Mystic Pyramid Presents Practical Problems


As they say in real estate, Catherine Gallagher has pride of ownership. Her glass pyramid house is a 3,000-square-foot, New Age landmark perched on a mountainside in Sierra Madre.

"It's fabulous," she says. "It's unbelievable."

Sunlight fills the interior. The dimensions and celestial alignment are identical, she says, to those of Egypt's Great Pyramid of Cheops. Creative touches include a wrought-iron spiral stairway salvaged from a London sewer and a round front door that resembles an oversized wagon wheel. It covers an 8-foot portal and opens by being rolled out of the way.

"As far as I know," says Gallagher, who paid $450,000 for the home in 1991, "it's the only all-glass pyramid in the world that's a residence."

The only problem is: She isn't quite sure what to do with it.

Gallagher is 70, plagued by back problems and slowed by a mild stroke. The pyramid, built on five levels, is such a challenge to navigate that she leaves it to three Abyssinian cats--they have the run of the place--while living in the adjacent garage.

The pyramid's carpeting is streaked with stains. The couches and dining room chairs are cloaked in protective fabric. Gallagher believes that the pyramid should be something more than a spectacular cat house, but there are design problems to overcome, things the original builders failed to address when they constructed the oddity in 1972.

For example, that front door: It is so heavy that Gallagher can't open it. The original plan was to install a motor, but it never happened. Over time, the door has fallen out of alignment, making it harder to roll. Gallagher isn't sure how to go about fixing it.

"This is where we need some experts, people who would know how to tackle that kind of thing," she says. "It's not the ordinary kind of repair job."

There's also the matter of climate control. Although the glass is partially mirrored, the pyramid heats up in the summer like a jungle greenhouse.

Air-conditioning ducts along the base of the pyramid blow in cool air, but none of it wafts to the upper levels. The system is so flawed that Gallagher ignores the air conditioner altogether. For cooling she relies on an almost equally imperfect mechanism--four outdoor sprinklers mounted at the pyramid's apex. They send a cascade of water down the glass, lowering indoor temperatures while adding a pleasant visual effect.

"In five or 10 minutes you can feel the difference," Gallagher says. But, alas, the flow at the 40-foot-high apex is not enough to coat the entire exterior.

"There probably needs to be a series [of sprinklers] around the apex," she says, "so the water flows down evenly."

Worse yet, the system is not equipped to handle water softeners. Any time Gallagher turns it on--rarely, if she can help it--the glass spots up like a crystal goblet.

"It's a terrific problem to then go and clean it," she says.

Headaches are part of life in extremely unconventional homes. One reason there are so few pyramids, treehouses and the like is the inevitable inconvenience they cause, architect Charles Brown says.

"It's a totally, completely different lifestyle you have to adapt to," says Brown, noted for designing Solar Terra, a home on the outskirts of Riverside built almost completely underground. "Most people ... want 72 degrees all the time. We want instant cool, instant heat. With these types of structures, you might have to put a sweater on."

Such homes are not only a pain to inhabit, they are also a nightmare to sell. Ron Schuster, the longtime real estate agent who handled Gallagher's purchase of the pyramid, compares it to the Skinny House, a well-known landmark in Long Beach that is three stories tall but less than 10 feet wide. That home is again on the market--and has been for months.

Each is so bizarre that one cannot possibly interest the typical home buyer, says Schuster.

"You have to be a special person to want to be there," he says. "You have to be in love with pyramids, in this case."

Gallagher is just that. She saw a sales ad in 1990 after the pyramid's original owners filed for divorce. Her initial reaction--"It's me!"--pushed aside more practical concerns, including a floor plan that is eccentric, at best.

The uppermost floor, at the apex, is all but unusable--a round plywood platform scarcely 10 feet in diameter. This "office" is accessible only by climbing a wooden ladder from the bedroom beneath it. The bedroom, in turn, rests atop a cylindrical kitchen fitted with semicircular black shelves.

The kitchen occupies the center of the pyramid at ground level. Extending to one side are sitting and dining areas commanding spectacular views of Sierra Madre, Pasadena and Arcadia below. To the other side is a deeply sunken den with an arch-shaped fireplace and space for a Jacuzzi, though one was never installed.

Down another flight of stairs is a basement lighted by fluorescent tubes and skylights--the only place suitably large and private enough for a master bedroom, according to Schuster.

Gallagher, a consultant to Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services, has scattered vases of cactus and succulent plants along the sitting area and completed significant amounts of new landscaping. She has hired a handyman, Micah McManus, and begun calling experts to advise her on potential uses of the home.

"Somebody said, 'You could make that a fantastic ... bed-and-breakfast,' " she says. Another idea is an art gallery. Or a corporate headquarters. "The pyramid would be a tremendous logo," Gallagher says.

McManus, who is 27 and instrumental in Gallagher's planning, envisions an expansion of the exterior sprinkler system, to make it the city's greatest fountain.

Gallagher believes that the pyramid's mystical energy may provide the appropriate guidance.

"There very definitely does seem to be some sort of psychic power in the pyramid," she says, citing times when a money problem or other crisis involving the house was solved by an unexpected visitor or phone call. "In the pyramid, I've been able to think more clearly. The pyramid seems to know that I am working on it."

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Friday February 1, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction Pyramid house--A hillside home in Sierra Madre was constructed in proportion with the Great Pyramid of Cheops, but its dimensions are not identical, as was reported in the Jan. 10 Surroundings column in the California section.
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