Mid Century in the Upper East

Thornton Ladd, of Pasadena, was a significant force in Southern California Modernism during the golden age of the Case Study Program. He was not an official member of that select group but he should have been. He designed this contemporary masterpiece for a rather eccentric man who had grown up in the famous Spanish turreted pile next door, on a lot that had once been his back yard, and probably relished the idea of shocking this exclusive neighborhood with a flat-roofed glass box. The house was later owned by the founders of two nationwide restaurant chains. The owner’s ironically did their own cooking out of one of the tiniest galley kitchens ever made, and several architects, including the now Modernist Lutah Riggs (George Washington Smith’s main associate) had a hand in remodeling and making additions.

By the time the current owners found it, hardly anything could be seen behind a dense hedge along the street and most of Thornton Ladd’s work was itself hidden behind many layers of ill-conceived and badly maintained additions, except, of course, for Riggs, who obviously knew what she was doing. The main requirement of the PBA remodel was, in the area closest to the street, to add another garage on the first floor and to enlarge the kitchen and add another bedroom on the second. The master suite, in the area of the new additions, had to be transformed into something suitable for today and the rest of the house needed to be brought back to at least the spirit of what it had been originally.

Ladd himself was said to be alive, living in nearby Ojai, but he was by then more interested in Buddhism than architecture and couldn’t be reached. So, once the original drawings were found, the guiding principle for this latest remodel was, as much as was possible, to restore Ladd’s design  (particularly the entry stair hall, the dining room and the living room), to help the existing additions become more compatible with the original design intent, and to build new spaces as if Ladd had designed them himself, but using the materials and products that we have today.

As the drawings were studied further, another principle emerged: to build those things that Ladd clearly wanted but a restrictive budget would not allow. For example, he obviously desired all the glass panels to start at the floor but was often forced instead to call out low plaster walls that were to have “dark paint” on the outside. And many of the steel verticals were actually made of wood and painted to look like steel. Then, as construction began, another issue was uncovered: rainwater had been leaking into the structure for years, not so much the result of cheap materials as the lack entirely of adequate waterproofing at the time to allow for the minimal roof overhangs.

However, the biggest problem was due to products that were cheap at the time but are now exorbitant: the beautiful terrazzo floors had to be repaired and expanded and, far more critical, a great number of custom sliding steel doors and windows were needed. By the time that the new doors and windows had to be ordered, the house was obviously coming together so authentically that everybody knew that the aluminum products that had been specified would never look good enough. The cost of steel was now so huge that the project was actually halted for several months. Nobody knew what to do. But then the owners stumbled across a steel window fabricator in Los Angeles, a guy in his eighties who was about to retire, who had actually provided many of the windows for Case Study houses and was still charging something very close to Case Study prices.

The house was saved. The garden was masterfully transformed by Eric Nagelmann into the lush outdoor rooms these dematerialized walls were designed for and the exquisite furnishings by Randy Franks effortlessly complemented the interior spaces in ways that Mid-Century designers could only dream about. As the whole project came closer to completion, its re-flowering seemed to increasingly inspire the very best from everyone associated with it. And now, several years later, it seems to have become the favorite house of almost everyone who sees it.

Santa Barbara, California

Original design in 1957 by
Thornton Ladd

Interior Design By
Randy Franks

Landscape Design By
Eric Nagelmann

Construction By
Rodney Utt Construction
with Mike Fahrenkrug