Curiosities

With nobody to please but himself, an architect is free from all creative constraints or conflicts of personality, to pursue his singular vision.

An architect’s home is a uniquely personal statement. With nobody to please but himself, he is free from all creative constraints or conflicts of personality, to pursue his singular vision.

South Bay architect Edward C. Beall, AIA, and his wife, interior designer Susie Beall, ASID, have realized their personal vision high atop a hill on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

It began its life as a rather non-descript 1950’s ranch house. It was artistically undistinguished, but its location, inside a gated, semi-rural subdivision surrounded by mature trees overlooking Portuguese Bend, was incomparable. Ed and Susie embarked on an architectural and design project that was all their own, producing a home of beguiling mystery and idiosyncratic beauty.

“It wasn’t a sleek, Mid-Century Modern 1950’s house,” Ed recalls. “It was bad news Fifties. It had been published in Architectural Digest at the time, but it was nothing special.”

He sought to rectify that, re-imagining the ordinary ranch house as a gracefully aging Tuscan villa. He clad the exterior in an abundant local material: Palos Verdes stone. He used it not just on the exterior walls, but also on the walls of the terraced gardens in the rear of the house. It lent the house and gardens a rough-hewn, highly textured rustic appearance. He added a wing, and a widow’s walk, moved the driveway to create a greater sense of privacy, and converted the garage into a dining room, but in total, Ed added just 600 square feet to the existing footprint of the house.

Ed and Susie left the swimming pool and deck in its original 1950’s style. It is reminiscent of a Rat Pack retreat in Palm Springs and exudes old Hollywood glamour.

The Beall house sits on almost an acre of land. It’s densely layered, both inside and out, with elements and aspects that do not reveal themselves immediately, but unfold casually, exposing surprises at every turn.

Enormous trees shelter and partially conceal the façade. Juniper and agave bushes, both native to the arid California coastal region, dominate the landscape design. The Bealls added lush vegetation and assorted blossoms for variety and planted plum, apricot and peach trees.

Ed and Susie created a terraced Mediterranean garden behind their house, with rugged stone steps and walls and whimsical garden statuary, including fragments of a 16th century church Ed found in France. He bought the peaked and mitered ruins and installed them in their California garden as a Gothic folly. Susie planted a kitchen garden that provides her with fresh herbs for cooking, such as ginger, cilantro, basil and dill that scent the air around the house.

The Beall property overlooks the Pacific with unobstructed views of the Palos Verdes peninsula, and after sunset, the lights of Avalon. They have created a series of scattered seating areas and even a mini playground, complete with an antique teeter-totter for their grandchildren, all designed to provide opportunities to marvel over the white water views.

The sense of distance from the city is profound, less a matter of distance than atmosphere. As the sun sets over the Bealls’ garden, traffic, stress and rush hour seem unimaginable. The breeze carries the scent of juniper and sea spray instead of exhaust, and the only sounds are rustling leaves and the occasional whinny of a neighbor’s horse.

In the entryway, an antique table of French yew conceals a secret: its additional hidden leaves can extend it to a full 18 feet. And the decorative object at its center is not, as many guests assume, an exceptionally tall ivory candle, but rather a narwhal tusk, the fossilized remain of a rare arctic mammal.

It is just the first unusual artifact you encounter in the Beall’s home. Passionate travelers, fearless explorers and avid scholars, Ed and Susie Beall have traveled to some of the most exotic, obscure and unknowable parts of the world, and everywhere they have traveled, they bring back more than memories when they returned.

“When we travel, Susie brings along a camera and printer and makes a record of where we have been,” Ed says proudly. “We have sixty volumes so far!”

The result is a wondrous, if dizzying collection of anthropological, archeological and paleontological artifacts, interspersed with more conventional art and antiques throughout the house.

Susie is the “curator” of this eclectic and eccentric collection. “I arranged it as best I could!” she laughs modestly. She is the interior design partner of the Edward C. Beall Architects firm, and this is obviously a marriage of sensibilities as well. “Ed and I are closely in sync,” she says. “Our tastes are closely aligned, so the collaboration is seamless.”

Together, they have created a modern, Californian version of an old world villa, with all the architectural details and quirks of a house that evolved over generations, including six mismatched fireplaces, varying ceiling heights and a total of 30 French doors, only four of which match. It is a contemporary cabinet of curiosities.

“In England in the 19th century, there was an absolute mania for travel, for exploration, for amateur archeology,” Ed explains. “People would go on a grand tour of the continent and spend a year or more traveling, seeing Europe, collecting souvenirs. The really, really brave or insatiably curious went to more exotic places like Greece, Turkey and Egypt and brought back antiquities. There was incredible curiosity about the world: history, natural science and archeology. People would bring home specimens of whatever aroused their curiosity and display it in their homes in cases: cabinets of curiosities.”

Ed has collected fossils, dinosaur eggs, primitive weaponry, salvaged architectural elements, and a taxidermy owl, preserved beneath a bell jar. Susie has found ways to display them.

“We worked with a great contractor who understood,” she says. “Any time he saw a spot that could possibly contain a display niche, he came to Ed and asked, ‘do you want me to make a niche here?’ And Ed said yes, and we lit it and used it to display a collection.”
She has arranged scrimshaw objects on tabletops, contrasting the nautical folk art with elegant antique furniture. “Scrimshaw was one of America’s earliest art forms,” Ed explains. “Sailors would carve it into whale bones to pass the time on long voyages. You find it all around the world; we have pieces from New Zealand.”

One room in particular has been dubbed, “Ed’s Museum.” It is the most densely packed with the Bealls’ improbably finds and the one where Ed’s impish sense of humor is most in evidence. In here, Susie has placed his collection of animal skulls, including a brown bear, an alligator and a jaguar, the fossilized ear drum of a whale, a 17th century egg collection they found in Tetbury, England, a Moroccan dagger and a collection of very specialized cutlery: cannibal forks from Papua New Guinea. The unsuspecting visitor may inadvertently handle a group of “oosiks:” walrus penises from Alaska and Canada that Ed has used for tabletop ornaments.

Ed and Susie share an improvisational talent for transforming objects. He, as an architect, has incorporated fragments like the 16th century Maltese front door piece, surmounted by a scallop shell design, that he has used as a fireplace surround, or the antique door he found in a Paris flea market and used to conceal the sub-zero refrigerator into contemporary home design. Susie, in turn, has adapted antique furniture for modern uses, like the twin beds she nailed together to create a headboard for the master bedroom, and the desk with the Chippendale pediment on top she found in Paris and placed in the bathroom as a vanity.

The Bealls’ anthropological finds are interspersed with more conventional works of art, including a collection of 19th and early 20th century Russian paintings displayed in a guest bedroom. “I’ve been to Russia several times,” says Ed, “doing student and art exchanges. I collected a lot of art while I was there.”

Their art, like their artifacts and antiques, are very casually displayed. “I put it wherever it looks good,” says Susie. Or, according to Ed, “Art roams throughout the house.”

Just as important as creating a space to display their collections, the Bealls wanted to create a space for entertaining as well. They are very active socially and philanthropically in the South Bay community and room to entertain was vital to their vision of home.

Ed designed the kitchen around a center island. He included a La Cornue French stove, “the best in the world,” and put an antique French mirror above it in place of a backsplash. He designed the custom counter with a marble top from Marble Unlimited in Van Nuys. “It’s gold and very richly veined. I was looking for material for another client’s house when I found it by chance,” he says. An antique rotisserie was purchased for its humor and complexity: “It looks like something Rube Goldberg would have designed!” Ed laughs.

The other appliances and kitchen tools are artfully concealed behind custom cabinetry. “I didn’t want it to look too ’kitcheny’ let alone industrial,” Ed explains. “It became another entertaining space.”

“We entertain a lot,” he continues. “We like to say that if you spill your red wine, it doesn’t hurt anything, it just adds to the patina!”
Ed Beall has won awards for his architecture, but no other project is as personally expressive as his own home.

“I’ve always wanted to live in a museum,” he reflects. “This is the closest I have come to it.”

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