The Tree House
Two serial entrepreneurs with a passion for collecting fossils and other earthly treasures transformed a run-down beach house on the Peninsula into a contemporary haven perfect for entertaining.
As they pass through a gate in the unassuming mahogany wall that encloses the beachfront Rancho Palos Verdes home of Dave and Cindy MacMillan, visitors are welcomed by ocean breezes, a tranquil koi pond and whispers from an old dragon’s blood tree—an historical species with a red sap that was used for centuries as dye and for medicinal purposes, spiritual ceremonies and witchcraft rituals. According to Baldwin Construction former project manager Alex Ocampo (currently a partner with The Workshop), the remodel of the 1954 beach bungalow was designed around the tree.
“No one knows for sure how old the tree is. But everyone agreed that it survived for so long that it was important that we respected it and preserved it. To do that we built an extra retaining wall, and when we designed the koi pond all of the plumbing work was carefully done around the roots. At one point we also supported the tree with ropes during heavy rain to make sure that it survived.”
Outside the home’s entrance, the courtyard pays homage to peace and nature—causing one to pause for a moment to savor it. “The former entry courtyard, which is at the inland side of the house, was repurposed as a sheltered outdoor oasis by relocating the entry to the house, adding sliding doors to the great room, creating built-in seating and a water feature/koi pond,” says Palos Verdes-based architect Russ Barto. Lush planters overflowing with palm trees, bamboo, ferns and succulents soften the relaxed stone and tile hardscape by Reinhardt Brothers in Torrance.
A bridge across the koi pond, which lends visual interest and provides a place of refuge for the fish, turtles and a baby shark, leads to the main entrance of the house. An open front door invitingly reveals a warm, contemporary home perched above a sandy beach with breathtaking ocean views and the hypnotic, rhythmic sound of the ocean heard throughout.
“We never planned to live here permanently. We moved in while we were remodeling another house in Palos Verdes and fell in love with the location and stayed,” says Cindy MacMillan.
The architectural vision of Russ coupled with the expertise of Baldwin Construction was key to transforming the beach house aesthetically and to optimally maximize the limited living space. “Dave and Cindy wanted a home that was manageable for the two of them, that would also be flexible enough to entertain large groups and accommodate occasional overnight guests,” shares Russ. “We needed to do this without adding any square footage due to zoning restrictions.”
Left: Koi kick back in the water feature; Right: the dragon’s blood tree that started it all.
He continues, “We first simplified the plan by removing a very large, non-functioning fireplace from the center of the house, which allowed us to combine several small spaces into the multi-functional kitchen/great room. To utilize the outdoor space, the ocean-side deck was expanded and sheltered with glass panels and large doors were added to the great room for ease of access.”
The MacMillans were very hands-on throughout the project. Most notably, Dave and Alex collaborated to design the stainless steel supports on the kitchen island and the posts for the deck railing—repeated in a smaller scale at the staircase.
Exceptional cross-ventilation was achieved with awning windows installed at the maximum height possible. Skylights were also added, and some interior walls were built three feet short of the ceiling and finished with glass to exaggerate an open feeling.
Since a standard heating and air conditioning system was not an option due to structural limitations, radiant heat was installed beneath bamboo floors. “Air conditioning wasn’t a concern because of the ocean breezes, but heat was. So we cut channels into the concrete slab for each radiant heat pipe,” says Alex. “Lighting was also difficult because we didn’t have anywhere to run electrical, and the ceiling did not have room for can lights. So we installed track lights and ceiling fans with the electrical feed on the roof housed in a foam system for thermal insulation. We also installed a space-saving, tankless water heater.”
The furnishings are a simple yet sophisticated, contemporary-style blend of dark leathers and warm teak woods, which were purchased by the MacMillans at Atmosphere Interiors in Los Angeles. One of the most prominent pieces is a table that seats 14 on the outdoor deck, frequently used for entertaining their marketing business clients, colleagues and friends. Ammonite fossilized stone from Morocco adorns the tops of custom-made tables.
The custom cabinetry was designed and fabricated by Randy Landis in Gardena, and the kitchen was appointed with Caesarstone quartz countertops, a mother-of-pearl shell backsplash and Miele appliances. In celebration of the MacMillans’ fascination with fossils, displays of stones, shells, petrified wood and other earthly treasures collected from their travels adorn walls, tables and shelves in each room, uniquely complemented by the plein air (outdoor painting) works of local artist Tom Redfield for the finishing touches.
Starkly contrasting their affinity for artifacts, nature and the quietude of beach living, Dave is a motor racing enthusiast and amateur competitor. He is so passionate about the sport that a room adjacent to the garage houses a full-size racing simulator. “I never grew up,” he says. “That’s vastly overrated.”
The MacMillans’ zest for life is complemented by a home that exemplifies the joy of architecturally bringing the outdoors in. With ocean and courtyard views, their modest abode is visually grand with delightful seascape, landscape and sky backdrops in every room. Adds Russ, “It’s a simple little beach house that’s capable of great things.”