A new vision of the classics

Times Staff Writer

LATE on a Thursday night, guests are streaming into Xorin Balbes' quasi-Mayan-style mansion, an otherworldly apparition that looms over Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz. Inside the sculptural front gates, guests ascend a narrow, tomb-like staircase to reach the living quarters. The stone stillness of an Indian goddess sculpture sets the tone at the first turn, and another similar sculpture does the same at the top landing. Silently, they give notice that this is not an ordinary place.

"It's great, isn't it? Isn't it great?" Balbes asks a visitor entering the house for the first time. Unabashed in his enthusiasm, he bubbles over with pride for this architectural treasure, virtually every inch of which he has infused with new life.

Known formally as the Sowden House for its original owners -- artist John Sowden and his wife, Ruth -- it was built in 1926 by Lloyd Wright, son and artistic heir to Frank Lloyd Wright, and is considered one of his most important works. When Balbes bought the house just over a year ago, he paid $1.2 million for what he calls "a wreck." Yet in seven months of frantic labor, he and his crew restored all the stonework, opened up the kitchen from three tight rooms into one large modern space, added new upscale bathrooms, created a pool and spa in the central court and, along the way, spent $1.6 million.

Balbes did all this on an impulse after falling in love with Wright's eccentric architectural forms, which reminded him of a temple he encountered in Edfu on a spiritual journey through Egypt.

"When I walked into this house, I didn't move," he remembers. "I said, 'I have to buy this house.' I turned around and walked out and got my checkbook. There's some connection for me."

With his ability to juggle many different projects simultaneously and to get things done quickly, Balbes has made a lucrative business of fixing up and turning over residences in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Montecito -- about 20 in the past six years. Some he has called home, albeit briefly; others were just business projects. In each case he applies his self-taught flair for high-end, flamboyant design while collaborating with others more expert in architecture and restoration, including, on his two most recent projects, architect Paul Ashley.

For Balbes, everything is simultaneously nuts-and-bolts and cosmic. He spends big money on major properties but talks constantly about spirituality and heart. His design philosophy is quirky, if successful: "I look to see where the energy is stagnant or there is no flow, to open it up, to create energy and flow and movement. So that life actually gets into all the corners of the space."

Some preservationists argue that he's been too liberal in his changes to an architectural gem like the Sowden House, but Balbes tosses off the criticism with a polite shrug. "I can respect them," he says, "but nobody else is stepping up to the plate to buy this property."

Since he moved into the house in April, it has been the site of constant public events, and has provided entree to a new, very public life for Balbes, who is extremely outgoing, openly gay and who laughingly says without being asked that he's looking for a partner. He has already hosted about 15 parties there, many of them charitable events for which he paid all or most of the costs, among them fund-raisers for Project Angel Food, the Los Angeles Conservancy, L.A. Youth Network and the Los Angeles Police Foundation. He's also rented it for special events.

This penchant for opening his home to hundreds of the rich and famous to benefit the needy could be seen as shrewd even while it is generous. Balbes has gotten a great deal of notice for the house from these parties, and the fact that he decided to put the house on the market at $4.4 million in late December, after living there for less than a year, is consistent with his pattern of moving quickly from project to project, at a profit.

A restless energy

Xorin was not always his first name. Randy Balbes was born in 1957, grew up in Michigan and, at 20, moved to Los Angeles, where he started a company that manufactured belts. Five years later he sold the business and took off for Paris. He then moved back to Michigan to work in the family window covering business, House of Blinds, but as the business grew, he became restless, and sold his holdings to his brothers. In 1987, Balbes moved back to Los Angeles, determined never to work again. He did a lot of volunteer work instead, including cooking for Project Angel Food, which delivers food to people with AIDS-related illnesses, and to which he still has strong ties.

In 1996 Balbes took a trip to Egypt and Africa that was supposed to last three weeks and ended up lasting more than three months. His journey from Egypt to Israel, Jordan, Kenya and Ethiopia resulted in "the most profoundly religious experience," he says. He came away a changed man.

He says he took the name Xorin after being told to do so in the middle of the night in a dream. "There was this voice that was so loud, and it said, 'Your name is Xorin, and it holds the vibration of your soul. So as you use it and others use it, so shall the inside of you and the outside of you begin to merge and become one.' To me it was an important message, and it was something that was so clear that I thought, how could I not do it?"

When Balbes tells these stories, eyes wide with amazement, they don't really seem far-fetched. Certainly, his sense of a higher force has given him a positive outlook that has empowered him to be decisive.

"It's not that I'm doing it so fast," he says of his extensive yet speedy renovation projects. "I feel like it's coming fast. It's different. To me, there's a whole spirituality in the process of creation. The other thing is, I also have the ability to orchestrate on many different levels, like putting in a pool and doing landscaping at the same time that I'm just beginning demolition. I think it's gotten better the clearer that I'm becoming. Which also took a lot of therapy!"

Partying amid grandeur

On a late-December night, a deejay is spinning R&B; and blues records in the Sowden House's expansive living room while the guest of honor, actress-comedienne Aisha Tyler, who just signed a book deal, mixes with the hundred or so other guests. Balbes is in the crowd too, laughing his big laugh. The scene is noisy and fun, but above and below the din there's a hush. Nothing can quite compete with the oversized grandeur of the architecture and its temple-like forms.

Wright designed the house as a rectangle: All the rooms open onto a long central courtyard that was once a lawn but today serves mostly as a pool area. The soothing sound of water spilling out of a small pool into the larger swimming pool lilts through the air, and at night the water is illuminated by a changing rainbow of lights. The sparkle of sculptural torches and the glow of a fiery outdoor hearth create a primeval effect.

At the north end of the house, Balbes' bedroom -- which for the Sowdens served as a studio and stage -- is raised up and overlooks the central court, with the cascading Hollywood Hills as backdrop. Large windows and the openness of the indoor-outdoor space give the 6,000-square-foot house enormous impact, and as guests wander through they point one another to the bathroom as one of the best rooms to see. There, a large metal tub serves as a central sculptural element, with all the other necessary fixtures tucked discreetly into glass encasements at the periphery. Just beyond, floor to ceiling sliding doors open onto a small outdoor foyer with a koi pond, seating and another fiery hearth.

Balbes' father, Henry Balbes, stands in the library, chatting with guests. A retired general contractor, he's a regular visitor, and he mentions that when his son first showed him the house, before construction began, he said, "Randy, what are you doing?"

Skepticism over changes

Not everyone is as enthused as Balbes and his many guests about his makeover of the Sowden House. Eric Lloyd Wright, son of the architect and a resident of Malibu, saw the house at an event. He praises the new kitchen and improved landscaping, but says it was a "mistake putting in the swimming pool and spa." The home, he explains, was created with a "stage" -- now Balbes' bedroom -- with the lawn used for seating during performances. Now this courtyard space is broken up. "It's a mixed bag," Wright says of Balbes' changes, "but most of the work he did is very good."

Dana Hutt, an architectural historian who has written on Lloyd Wright, goes further in her criticism. "I think it's one of Lloyd Wright's most important buildings," she says, and while she's happy that it was restored, she objects to the pool, the new bathroom and the refinement of the entry staircase. The sculptures suggest an Asian feel that Hutt calls "completely wrong" for Wright's design, which she refers to as a mix of Southwestern and Mesoamerican. However, the new open kitchen, a radical change as well, is not a problem, she believes, because it is more usable, and she appreciates the fact that the concrete tiles are now stabilized.

Part of the problem, as Hutt sees it, is the question of Balbes' commitment. "He has a history of renovating and moving on," she says.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, is more generous toward Balbes, who in addition to hosting a benefit party for the conservancy also recently donated easement rights for the Sowden House to the organization, restricting changes to the building's facade in perpetuity. "When we look at a house, we look at what makes it a significant historic house," Dishman says. Here, maintenance of the facade was key, as well as the stonework in the living room and courtyard, all of which has been preserved. "He fell in love with this house," Dishman says, "and that speaks to the ability of houses to reach out and touch someone."

What used to be known as the "Jaws House" because of its gaping, open-mouthed front is now a livable space. The updates, she says, add to the argument that such houses can make good homes.

"We need to create more of an ethic and desire for living in these historic houses," she says. "What he has done makes historic houses competitive with modern ones."

Updating Talmadge home

Balbes' current obsession is a 1926 hilltop residence, also in Los Feliz, that was once home to silent film star Norma Talmadge, and later to such notables as Jimi Hendrix, Ralph Bellamy and Rod McKuen. Even as a torn-up construction site, the Talmadge House -- a 13,000-square-foot mishmash of Italianate styles with a big dash of Hollywood glamour mixed in -- is far more extravagant than the architecturally ambitious Sowden residence.

"This house is all about the ceilings," Balbes says. From the first step into the foyer, the eye rises to a decoupage of reproductions of great paintings -- Goya, Gainsborough, Michelangelo, Leonardo, each one more recognizable than the last. A plaster ceiling with relief images of a Roman chariot race hovers above the library, making the Renaissance-style simple wood slats in the ballroom seem subdued by comparison. One guest bedroom has a series of painted vignettes circling a night sky.

The rooms themselves are grand, too. The ballroom and solarium -- with spectacular 180-degree views of the city to the south and the mountains to the north -- are spacious enough to truly deserve their names. Decorative cupids are everywhere, cast in the solarium's plaster ceilings and painted on the walls. A huge hearth topped with two resting lions completes one end of the ballroom.

One can only imagine the parties that Balbes will host here -- and indeed, although construction is slated to be done next week, events are already planned for February and throughout the spring. A fund-raiser for Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, featuring a screening of a newly restored copy of Norma Talmadge's "Secrets," is expected to bring in up to 1,000 guests. On a recent day, a group from Wolfgang Puck's event-planning offices was trolling the grounds for possibilities. The furnishings are still a work in progress. A day after buying a selection of rugs at an auction at Butterfields, Balbes points to an eight-panel screen, of uncertain origin, that he also recently purchased. "I know this is completely over the top, but I had to get it," he chuckles. He bought all the lighting fixtures -- including a vast number of chandeliers in a variety of styles -- in one day. He's also adding some new structural and decorative elements, including a rooftop terrace, a trickling stream and multiple outdoor fountains.

The move to the Talmadge House is a big one for Balbes, and this time he wasn't quick to make it.

He had the house informally on the market for a while, waffling as to whether he would stay in the Sowden House instead. But as construction has neared completion, he has been visualizing himself living there.

"I think we all have our own journey, our own path in life," he says. "The early part of my life was so painful, emotionally -- growing up in Michigan and knowing that you're gay is not an easy feat. Coming through that and being able to have fun and play and create -- really, I feel like what I create is a fantasy of what a home is supposed to be like, to transport you to someplace outside of yourself so you can open up and hear different things."

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