Before & After: A master architect passes the torch in Malibu
If you were bobbing in a boat just off the Malibu coastline and looked landward, among a row of lower-profile wood or stucco beach houses you might spot a gleaming white two-story building resembling a giant sugar cube.
The home might bring to mind a modern sculpture, blending massive exposed structural columns with the airiness of abundant glass and light. You might think a master architect designed the house — and you’d be right.
More than 40 years ago — while the home’s current owners, Christina and Larry Taylor, were living just up the beach — prominent real estate attorney Marshall McDaniel commissioned modernist Los Angeles architect Jerrold Lomax to design the house. Lomax had worked for another famed modernist, Craig Ellwood, and at 28 was his lead designer on the Hunt House, another Malibu beachfront jewel box, which the state nominated last year for the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1976, both Lomax and Ellwood were among a dozen noted modernists included in a landmark exhibit at the then-new Pacific Design Center; “LA12” also featured the works of architectural pillars such as Frank Gehry and John Lautner.
The 5,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, five-bathroom house that Lomax designed for McDaniel featured a massive skylight running from front to back, channeling light through a central stairwell and into the bedroom level, even with the street. One floor down was the living room, closer to the sand and surf. Decks overlooking the ocean spanned both floors.
After McDaniel died in 2008, the house came on the market. The Taylors, property developers by trade, had worked with Lomax on projects over the decades and were impressed with his designs.
But Larry Taylor said he and his wife “weren’t terribly interested” in the McDaniel house, considering it overpriced. He recalled that, during a prolonged disagreement among the heirs about selling the home, it sat virtually vacant for several years, slowly deteriorating in the harsh marine environment.
Eventually the Taylors saw an opportunity, and after negotiations that required a court settlement, they bought the house in 2012 intending to do a complete renovation.
Lomax, then in his 80s, had moved to the Monterey Peninsula and was still active in architecture. The couple sought him out and he agreed to work with them.
He wasn’t married to his original layout, the Taylors noted, and understood that a master suite or kitchen for this house in the 1970s was not good enough a half-century later. While the top level originally contained the master and other bedrooms, the new concept called for a spacious master suite and gym taking up the entire top floor, with guest rooms moved to the lower level.
Partway into the couple’s work with Lomax, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; at age 87, he declined treatment. He called his close friend and onetime protégé Zoltan E. Pali of SPF:architects in Culver City to ask if he could take over the redesign.
The two met when Pali applied for a job in 1992. He expected a polite refusal, but instead Lomax hired him and offered a salary higher than what Pali requested, saying it wasn’t enough.
“Gentleman” is the word used often by Pali and the Taylors when describing Lomax. It was his passion for simple, modern, unadorned, precise design — as well as his work ethic and kindness — that served as a role model for how Pali wanted to both live his life and work as an architect.
“Jerry and I had a close relationship,” Pali said. “As close as I could get with anyone.”
A few months later, Lomax passed away.
“Jerry died like he lived,” Pali said, his voice cracking, “as a gentleman.”
Pali, as it turned out, designed the Orum Residence, a striking propeller-shaped house on a Bel-Air hilltop that Larry Taylor had admired for years. As Pali and the Taylors moved forward on their renovation plans, they felt Lomax’s presence. For every decision, they agreed, “If Jerry wouldn’t approve of it, we didn’t do it,” Christina Taylor said.
Their plan took the building down to its structural elements, with all electrical, plumbing and HVAC replaced and brought up to current code. All windows and sliding doors would have thinner frames, unavailable in the 1970s. The original wood and granite kitchen would be expanded by pushing out a side wall, and glow with white Thermofoil cabinets, marble countertops, and a seven-burner Lacanche range from France.
The major improvement was replacing the original solid stairwell with a luminescent architectural one, composed of aluminum grilles with glass decking, glass stair treads and clear risers. The goal was to expand the natural light flooding the house from skylight to lower level.
Pali explained that beachfront houses — backing to a street and tight to neighbors — typically have light entering from only one direction, the ocean side. When light enters from a second direction, in this case from the sky, there’s less glare and the occupants feel better.
Construction began in 2016 and the couple moved in November 2019.
Both the architect and the owners believe they honored and improved upon Lomax’s original vision, with Christina Taylor saying, “He would be thrilled.”
After living in the house, the Taylors said they were struck by how happy they felt there, and how they didn’t want to leave. As Lomax once explained successful architecture to his protégé Pali: You don’t know why it feels good; it just does.