Detour to the tropics

Detour to the tropics
With its simple fire pit, napping hut and river-rock pool, Jodi and Johnny Goldberg’s home is a paradise of their own creation nestled between the ocean and mountains. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Jodi and Johnny Goldberg had never heard of Montecito when they drove up the coast one weekend, looking for a new place to live. They had grown disenchanted with L.A.: Their two-bedroom Westwood house was too small, their neighborhood too crowded and noisy, their lives too chaotic.

"We were an outdoorsy, athletic family who simply wanted to live more in nature," says Jodi.

Bali — A photo caption accompanying an article in Thursday's Home section about the Montecito, Calif., home of Jodi and Johnny Goldberg incorrectly implied that Bali is part of Polynesia. Bali is an island of Indonesia.

This is a bit of understatement. Her husband, known in fitness circles as Johnny G, is the celebrity trainer and endurance cyclist who, in the early '90s, invented the worldwide fitness craze called Spinning. By 2000, with 80,000 licensed instructors in 80 countries, he was spending 70% of his time traveling to promote his global empire, sometimes hitting 12 countries in two weeks. He couldn't sleep, couldn't cut back on his travels, couldn't stop literally and figuratively spinning his life away. "We'd spent so many years turning people on to health and fitness, gave all that wonderful energy to others, and suddenly realized we weren't feeling healthy ourselves," says Jodi. "We knew we had to slow down, get back to fundamentals. Even our daughter, Jordan, who was 11, wasn't really happy."

The family had reached a crossroads.

So three years ago, they turned off the 101 at Montecito, looked around, and decided it was perfect. Nestled in lush terrain between the mountains and sea, it is filled with ancient trees, rustic roads and stately homes hidden behind hedges and long woodsy drives. They loved it because "it was serene and small — magnificent by day and absolutely dark and silent at night, which reminded me of my childhood in South Africa," recalls Johnny. And there are only about six blocks between the hills, where the family could cycle together, and the Pacific, where they could all surf. (Johnny has two children from a previous marriage, one of whom lives with them.)

Although they didn't know it at the time, Montecito has long been a haven for old-money families whose names are rarely in the news (and who like it that way), and for celebrities seeking privacy. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married there in 1940. Jack and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned there in 1953. Entertainment types like Steve Martin, Kirk Douglas and Oprah Winfrey are considered "seasonals" by longtime residents, who tend to display their wealth quietly, preserving as much of nature's grandeur as possible.

The Goldbergs didn't exactly fit into any of the above categories. They'd come up from hard beginnings. He left high school to become an athlete and personal trainer, and moved to the U.S. in 1979. She left home in Philadelphia at 16 and built a career in Los Angeles as a freelance fashion stylist. When they met on a blind date in '88, she was 25 and a recovering alcoholic. He was 31, going through a divorce, and the father of two toddlers. He'd begun to pursue endurance cycling and competing in cross-country bike races, which he was winning. But their bond was so immediate and so intense, Johnny says, that he couldn't bear to be away from Jodi while training for his races. So he devised a new kind of stationary cycle, which he built by hand, that could duplicate the various terrains he'd encounter in his races.

"I did it for love," he recalls. "I was able to train in our tiny apartment, with her right beside me. I'd close my eyes and imagine the hills and flatlands I'd be crossing, and the bike would duplicate those challenges." The bike, and the training routine he developed for it, seemed so exhilarating and inventive that the pair decided to open a gym in Santa Monica in 1989, where others could share in the endurance regime he called Spinning.

To get some buzz going for the business, Jodi would get up at 5 every morning and then "push our baby daughter all around Santa Monica, putting fliers on people's houses." The gym, which they ran until 1992, became "wildly successful but not all that lucrative," says Johnny. That is, not until they started getting offers from top fitness clubs around the country, who wanted Johnny G's equipment and expertise.

Success made them even poorer, in a sense. "I was suddenly filing for patents on the bikes, and trademarks, and establishing a logo and an emblem. I had no idea how to run a big business, and I was tapped out."

Luckily, one of his best Spinning students at the Santa Monica gym, John Baudhuin, was an MBA and CPA — "a smart and energetic young business guy." Goldberg offered him a partnership, which has lasted. "I am the inspirer, instructor, inventor," says Johnny. "He's the money end of it. We own two buildings in the Marina, one of which I've never even visited. I just don't care about those things."

The business got so big that they signed with Schwinn in 1994 to make the cycles he'd been putting together himself. They bought the little house between Olympic and Pico in Westwood, which Jodi fixed up to be what her husband calls "an amazing mini-palace." Then, says Johnny, Schwinn "started going insolvent in the late '90s, and they tried to claim they owned Spinning and all the intellectual properties related to it, which they wanted to include in the sale of their company. We were spending many thousands each month in legal fees to fight this. Schwinn went down in 2001and the lawsuit nearly wiped us out. We nearly lost the buildings, the business, the whole thing." Baudhuin had to put the December 2001 salaries on his credit card. (Now they're back on firm financial ground.) .

Somewhere along the way, Johnny "began to unravel," his wife says. "He couldn't cope, was extremely wired, couldn't sleep or eat. He didn't seem to have an off switch. He'd be elated, have bursts of energy, try to handle everything. Then he'd crash and couldn't function. We sought help, he was briefly hospitalized, and we learned he is bipolar, an illness his father and sisters had suffered."

They also learned that he could control the illness and lead a normal life. As he puts it, "We simply needed to shoot for a new beginning." When they discovered that Montecito had an excellent public school, they knew they'd found the perfect place. "It wasn't about buying a house that would be an investment," says Johnny. "It was about buying a house that would bring peace and happiness to our family — a place we could relax, bike, hike and surf together in a peaceful, friendly environment."

The Goldbergs knew they couldn't afford any of the multimillion-dollar villas with fine architectural pedigrees. But they thought they'd surely find something. They drove home, immediately put their house on the market, and moved back to the Coast Village motel in Montecito, where they started their house-hunt. After a few weeks, when they could find no affordable, well-located places for sale, they rented a house scheduled for demolition, where they slept on cots while they continued to hunt.

Through four months of searching, real estate agents kept bringing one house to their attention. It was the house that nobody wanted. "It was ugly, unloved and unlovable," Jodi says.

It was a duckling of a dwelling in a city of elegant swans — a common ranch-style house, obviously abandoned and long inhabited only by rats. It had low ceilings, dozens of tiny, dark rooms, dangerous wiring and plumbing that didn't work. In all the months they looked, this 2,400-square-foot house full of hazards was the only one that never seemed in danger of being sold.

The Goldbergs were desperate, the house was affordable — just barely — and so they succumbed. (They could afford the $1.3-million price because of low interest rates and a hefty profit from the sale of their Westwood house.) They told themselves it had great location and was on a potentially dazzling acre of land (it was actually a barren lot filled with dry dirt). Johnny says his gut instinct told him Jodi could transform the place into something amazing. She'd never been an interior designer, but she'd worked marvels on their little Westwood home.

After evicting the rats and repairing the wires and plumbing, they moved in 2 1/2 years ago and began to redo the place room by room — raising the ceiling from 8 to 14 feet (without removing the roof), tearing down most of the walls. Jodi asked her husband and their kids to come up with an idea of the kind of place they'd like her to create.

"They said they wanted a simple, friendly house, where we can kick off our shoes and relax. Nothing fancy," Jodi says. "Johnny thought it should be like a tropical resort, a kind of South Seas island retreat. A place where we'd feel we were always on holiday."

Jodi had never been to any of the romantic tropical islands her husband mentioned. So she read about them, and was particularly drawn to books about Bali. She studied the culture, the dwellings, the shapes, colors, the natural materials. And she began to transform the house and grounds into something she now calls "a magical property that I swear has been blessed by angels and hummingbirds."

This is not merely a nice house on a patch of prettified land; it is a total environment, like a set director's fantasy of a South Seas paradise.

The simple gates swing open to an ochre cottage plopped symmetrically on an acre island of emerald grass. (To design the outdoors, Jodi used spray paint on the ground to denote where she wanted the structures, pools and patios.)

Mango trees, banana palms and brilliant tropical blooms seem to have sprouted spontaneously, acts of nature rather than a landscaper's plan.

The large pool looks more like a watering hole that appeared there naturally. It simply drops off the edge of the lawn, so clean and simple, with nothing but small river rocks surrounding the edge.

Simple Balinese-style structures dot the periphery of the property. A round Balinese palapa (napping hut) stands at one end, a fire pit (ancient stones set in a circle of sand) at the other. The family's surfboards all sit in a thatched-roof, open bamboo hut. Indoors, all is equally simple: tawny wood floors and pale honey-colored grasscloth on most walls, except for the spicy red-orange-colored dining room. Furnishings are a mix of Asian pieces in burnished teak and dark rattan. In this house of many windows and doors, every room brings the outside in.

That Jodi created such a refreshingly idyllic atmosphere — and on a strict budget — has led to a new career. "I never designed homes before," says Jodi. "Now I've got several commissions from people who've seen this place and want me to redo theirs."

One sign of how happy all the Goldbergs are in their new home: "We went to Hawaii for a vacation and we had to cut the trip short. We all missed our house too much."