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Home of the Times: Fire doesn’t destroy her home’s welcoming spirit

Starting over at age 70 would be hard enough. But when an electrical fire destroyed her Los Angeles home, Bobby Blatt didn’t just reconstruct what was lost. She built something better.

“After 40 years here, the fire was absolutely numbing,” she said. “But I didn’t want my life to change just because my house changed.”

Bobby still worked as a faculty member in the School Management Program at UCLA, and she still wanted to play host for holidays, birthdays and vacations — gatherings that had always been a part of her life.

“If anyone needed help or a place to stay, they could find it here,” she says. “It was our center, our core.”

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So she asked her son, Michael, and his wife, Alice Fung, partners in Fung & Blatt Architects of Los Angeles, to design a new home where everyone in her orbit would feel welcome. They, in turn, gave Bobby Blatt, now 76, a bright and spacious modern house that’s flexible enough to change with her as she grows older.

The new house is a far cry from the 1920s Tudor-style house that Bobby and her husband, Jonathan, an artist, bought in 1965 in Carthay Square, near the elementary school where Bobby taught at the time. The 1,700-square-foot home had room for Jonathan to paint and throw pottery and for the couple to raise a family.

But Michael didn’t want nostalgia to obscure his childhood home’s flaws. The small, dark rooms had been laid out with little thought to practicality or privacy. To reach the backyard, one had to walk through a side yard or a bedroom.

“To me, the fire was an opportunity to ask: What can we do differently?” he says.

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It helped that Michael had designed for his parents before. In 1987, fresh out of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, he remodeled the freestanding garage into a studio for his father. After Jonathan died in 1996, Michael and Alice completed small additions.

But with the chance to start from scratch, Alice says, came “a heavy emotional burden” to balance their preference for modernist design with something more familiar to suit Bobby.

The architects knew that she had no immediate plans to retire — from work or from frequent entertaining. That prompted them to expand the house rather than shrink it.

“I didn’t want to design an old person’s house, which is typically smaller and static,” Michael says. “It needed to feel alive and full of energy.”

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Fortunately, the garage conversion survived the fire, providing a stylistic point of reference. To blend in on the street, the new house has a stucco exterior, a pitched slate roof and wood-framed doors and windows. But the front lawn gave way to a porch enclosed by board-formed concrete seat walls and a drought-tolerant garden.

Inside the 2,600-square-foot house, the social spaces so important to Bobby are the heart of the ground floor. Living, dining and cooking areas open to one another and to the dining deck for entertaining large crowds. Ceilings soar 24 feet, drawing the eye toward structural beams. Upstairs, a hallway office between the master and two spare bedrooms gives Bobby and houseguests ample work space with a view of the neighborhood.

Mood-lifting sunlight pours in through operable and fixed windows, accentuating the warmth of solid cherry floors and maple plywood cabinets. Translucent fiberglass doors offer privacy without darkening the master closet and bathroom.

Built-ins display artwork that neighbors and firefighters rescued from the flames, including tribal sculptures that Bobby and Jonathan collected in Africa, figurative statues by artist Noel Osheroff and, most precious of all, Jonathan’s watercolors and ceramics.

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Less obvious are environmentally friendly details such as passive cooling, rooftop photovoltaic panels and hookups for a gray-water irrigation system to come.

“The house had to be a desirable destination so people would want to visit,” Michael says. That meant incorporating bells and whistles for Bobby’s four grandchildren.

A pool and spa, where the kids can play in summer, was tucked into the backyard. Their guest room sports a loft accessible by way of a staircase disguised as a bookshelf and another secret passageway consisting of a ladder hidden inside cabinets.

“The kids aren’t so little anymore, but they climb all over like monkeys,” Bobby says.

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Michael and Alice reserved two surprises just for Bobby. Using items salvaged from the ruins of the old house, they installed a leaded-glass window, its stained-glass windmill intact, in the dining area. They also recycled the front door.

“I was thrilled,” Bobby says. “The grandkids and I voted to paint it dark purple. It was bright purple before, and we always told people that if they forgot our address to just look for the purple door.” These days, thanks to a house where past and present artfully merge, she still can.

home@latimes.com


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