THE MOSAIC on the ceiling looks as old as the 1921 house. Actually, older. Griffins guard one side, twin phoenixes another. Grapevines coil across a trellis.
The motifs are ancient. But the artwork? Completed last month.
It took a house painter from Sierra Madre to propose the idea. The son of one of Mexico’s most prominent muralists to guide the execution. A researcher at the Boston Public Library to keep it historically accurate. And Pasadena homeowners with a passion for the past to commission it.
Standing underneath the 300-square-foot artwork, Andrea Moriarty offers this simple explanation: “My husband wanted something fabulous.”
Fabulous, and old. Rather than obliterate all signs of age, as is so often the goal in Southern California, Andrea Moriarty and husband Sean have taken their Spanish Revival further back in time, lending a sense of the past that goes beyond the structure’s actual years. Their house is proof that youth may reign in the entertainment world, but in the realm of home decor, the authentically aged -- or anything with a reasonably convincing patina of time -- can still command attention, not to mention top dollar.
For further evidence, one need only look at the latest offering from Mountain Lumber Co.: oak flooring made from century-old Guinness brewing vats and sold for $28.50 a square foot -- triple the price of the Virginia company’s other reclaimed wood, Vice President John Williams says. Yes, the scent of beer is gone, he adds. All that’s left is a distinctive color, grain and history.
Such examples help explain why sellers of old doors, windows, brick and the like have been so successful, with sales increasing about 45% since 2003, says Brad Guy, president of the nonprofit Building Materials Reuse Assn. He attributes the growing interest to homeowners’ environmental awareness, as well as to the rich appearance and novel provenance that can come with such architectural elements.
The Moriartys, like so many others who find comfort and beauty in the design of eras past, have moved beyond faux finishes and carefully selected antiques. Sean, a Ticketmaster executive, and Andrea, a former middle school math teacher who often begins sentences with “Do you know what’s interesting?” have literally built age into their home.
Since buying the property in 2001, they have added layers of history that befit a house with four Batchelder tile fireplaces. (“Do you know the story?” Andrea asks. “Batchelder was originally from Boston, but he made his success here selling tile to contractors.”)
And with each addition, the number of stories attached to the house has grown.
ONE windy night recently, Andrea was awakened by a banging board. In the morning, she noticed a panel on her bedroom wall had shifted, exposing a secret compartment. Inside were three sets of cremated ashes carefully wrapped in paper -- “like origami,” she says -- and labeled with names that she later traced back to relatives of previous owners.
Then there was the tower. One closet door led to outdoor stairs that climbed to a rooftop sleeping porch. “The story is the original owner had this tower built so he could escape from his sister-in-law, who lived at the house but was afraid of heights,” Andrea says.
To make the space look older, a once-flat roof was vaulted and covered in tongue-and-groove ash. Local carpenter Kelly Corcoran installed African ribbon mahogany beams with Craftsman-style flourishes and inlaid red padauk. Decorative painter Dan Gallagher applied metallic Venetian plaster to the walls and an original frieze near the ceiling.
Elsewhere in the house, the Moriartys installed period-correct tiles, wrought-iron light fixtures and old oak floor planks. But the most extensive project has been the library ceiling’s epic mosaic -- compelling partly because it’s not a mosaic at all, but rather acrylic paint brushed to look like 140,000 separate marble tiles.
Gallagher recalls Sean Moriarty’s original request: “He wanted something of a grand nature,” the painter says.
So he started by looking through photos of mosaics installed in the Library of Congress in the 1890s. That’s when Gallagher stumbled on a picture of a barrel-vaulted ceiling created around the same time for the Boston Public Library.
“I wanted to do something special for this family, something that talked about their love of books and life,” says Gallagher, who had become familiar with the Moriartys’ taste during seven years of painting the exterior and interior of the couple’s 5,500-square-foot house.
He also wanted the ceiling art to be something that would last and could be moved, so he bought a 20-by-22-foot canvas, the same kind used for stage and movie sets.
He asked Aaron Schmidt, who works in the Boston library’s research department, to send background information and close-up photos of his subject. Gallagher then sought advice from North Hollywood muralist Martin Charlot, son of Jean Charlot, a founding member of the Mexican mural renaissance in the 1920s and the man whom Diego Rivera credited for reviving and refining the fresco technique in that country.
Gallagher studied the Charlots’ work and learned the finer points of mural-making. (“A good mural stirs emotions as viewers move around it,” Martin Charlot says.) Without ever seeing the mosaic in person or drawing a plan, Gallagher says he started to paint “off of feel.”
He stretched out his canvas at artist Claire Ouimet’s Sun Valley studio. He laid down the border, shifted the location of some imagery, reduced a dozen theater masks to just four. For six months, he refined the mural with Ouimet and Evan LeGrande Wilson of La Crescenta. Gallagher kept thinking it would be finished in January, then February, then March.
“I got so emotionally wrapped up in the project,” he says, “that at one point, I said to myself, ‘You have a chance to hand over a cool piece, so just go to work.’ ”
Finally, however, it was time to stop.
At 7 a.m. on a cool April morning, installer Michael Baughman arrived in Sun Valley. He took the 75-pound canvas off the wall, rolled it and packed it carefully for the trip to Pasadena.
Once at the Moriartys’ house, Baughman erected a scaffold of sorts to support the canvas. He applied clay-based paste to the ceiling and pressed the painting into place, smoothing out air bubbles along the way. By 8 p.m., he was done.
Looking up at the finished piece, Andrea is smiling.
“Friends usually end up in the library because it’s unique and cozy,” she says, daughter Ella at her side. “People are attracted to intimate spaces. And do you know what’s interesting? This mural really gives this space more of a sense of history.”
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Rising costs for getting the look of the past
Some homeowners need to replace a single fireplace tile. Others may want an entire walkway made of old bricks. Both help to explain the growing market for vintage architectural elements. What’s hot today? Bruce Baker, owner of Silverlake Architectural Salvage, cites claw-foot tubs from 1890 to 1930 ($100 to $3,000), one- and five-panel mahogany and oak doors ($50 to $200) and crystal doorknobs ($25 to $100). A look at prices for other popular materials:
Jose Vera, owner of Jose Vera Fine Art & Antiques in Eagle Rock, says prices for common field tiles have remained relatively flat, but complete murals and other sets have appreciated about 20% in the last five years. A plain Batchelder tile may sell for $30, whereas an elaborate, 3 1/2 -foot-long Batchelder centerpiece can cost $3,500. His 156-tile, blue-and-orange mural by Hispano-Moresque is $15,000; a 1920 Mayan-themed set of 38 Calco tiles is also $15,000.
Bourget Bros. Building Materials in Santa Monica acquired 200,000 sand-molded bricks from a 1930s Riverside church. Paint remnants, nonuniform edges and the dated stamp of the Simons Brick Corp. of Corona make it Bourget Bros.’ most expensive brick -- $1.08 apiece, compared with 51 cents for a new machine-made brick.
Imported century-old Roman beige roof tiles cost $3.50 each at Farnese House Design in San Francisco. The price has doubled in three years because of limited supply, increased demand and the weakened dollar.
-- Janet Eastman