On Oct. 9, 1927, the English actor Lionel Atwill placed a hand in the wet concrete on the porch of his Pacific Palisades home, a courtyard estate modeled after the mid-1800s California hacienda in the classic novel “Ramona.” It was a charming touch to a grand-for-its-time house built by John Byers, a self-taught Santa Monica architect gifted in Monterey and Spanish Colonial design.
Atwill’s handprint remained, but subsequent owners’ renovations threw his hacienda out of focus. Some rooms were cavernous and dark, others were cramped. The floor plan was quirky and inconvenient. The kitchen and master suite were oddly configured nightmares.
Even so, David and Lucinda Schiff, the owners since 1993, made it home. They raised three kids in the rambling one-story house and even retained the previous owner’s shrine: a full-length reproduction of an antique photograph of Atwill, framed by swag curtains.
“He was a B-movie actor with an A-plus house,” says David, founder of the Schiff Co., a talent management and production firm.
The house, indeed, had bones. But to unravel the bad alterations and update the floor plan and furnishings, the Schiffs tapped architect Lewin Wertheimer, landscape designer Jay Griffith and interior decorator Sasha Emerson. The goal, completed with much care and consideration this spring: a house and grounds that work for modern living without compromising the integrity of Byers’ original design.
Renovations began at the front gate.
“Jay said it looked like a Taco Bell in Santa Fe,” Lucinda says.
The gate was replaced and the front yard, once a motor court, became a broad lawn with a minimalist, rectangular fountain made of rusted steel. Wertheimer placed a new, three-car garage at the corner of the lot, allowing Griffith to replace a long driveway leading to the original garage with a private garden off the master suite.
When it came to the 7,000-square-foot house, however, Wertheimer says he and his contractor, Alisal Builders, stayed true to the footprint.
“We worked within the existing volume,” he says, “but completely reconfigured it.”
To add light, he raised ceilings and added glass skylights. French doors in the living room and kitchen let in more sunshine in and also improve the flow of traffic through the house, providing easy access to the courtyard and the rooms on the other side of it.
“Why not walk from your bedroom through the garden to your kitchen?” Wertheimer says. “This is California. You can do it most of the year and it’s such a great experience.”
The new French doors also greatly improved the appearance of the living room and kitchen exterior — an important consideration in a courtyard home. The doors replaced a hodgepodge of entryways and a sore-thumb New England-style bay window, resulting in a cleaner façade. An elevated concrete terrace punctuated with upright posts looks contemporary but also echoes the original hacienda columns on the front porch.
Byers’ architecture had modesty and integrity, Wertheimer says.
“He did not use a million different materials and window casings and details,” the architect says. “He used stucco and wood and came up with a language that was appropriate throughout.”
The biggest challenge was finding the right balance of new and historical elements and deciding when to stop — when leaving defects was the best solution. The hand-planed columns on the front porch were seriously damaged and had been patched together.
“We could’ve replaced them,’ Wertheimer says, “but it was clear to me and Lucinda that they needed to be left just the way they were in that rustic, imperfect state.”
The dilapidated shake shingle roof, however, had to go. Instead of using fake shake shingles or terra cotta tiles, Lucinda suggested a corrugated metal roof, which reminded her of the tin roof structures in her native Puerto Rico.
Other issues were not so simply solved.
“One of Byers’ weaknesses, which may be a reflection of the times, is that the flow of his houses is not as predictable or as gracious as one might want in houses we live in today,” Wertheimer says.
Part of the house’s charm is the long hacienda galleria, formerly a covered walkway that provides access to two bedroom suites. It is now enclosed with operable windows and glass doors that make it look like a corridor solarium.
But reaching two additional guest bedrooms at the northwestern end of the house wasn’t so easy. They required a walk directly through the master suite.
“I was told that one of the owners had 11 kids,” Lucinda says. “I don’t know how they managed that.”
Wertheimer divided the huge master bedroom with a library wall and French doors, creating a sitting room that faces the courtyard and provides guests passage to their quarters.
Composed of three cramped rooms, the kitchen demanded a gut renovation. Wertheimer tore walls down, added two pairs of French doors, raised the ceiling and paneled it in whitewashed pine, and installed a floor made from salvaged wormy chestnut planks. The now capacious, sun-drenched space is a vibrant mix of rustic and modern.
“It’s a traditional California kitchen with yellow tile, meets Danish modern and roadside diner furniture, meets an Italian gold leaf chandelier,” Emerson says.
The kitchen is decidedly Lucinda’s domain. She uses the leafy chandelier as a place to let dates from the yard dry. One of her own artworks, a small pastel of a colorful Mexican pot, channels the Monterey decorative style that was popular before World War II.
Other walls bear contemporary art by Robert Longo and photographs by Gregory Crewdson, Laurie Simmons and Tracey Baran. Bold images such as Crewdson’s “Untitled (Ophelia From Twilight),” which depicts a woman floating in a flooded living room, have an underlying cinematic effect, David says. “They offer a rich contrast to the early 20th century Spanish architecture.”
When it came to furnishings, most people would have gone high-end modern or traditional Spanish or English, Emerson says.
“David and Lucinda would have none of that,” she says. “They wanted midcentury pieces from Wertz Brothers. They are both a product of New York in the 1970s and there is definitely a Big Sur side and a whiff of Paris in that house.”
And more than a touch of kismet. The Schiffs first saw the Atwill estate when they attended a private screening. They interviewed Wertheimer shortly after buying the house in 1993 but decided to hold off on remodeling. Fifteen years later, when they hired Emerson for interiors, she recommended Wertheimer for architectural guidance.
“They didn’t realize I’d been here before,” he says, laughing. He took no offense. “They both had an artistic temperament and really wanted to restore it to its former glory.”
Lucinda, who held her ground on touches such as lavender bulbs in the vintage bathroom sconces, says she would lie awake at night and think about what the house wanted. “Lewin was very respectful of the quirkiness and old style,” she says.
The project took two years, but the result is everything the Schiffs had hoped for: an up-to-date house that honors the artistic spirit of its designers and occupants, past and present.
“People say renovation is torture,” Lucinda says. “This was magical. How often do you hear that?”