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Before and After: Saving a stylish Midcentury from an ugly ‘80s aesthetic

Before and After: Saving a stylish Midcentury from an ugly ‘80s aesthetic
Built in 1960, the chic Midcentury estate offers gallery-white walls, bamboo floors and clerestory windows across 2,300 square feet. (Phil Coombes / Paul Sommers)

Cinematographer Paul Sommers recalled high stakes and pouring rain as he sped to La Cañada Flintridge from Warner Bros. Studio on a lunch break in 2005.

He and his wife, Julie, a film production manager, had twin daughters about to enter first grade, and they needed a peaceful family home in the suburban city’s school district. Their agent told them this Midcentury ranch had everything they wanted, but the seller was reviewing offers the next day.

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If the bones were right, they planned to pull the trigger. Despite some brutal flourishes from the ’70s and ’80s, the couple liked what they saw in the A-frame estate, and their offer of $880,000 beat out the pack.

With Paul on a 60-day work break, the couple moved fast on renovations, ordering all the windows and booking the plumber and electrician before the sale even closed. “It looked like a film set,” Julie said. “We ran it like we were starting a TV show.”

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The previous owner left them plenty to do. His name was Val Grayson — a big band leader with a colorful personality and a soft spot for awkward interior decorating.

After buying the house newly built in the ’60s, he remodeled it two decades later with all the trappings of the time: green shag carpets, dark oak cabinetry and wood-paneled walls that Paul described as “like a rec room in a basement.” In the living room, Grayson tossed an oak mantel over the stone fireplace and threw in a wooden ship’s wheel.

The Sommerses quickly swapped out shag with bamboo and wood panels with crisp white paint. They kept the stone fireplace but trashed the mantel and wheel. Going for a gallery vibe, they strung adjustable wire throughout the living spaces to uniformly display their collected art and photography.

Caesarstone countertops and fresh tile went into the kitchen, and the bathrooms were touched up with slant-front vanities.

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The six-week rehab also saw them install Milgard windows for efficiency and maple solid-core doors for a more personal reason.

“When you have kids, hollow-core doors will end up with a foot-hole or fist-hole,” Julie said. “Solid-core doors are more substantial and solved that problem.”

The roughly 2,300-square-foot house was built in 1960 by architect Webster Wiley, who constructed about 225 of them from 1958 to 1965. It wasn’t one of a kind, but Paul said the tract home made things much easier since every wall, window and measurement was standard size.

They liked the tongue-and-groove ceilings, but the Douglas Fir beams felt overbearing and ate up light from the clerestory windows. For a lighter feel, they stripped the shellac, which was turning green, and painted the beams glossy white to match the walls.

Their favorite renovations, however, came outdoors. For more sun, they axed an aluminum shade structure and brick hot tub that didn’t quite match the vibe, opting instead for a simple dining area.

Plenty of work went into the front courtyard, which started as a sweaty, cement-covered space devoid of life. They added kangaroo paw plants, jasmine vines and a koi pond and now see frequent visits from hummingbirds.

Their biggest challenge began as their biggest question: Why did Grayson build a pool house out back but not a pool? In 2012, they renovated once more and quickly found the answer in the form of a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Beetle beneath the ground.

With the help of a Bobcat Utility Vehicle — a technology not available to Grayson half a century ago — they were able to finagle enough room for a pool and transform the backyard into a much more livable space. In addition, they converted the pool house into a guest suite and even used some of the extra rock in their landscaping.

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All renovations considered, they budgeted $250,000 and spent around $300,000. The four-bedroom, three-bathroom home is now on the market for $1.695 million.

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