Midcentury ‘tree house’ branches out in the Hollywood Hills

From the outdoor patio, a 70-year-old sycamore tree can be seen growing through the house. Left to right: Architect Aaron Neubert, homeowner Jack Latner and his parents, Steven and Lynda Latner.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The first time Jack Latner’s Hollywood Hills house was remodeled years ago, the big design move was an addition built literally around a spectacular 70-year-old sycamore tree: The trunk rose up from the floor and through the ceiling.

“It was the best space in the house,” said Latner, 31, adding that guests naturally gravitated to the novel space. “But it was also my bedroom. I thought, ‘Let’s turn this room into the main feature of the house. This is where we are going to be spending most of our time.’”

So for another remodel, Latner turned to Aaron Neubert, the Silver Lake architect who designed the first addition. For Neubert, the question this time around wasn’t so much how to build around a tree but how to preserve the Midcentury spirit of the original cedar post-and-beam house and give Latner the modern kitchen, bathroom and closet that he wanted.


Neubert said he wanted to respect the details of architect Val Powelson’s 1950s design without mimicking it.

“For me, it was about taking his cues, speaking to what was originally built and going in a different direction,” Neubert said.

What had been the master bedroom is now a casual lounge area and modern kitchen, with the tree trunk rising behind the island. Latner, who likes to entertain, said it’s a vast improvement over his old, cramped double-galley cooking space.

“The kitchen is where I spend all my time,” he said. “It was important to me to take my kitchen to the next level.”

Clearly the new modern kitchen is not just about function: The room is now defined by a Sol LeWitt black-and-white line drawing that was recently installed as wall artwork, following guidelines provided by the artist.

Neubert built a new master suite on top of the kitchen. Because the foundation from Neubert’s earlier addition was extensive, the second story went up without the expensive underpinning of the foundation that’s usually required.

In the new living room, Neubert took out the old kitchen, fireplace and bar and installed Douglas fir cabinets along one wall. That helped to open up the room to the outdoors and make it more welcoming.

Inspired by the foyer in John Lautner’s indoor-outdoor Sheats Goldstein house in L.A., Latner resurfaced the living room floor with bluestone granite from Bourget Bros. in Santa Monica and extended the stone to an enlarged living area outside. The granite complements the concrete floor in the kitchen and fits the original period architecture. In another nod to the era, Neubert and Latner kept the 1957 glass louver windows, which practically make time stand still.

With the help of his parents, who are art collectors, Latner furnished the living room with classic Midcentury pieces: Richard Neutra sofas found through the auction house Wright, a coffee table by father-son collaborators Kelvin and Philip LaVerne, and a George Nakashima buffet. The family room has reproductions of Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames’ Midcentury designs, some of which Latner found at flea markets.

Back outside, Neubert added an outdoor dining area as well as built-in seating around a fire pit. On the upper level, where the sycamore tree finally escapes the house, Neubert created a deck with lounge seating by another fire pit, an outdoor TV and an alfresco shower.

When an arborist checked the health of the sycamore tree, she recommended taking out four pittosporum trees on the hillside. The change was dramatic, allowing more natural light to filter into the house. Now you can see the architecture more easily and the trees merging with one another.

Neubert says the indoor-outdoor connection works because of the site. “You can really live outdoors,” he said. “There is a payoff in moving outside. Every time you move outside there is something different but the areas are all interconnected.”

The entire process took more than two years, but Latner is not complaining. Perched on a steep hillside near Runyon Canyon, the renovated house now resembles a modern cabin from the winding street below.

“It’s like living in the forest,” Latner said. “I’m five minutes from Hollywood. But once I drive up this hill, I feel at home because I’m in nature.”

Twitter: @lisaboone19


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