and booth to the window-filled baby's room, the house is testimony to a time when even houses as small as this 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom one had wonderful architectural details.

"This is one of the smallest houses in the neighborhood and yet it still comes on a 7,500-square-foot lot," says Robin Bentler.

The backyard in has a modern touch--a hot tub--and old ones--a garden table and chairs under a large tree. There are also a stone lion fountains on a wall and a handcrafted birdhouse made by Robin Bentler that mimics their house.

"California bungalows like this are usually defined as small one- or 1 1/2-story houses with main rooms that flow together. There are prominent fireplaces, lots of wood trim, large windows, a porch and other indoor-outdoor features," says Elizabeth McMillian, author of "Casa California" (Rizzoli, $50, 1996) and "Living on the Water" (Rizzoli, $50, 1998).

Affordable to young couples, California bungalows' popularity spread across the country in the early part of this century.

The Bentlers' home is typical of an architectural revival between World War I and the Great Depression that captured the charm of the European countryside.

Michelle Bentler's English country garden, situated in front of Palladian windows and arched wall partitions, extends the British feel.

Inside the home, there's a comfortable mix of nostalgic and new, with the big screen TV and contemporary couches sitting comfortably next to antique pieces from Robin Bentler's family.

"The French and German etchings on the walls have been in my family for over 100 years," says Robin, an attorney with Beaudry Bentler & Associates in Santa Monica and Irvine.

Adding to Robin's collection are Michelle's finds. "Many of the things in the house are from estate sales and swap meets," she says. "My parents have a little antique shop on the East Coast, so I grew up with this look."

Another strong connection to the past is a framed 1911 receipt from Robin's great-grandparents wedding rings. "We were married on Oct. 9, 1993, wearing my maternal great-grandparents' wedding rings," he says. "About six months ago, my mother was going through boxes of materials from their estate and stumbled upon the receipt. The coincidence was that they were purchased on our anniversary. Framed, it makes a great little piece of art."

Michelle displays her antiques in creative ways. An antique tablecloth is used as a shower curtain, the dining room table is set with different patterns of Limoges china and a crystal chandelier hangs from a garden tree.

Together, the Bentlers have created an oasis for themselves in the heart of Santa Ana, but they are not alone. Young couples are moving into Floral Park houses.

"Over 50% of the houses I sell in the Floral Park area are to people under 35," says Sandy DeAngelis of Seven Gables Real Estate in Tustin, who added that small bungalows in the area are priced in the low $200,000 range. "There were eight babies born on Ross Street alone last year."

Says Michelle Bentler, "We have many things here that remind us of great days we have spent together. Even if we move [from this house], we'll stay in this neighborhood."

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