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Old in the new

Lisa Little was working toward her master’s at the Southern California Institute of Architecture when she and husband Phil Brennan bought a tiny lot in Venice with two tiny houses on it: an 850-square-foot bungalow built in 1905 and a 450-square-foot rental built in 1912.

Today, eight years later, you can’t miss the main house, now painted an acid green trimmed in dark charcoal. But you do have to look closely to notice how the couple creatively turned two houses into one, incorporating the original covered porch, bungalow windows and corbel-accented roofline into a thoroughly modernized residence with a new garage and an office for the now-licensed architect.

For so many Southern Californians, it’s a familiar challenge: respecting the past while living in the present. Little and Brennan’s task was complicated by a lot that was only 2,640 square feet. Fittingly, they gave their colorful solution a colorful name: the Chartreuse House.

“I’m obsessed with this color,” says Little, a partner in her home-based firm Layer with Emily White. “It’s not a color I see on houses in general, but I find it compelling.”

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For Little and Brennan, the question wasn’t just what color to paint the house but how to retain the 1905 Craftsman’s intimate scale while increasing its interior volume.

“We needed more space than the home’s original 850 square feet, and yet I didn’t want to change the character of the facade,” Little says.

The answer came in preserving the first 15 feet behind the front door, the part of the house most visible from the couple’s Venice walk-street. Beyond that, a modern, loft-like addition rises two stories high, the pitched roofline echoing the original single-story exterior.

“Because the two-story portion is set back from the walk-street, it feels more like the original one-story Craftsman,” Little says.

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The contractor, Rod Paavola, maintained the Craftsman language of the facade while allowing Little and Brennan to make the new 1,950-square-foot interior a thoroughly modern space. Inside the front door, the light-filled environment has been fitted with industrial materials and contemporary finishes, all tied in spirit to the architecture through finely crafted details.

Brennan, a visual effects supervisor, and Little, a former software engineer, called in Victoria Yust and Ian McIlvaine of Tierra Sol y Mar, a Venice architectural firm, to join them as a design team. Yust and McIlvaine’s mission: help the couple brainstorm ways to maximize interior space without changing the home’s presence on the street.

“We could easily have built quite a bit more, but none of us wanted to,” says Yust, who still finds it “amazing” that Little was in architecture school while the house was under construction. “The idea was to create a space that feels larger than it is.”

As part of that goal, the living room, kitchen and dining room were given French doors opening onto a small courtyard with flexible seating and an outdoor fireplace and grill. “This enables us to use it as a multipurpose room for entertaining,” Little says.

She collaborated with SB Garden Design of Los Angeles on the courtyard’s layout and plantings, including a Corten steel vertical garden and a slender gingko tree whose bright green foliage provides more privacy (and speaks to Little’s color obsession).

Spaces unfold smartly inside too. Just inside the front door, a guest bedroom can double as a quiet conversation area during parties. When the couple wants a stronger connection between that room and the living area, they simply roll open a large sliding wall made of steel and opaque glass.

Little and Brennan wanted to do as much interior renovation work as possible themselves. In the kitchen, they combined tomato-red IKEA cabinets with custom stainless countertops to striking effect. They achieved similar results creating the living room’s central feature: a beautifully minimalist gas and wood fireplace that’s actually an off-the-shelf unit wrapped in drywall and painted white.

“It’s about as simple as it could be,” Little says.

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Throughout the new-old house, the bare bones serve as decoration: steel framing, exposed ceiling joists on the first floor, a custom fabricated single-stringer staircase with cantilevered cherry treads. Combined with hand-wrought finishes such as the slatted-fir ceiling on the second floor, the industrial elements help to convey the spirit of the 1905 original.

“The level of detail is reminiscent of Craftsman architecture but completely modern in its execution,” Yust says.

The interior space is bright, thanks to several pairs of skylights, plus industrial-style, tilt-out hopper windows over the kitchen sink and sections of clear glass inserted in a catwalk leading to the second-level master suite. The bedroom has more skylights and a set of French doors leading to an L-shaped balcony, which overlooks the courtyard and connects to a studio above the garage -- “my commute,” Little says.

Although it is partially open to the living room below, the master suite feels separate from the rest of the house. “Part of that is achieved by the way the second story is stepped back from the street,” she says. “The catwalk provides a buffer, and the windows are carefully placed for privacy.”

The glass-walled bathroom has a walk-in shower; the toilet is behind a sliding door. Japanese tansu-style drawers made of birch plywood double as steps to an ipe-wood-wrapped bathtub on the mezzanine above, tucked in the peak of the roofline.

“I really wanted a bathtub and I wanted to place it in a separate loft space,” Little says. “I envisioned a bathing area totally removed from the house. It is the only thing in the loft, and you are completely isolated when you are in that space.” A square window at the apex of the ceiling provides one more peekaboo view: palm trees.

As luxurious as a bathing loft might sound, the newly revamped house was not without challenges when it came to some basics, including parking. Little says other prospective buyers passed on the property because it lacked a garage. “A big part of the renovation involved looking for a solution,” she says.

It took two years to get permits to tear down the smaller house and construct a two-car garage with an architecture studio upstairs, all connected to the main house via a first-floor breezeway and the second-floor balcony. The results were worth the wait: Clerestory windows wrap three sides, flooding the studio with light. Library ladders provide access to tall bookcases as well as a storage loft. An outside staircase leads to a roof deck, which boasts 360-degree views of the beach and the city.

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The bungalow’s chartreuse exterior is made of environmentally friendly fiber-cement boards, replacements to the century-old redwood siding. At a certain point in the courtyard, those chartreuse boards meet the new studio’s corrugated metal, installed horizontally so the buildings’ lines are in sync. It’s a nice moment of rhythm -- two bits of the present, playing notes of the past.

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home@latimes.com


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