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A big, beautiful empty

Times Staff Writer

THOUGH he retired 16 years ago, Eugene Weston III still gets calls. Some are clients from decades past who tell the architect that his wood-and-glass houses have withstood earthquakes just fine. Others want Weston, one of the last surviving masters of 1950s post-and-beam construction in Southern California, to renovate and enlarge their midcentury homes. To the former, the 82-year-old says thanks. To the latter: Thanks, but no thanks.

Then there’s Scott Nadeau. In 2003, he purchased the Eagle Rock house that a young Weston designed in 1953 for Norman Bilderback, then a director of design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As a collector and dealer of 20th century decorative arts, Nadeau, 49, wanted to connect with the architect of his home but was reticent.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 09, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Eagle Rock home: An Aug. 31 Home section cover story about a house designed by Eugene Weston III identified Borge Mogensen as a Swedish designer. He is Danish. The article also made reference to sculpture by David Wilcox; the art should have been credited to David Wilkins.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 14, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Eagle Rock home: An Aug. 31 cover story about a house designed by Eugene Weston III identified Borge Mogensen as a Swedish designer. He is Danish. The story also made reference to sculpture by David Wilcox; the art should have been credited to David Wilkins.

“This gentleman probably thought I wanted to butcher his work,” Nadeau says. “Like, ‘Hey, I want to add on three bedrooms to this 1,480-square-foot house.’ ”

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Nadeau, an occasional house flipper, had finally flipped for a home that needed no improvement. He intended to keep it pretty much the way he had found it.

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“When the sun comes up and this amazing summer light comes through the windows on both sides of the living room, it’s like being in a treehouse,” he says. “I kept thinking about this 28-year-old designer, Eugene Weston. God, how smart is this guy?”

A year later, Nadeau summoned the courage to look up the architect in the phone book and call. By that time, he had become a Weston scholar and preservationist, archiving photographs and blueprints of the house and furnishing it in an appropriately minimal midcentury fashion.

Today, the two men are friends. Although Weston and his wife, Wanda, live in Santa Barbara, they have a neighborly regard for Nadeau, wife Joanna and son Clay, and together they have witnessed a modest rediscovery of Weston’s work among fans of midcentury architecture.

“Though a lot of them were small, the houses are still very livable,” Weston says. “I guess people finally realized this is a good thing.”

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GROWING up, Nadeau was unaware that he lived two blocks away from Weston’s Bilderback house, the architect’s only commission in Eagle Rock.

“When I was a kid riding my bike through here, I didn’t even think about what was a modern home,” Nadeau recalls. “I didn’t even remember it being there.”

One day more than 30 years later, Nadeau needed to have drapes hemmed and pressed for a house he was restoring. He remembered the dry cleaners his mother had used, and after dropping off the curtains, he took a spin past his former family house. Along the way he passed the Weston design, modest enough from the front but seductively sited on a hillside and distinguished by long, lean lines and vast picture windows. A “for sale” sign was out front.

“The first time I walked in, there was a Hans Wegner dining table, a Van Keppel and Green sofa and all this Architectural Pottery, all of it original, holy grail stuff,” Nadeau says. Based on the furnishings, he assumed the house would be out of his league.

“Two days later, I’m standing here making a deal for the pottery and all of a sudden I said, ‘I have to buy this house.’ ”

Nadeau made only a few changes. In the backyard, studded with succulents and mature oaks and olives, he replaced a bench suspended from a rock-retaining wall with redwood slats. He also paved a side patio in pebbles and cement to match the aggregate of an existing terrace.

Inside, Nadeau removed a closet in the entryway to make a niche for a George Nelson bench and replaced cork-covered walls with period-appropriate grass cloth paper. He kept the 50-year-old particle board and Masonite sliding doors, the original Formica kitchen counters and the cork-tiled floors, which run throughout the house and have weathered into intriguing geometric abstractions.

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“It still feels comfortable,” Weston says on a recent visit to the home, adding with a laugh, “I didn’t screw this one up.”

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A third-generation Californian and Los Angeles house builder, Weston attended what is now called the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena before becoming one of the many post-World War II industrial design graduates of the school who achieved distinction as an architect.

His materials, aesthetics and siting exemplify the contemporary design of the postwar era, says Keith York, an architectural historian and authority on Southern California modernism. “His designs are simple, elegant and to the scale of how many people desired to live, then and now,” he says.

Exploring the unification of indoor and outdoor spaces exhibited in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Japanese-influenced designs, Weston and classmate Douglas Byles became general contractors and built post-and-beam homes that were cost-effective, delivering small spaces with grand views.

According to Lester Walker’s “American Shelter,” post-and-beam construction, a method derived from heavy timber-framed buildings such as mills, became a popular means of building California ranch houses. The style exposed the structure’s skeleton by eliminating drop ceilings and attics and turning wooden uprights and crossbeams into distinctive architectural details.

From 1948 to 1955, new American homes were going up at the rate of a million a year, Walker says, and the informality and straightforwardness of post-and-beam ranch houses, a precursor to “contractor modern” subdivisions, represented a new era in the way people built and used their living spaces. “The street-oriented front porch of Victorian times was replaced by a private rear terrace,” Walker writes. “Private outdoor living was just as important as indoor.”

Weston and Byles built their first spec house in 1949 on a typical 45-by-100-foot lot in Pasadena. Back then, most of the houses were constructed along the front setback, Weston says, with a picture window and a driveway leading to a garage in the back.

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“The post-and-beam system works out better in a long, narrow rectangle,” Weston says. “So we turned the 16-foot-wide house sideways, used the rest of the lot for a terrace and put a carport in the front and a storage wall behind it that protected the patio from the street.”

The design was widely published in newspapers and magazines and sold for about $12,000.

“We were competing against ‘Cinderella houses,’ ” Weston says with disdain. “They were conventional tract houses with signature front doors that had a roof that swooped up on one side and almost touched the ground on the other side. Where they got ‘Cinderella,’ I’ll never know.”

By comparison, his houses were competitively priced models of efficiency and innovation. The L-shaped Bilderback house that Nadeau lives in is built around six horizontal beams that support the roof and extend past both ends of the house, allowing for a wide overhang. Long eaves keep the house shaded in the summer, and clerestory windows and sliding glass doors retain a connection to the outdoors.

“This house has so many different angles and combinations going on with such beautiful, simple materials,” Nadeau says.

Inside, the ceiling consists of 2-by-3-inch lengths of ease-edged wood. Closets form walls for a dining nook in the main living space. The opening of the brick fireplace is raised almost 2 feet because “it just made sense to have it closer to eye level,” Weston says. A cantilevered slab of concrete extends out as a seat. The pass-through kitchen sports suspended cabinets with visible screws and washers.

“Eames was doing something like that,” Weston says. “I stole it from him. I think the statute of limitations is probably over now.”

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WESTON also used materials that were inexpensive, durable and abundant during the 1950s, such as cork floor tiles, Douglas fir beams and sheet redwood for wall surfaces.

“Everybody is talking about green design these days,” says Wanda Weston, who decorated many of her husband’s homes. “My God, that’s what we were doing.”

Back then, of course, Weston had no idea that his problem-solving ideas would seem so progressive today. The flow of his houses predated the feng shui craze, and his lightweight indoor-outdoor furniture designs could easily have been mass-marketed.

“We were just young kids doing what we thought was right,” Weston says.

Norman and Gloria Bilderback apparently took great care of the space, which consists of a main room, a master bedroom, guest room and two baths.

“They were gentle with this house,” Weston says. “They didn’t have kids and that makes a hell of a big difference.”

Indeed, the mustard yellow paint on a closet door in the dining room is original. A trio of pendant lights designed by Bilderback -- he was “a tinkerer,” Nadeau says -- still hangs above the dining room set by Swedish designer Borge Mogensen. “He made these out of aerosol cans and soup tins and painted them black.”

The Bilderbacks passed away in 2003 but left the house in good hands. “I swear that Norman wouldn’t die until he knew that he had the perfect person to own this house he loved so much,” Wanda Weston says. “I don’t think he would have sold it to just anybody.”

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LIVING in the house with Joanna and Clay, 8, has changed Nadeau’s nesting habits. “I used to restore houses like I restored motorcycles,” he says. “I’d fix up a bike, take my wife for a ride through Griffith Park and sell it in the Recycler.” Now, he says, “I don’t have things; I just have this house, and it’s something to put that energy into. It’s an heirloom.”

Historian York says Nadeau isn’t alone.

“For preservationists, homes by Weston and his contemporaries are rarer with each passing year,” York says, adding that the intrinsic value of the architecture is simply incalculable to many.

The Bilderbacks’ relatives understood the house’s true worth too. When they realized that Nadeau was to become the custodian of a design vision, they gave him furniture that was original to the house, including a prized Wegner paddle-arm chair.

The friendship between Nadeau and Weston has blossomed into a business relationship. As owner of the Silver Lake design gallery Ten 10, Nadeau is reissuing Weston’s 1950 Good Design Group, a suite of outdoor furniture. Prototypes of those designs stand on Nadeau’s back patio, next to the Stow-and-Go, a steel barbecue grill Nadeau designed that also serves as an outdoor space heater. They’re joined by a table and stools by L.A. designer Miller Fong. A contemporary curtain handmade from clay rectangles by Northern California ceramicist Stan Bitters hangs nearby.

“That is the first thing I put in the house,” Nadeau says. “It just seemed so logical. And in the slightest wind at night, that thing will make the most beautiful sound.”

Inside, the anti-clutter Nadeau designed simple platforms for the beds, which are covered in Scandinavian and Western spreads. A tansu chest serves as a nightstand in the master. In Clay’s room, Japanese kites flank the bed and an Eames rocker occupies a corner.

A Calder-esque mobile and a large sculpture by L.A. artists David Wilcox, David Cressey and Ernesto Gonzalez Jerrez dominate the living room, which also has a Saarinen womb chair in black wool and a couch Nadeau designed.

“It’s the fifth one I’ve tried here,” he admits. “The house has a very strong editing hand. We’ve had a lot of furniture over many years, and the house tells me that it wants very certain simple things. Sometimes I’ll put it something in the van and start to drive home and before I turn off Colorado Boulevard, I can hear the house is saying, don’t even bring it in.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The landmarks of Generation W

The man behind Scott Nadeau’s Eagle Rock house was a third-generation L.A. architect. The Weston family and some of their work:

Eugene Weston (1861-1934): At the end of the 1800s, he opened the Weston Building Co. in Los Angeles. The firm built stone foundation bungalows in the city and in then-outlying locales such as Eagle Rock and Pasadena.

His sons: Eugene Jr. (1896-1969) and Joseph Weston (1893-1963) opened a firm, Weston and Weston, in the early 1920s. Among their first big commissions were the American Legion Hall (2035 N. Highland Ave. in L.A.) and the North Hollywood Regional Branch Library (5211 N. Tujunga Ave., North Hollywood), a Spanish Colonial Revival. The brothers later opened a factory to build pre-fab wooden houses.

His grandson: Eugene Weston III teamed with Douglas Byles, becoming a general contractor, and built post-and-beam houses. Their spec house in the 1600 block of Kenneth Way in Pasadena was a success. Later, Weston was a partner at Liebhardt Weston and Associates of San Diego, whose portfolio included the San Diego Yacht Club clubhouse, the Sea Lodge in La Jolla and buildings at the San Diego Zoo, UC San Diego and San Diego State University.

-- David A. Keeps

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David A. Keeps can be reached at david.keeps@latimes.com.


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