Keeping an eye on the city

Times Staff Writer

WHEN Morgan Lyons and Martha Harris refer to themselves as “city people,” which they frequently do, they aren’t speaking abstractly about L.A. They’re talking specifically of its urban core, the downtown district where they’ve lived since 1988, when they left their Pasadena home for a condo at 9th and Flower streets.

They were urban adventurers, believers in downtown even then, when the area was still pretty gritty. But the couple envisioned a soon-to-come hub that would rival Paris or New York: a place where shimmering clusters of corporate towers would be matched by equal numbers of elegant high-rise homes anchored by upscale boutiques, sidewalk cafes, locals pushing prams and walking dogs.

It didn’t happen quite that way. Or that soon.

From the front windows of that first, 1,200-square-foot condo, the couple watched the beginnings of downtown’s rebirth. Even now, Lyons proudly ticks off the list of buildings they saw rise: “The high-rises along Figueroa, the Renaissance Towers, the Metropolitan apartments. The Fashion Institute, up until Staples Center in 1999. Somewhere along the way, in the mid-'90s, it all sort of stopped,” he says.


The lull didn’t shake their faith. They were already hooked on a freeway-free life filled with nearby cultural and gastronomic delights, still a secret to most of stolidly suburban L.A.

When Harris, 59, and Lyons, 64, heard of the South Park community planned around 11th Street and Grand Avenue -- five residential towers with parks, restaurants, shops and pedestrian paths -- they’d lived in their old place 18 years and were ready to take another leap. But before signing the purchase agreement for a top-floor penthouse in the first of those new buildings, they consulted with Team HC, interior designer Hannah Lee and her husband, architect Clarence Chiang Jr.

Harris and Lyons wanted to explore design ideas for the space that would be so unlike any they had ever owned. All exterior walls would be floor-to-ceiling glass, leaving little wall area for traditional furniture placement.

The couple, married 28 years, moved into their new digs seven months ago with their two cats. Now it’s just a three-block walk to Lyons’ office (he’s president of Lodestar Management/Research Inc.), and a two-mile drive to Harris’ work as senior vice president of university relations at USC.

Their new 3,100-square-foot home has two master bedroom suites, four baths, bamboo floors, 11-foot-high ceilings, and all those walls of glass. The public space is one huge, undivided area that includes living room, dining room and kitchen.

Harris and Lyons kept everything personal they loved, but gave away the furniture, leaving Lee and Chiang to start from scratch. Both couples agreed that the downtown skyline would be the star of the decor; furniture would be a supporting player.

The design team came up with a color scheme of beiges and browns with occasional spikes of color for wood and upholstered pieces designed with quiet, contemporary flair.

The main seating area, in front of the fireplace, includes a massive beige L-shaped sectional, a burgundy chaise and a beige, upholstered side chair. All sit on a custom-designed area rug of beige with burgundy detail.

“We kept it simple, so as not to compete with the dynamic setting,” Lee says. The dining table, side tables and a carved screen are espresso-tinted oak, all designed and manufactured in China by Lee and Chiang, who divide their time between Hong Kong and L.A., where they first hit the spotlight when they designed interiors for the renovated Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

To bring the kitchen into sync with the rest of the open space, Lee stained the original blond wood cabinets espresso brown, and built what she calls an “appliance garage.” It has aluminum roll-up doors that handsomely convert what had been a wet bar into a port for a coffee maker, toaster and other appliances, as well as shelves for china.

The master bedroom suites had walls but no doors. Harris and Lyons wanted a bit more privacy for themselves and potential guests. So Lee and Chiang designed and built what they call sliding barn doors: massive ash wood panels with a distressed finish and a black, galvanized-steel edge. Their rustic simplicity blends perfectly with the other textures -- concrete, wood, glass, steel -- throughout the apartment.

Even the cats have a new kind of privacy. A cat door in the unit’s large laundry room leads the felines into a small enclosed bathroom of their own, a kind of closet with louvered door built into, but completely hidden from, one of the humans’ bathrooms.

BOTH owners say one of the biggest differences between the old condo and the new is their expanded city (and sky) views.

“It’s remarkable, and it changes by the hour. We can see South Park and the downtown skyline continue to build out. We can see the mountains, people walking their dogs, or going to and from Staples. We love downtown so much. And now we have this huge view of it all, and can see almost everything being built,” Harris says.

She has long been a fan of local artists. The couple’s walls are filled with works that depict L.A., including photos by Julius Shulman, purchased from the photographer in the 1980s. Panoramic photo views of the city are by Pete Jackson, and a pastel by Nancy Popenoe shows an L.A. skyline with the bright red “Jesus Saves” sign, which Lyons and Harris can actually see in the distance from their windows.

Glass doors open onto the broad balcony that wraps around the entire apartment and provides a kind of observation post from which to scan the ever-expanding cityscape. Indeed, the sky is dotted at that very moment with huge crayon-colored cranes at construction sites near and far, one of them right outside their bedroom window. “That’s L.A. Live over there,” Harris says, pointing across the street to where a $2-billion complex of apartments, restaurants, theaters and 1,100 hotel rooms is rising adjacent to Staples Center. “And more condos going up there and there,” she says pointing east and north. “The ambience is so much livelier and vibrant now than even just two years ago.... The energy is amazing.”

Yes, but what about the apartment itself? Lyons answers with a chuckle: “We love it, of course. But we still spend most of our time in that area,” he says, pointing to the only room in the house with no windows: an entry foyer, which they’ve lined with bookcases and turned into a TV room and den.