A New Century
Pierre Koenig’s remarkable Henbest House in Palos Verdes receives a 21st-century makeover.
- Written bySuzanna Cullen
The “open concept plan” is a term most commonly heard on HGTV; however, its roots extend back 70 years when mid-20th century architecture turned the tables on traditional home design. Simplicity found in post-and-beam construction, flat planes and an extensive use of glass in a single-level, open-concept floor plan are hallmarks of mid-century modern architecture.
Pierre Koenig was one of the California architects leading the charge to shift the typical two-story suburban house to a more free-flowing floor plan that better suited the Southern California lifestyle. With projects ranging all over greater Los Angeles, Koenig’s portfolio was extensive. He remains best known for his Case Study Houses that were constructed on lots that others believed unbuildable.
While Palos Verdes has many beautiful houses, it does not have many homes that were designed by acclaimed architects of the mid-century. However, Koenig built the Henbest House in Rancho Palos Verdes in 1966, and at the time it was a textbook model of mid-century modern design. After a recent remodel, the house retains many of the acclaimed architect’s original design elements.
When Elizabeth and Stephen Birkett contemplated investing in Palos Verdes after having lived in Hermosa Beach, they knew a property had to have significant architectural value or a great view. With the Henbest House, they got both.
“The house was structurally in great shape, and the floor plan works so well for a family,” says Stephen. After living in the house for a year, the Birketts launched into a full remodel of the house with Hermosa Beach designer Robert Sweet of ras-a, inc.
Although hidden behind a contemporary wood and concrete wall, the mid-century house embodies many of the signature traits of that period. The floating accordion roof is a rare preservation in today’s market—but one that immediately identifies the house as authentic.
The Birketts saved the original floor plan and the post-and-beam construction. While most mid-century modern homes have steel beams, the Koenig home has wood beams due to the Palos Verdes ordinances prohibiting steel beams in the 1960s.
A few architectural additions made the house more comfortable to accommodate a family. The master bedroom wing was extended to include a walk-in closet, master bathroom and office. The opposing wing was extended to include a guest bedroom and garage. Because the house has a simple U shape, the minimal square footage was added to the ends—thereby not changing the shape of the original footprint.
Other structural changes included improving the radiant heat floors. Because the original house had concrete floors with only one radiant heat floor zone, designated zoned heat coils were installed with another layer of concrete poured on top for an original appearance.
Yielding to 21st-century design preferences, Elizabeth and Stephen decided to remodel the home rather than restore it. They removed the original kitchen cabinets and sliding glass doors to meet contemporary design aesthetics and functionality. The kitchen is now a sleek design in grey, white and stainless steel; it’s open to all of the living areas.
The new, energy-efficient sliding glass doors are larger than the original glass doors, and they permit a seamless view of the ocean. However, Elizabeth and Stephen had a stroke of historical preservation genius when they opted to reinstall the original globe lights in the kitchen.
The existing bathrooms were renovated to accommodate a comfortable and modern lifestyle, but the design is in keeping with the original aesthetics of the house. Floating cabinets mix with both white and colorful tiles for a reference to the old with an infusion of the new. The new master bathroom includes an indoor/outdoor shower with spectacular ocean views.
Working with designer Allison Weber, Elizabeth and Stephen furnished the house with an eclectic array of furniture. From new pieces purchased at Design Within Reach to the formal Steinway piano and classic Le Corbusier chairs, the living and dining area is a study of styles and price points. The vintage wood coffee table and 1960s Danish modern breakfast table and chairs infuse warmth and character into the house.
As open and flowing as the inside of the house is, the outdoor living areas spill seamlessly into the front and backyard. The Henbest House was originally designed with a pool, but it was never installed on the property. Stephen Birkett was determined not only to have a pool on the property but that it be the exact pool that Koenig designed with the original house plans. After an exhaustive search at the Getty Center, Stephen located Koenig’s original drawings for the property and the original pool design.
Robert acted as both the house designer and landscape designer and created an entire outdoor living area around Koenig’s pool plans. Although the yard was overgrown with bamboo and various plants at the time of the purchase, he managed to see through the mess.
“Robert not only got our vision of the house, but he understood our intent for the property,” says Stephen. Like the low-slung, wide profile of the house, the outdoor area keeps the same lines and proportions.
Both the front and back outdoor areas now provide multiple areas that work for kids and adults. The pool is not only an entertainment area; it’s a critical element in the overall architectural and visual design of the property. Huge concrete pads float over the water, creating a walkway to the front door, while various seating areas visually expand the yard.
In the backyard one entire side is designated for the children with a wooden playground area, while the opposite side offers a comfortable seating area with a commanding view of the ocean.
Ranch-style homes became the rage in mid-century America. However, they were eschewed in the late-20th century in favor of more grand residences. The Henbest-Birkett House represents a blend of some of the best elements of mid-century modern architecture with the conveniences of 21st-century living. It’s comfortable, open, light-filled and provides a fluid lifestyle.
Need a family getaway and don’t want to pack a bag? From Pasadena to Pacific Palisades, you’ll find a number of fantastic day trips within an hour’s car ride from the South Bay. Contributing photographer Lauren Pressey and a friend took the kids north on Highway 1 for a playful beach day in colorful Venice.