F. Scott Fitzgerald may have said that there are no second acts in American lives, but this is certainly not true when it comes to Southern California residential architecture.
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have said that there are no second acts in American lives, but this is certainly not true when it comes to Southern California residential architecture. Our homes are as mutable as we are – changing shape as often as people change hairstyles. This Palos Verdes Estate home is shining in its second act, and stands as one of the most authentic Italianate villa reproductions on the West Coast.
Originally built in 1983 by local Palos Verdes architect George Sweeney, whose firm is well known on the peninsula for creating authentically reproduced historically inspired vernacular structures mainly in the French Normandy and California Ranch styles, the home began its life as “villa on a hill” modeled after a small villa near Caprarola, Italy, beloved by the architect.
Situated on a peninsular promontory that features the kind of 360-degree view that typifies the most sought-after Palos Verdes properties, the residence is among the most spectacular in an area rife with extraordinary homes. “The villa style,” says Sweeney, “just fit the program for the site.” The unusual footprint of the hilltop property lent itself to the rectangular forms of typical Palladian-style villa design. “The site is shaped like an axe handle,” he says, “with a very steep and narrow easterly end, which is about 10’- 15’ wide, like an axe handle.” The home is placed on the largest portion of the property, with a tennis court and much of the drive way supported by caissons.”
The central form of the home is rectangular, which is typical of the Palladian design scheme, with a series of symmetrical wings in the manner of less formal Tuscan rural residences. “The problem with most of what they call ‘Mediterranean’ architecture here in California is that they don’t employ the right proportion and detail,” says Sweeney. “These homes are often too overstated and busy, and are very much amorphous in style. Homes like these may utilize elements of that style, but really they are just dressed up with balustrades and columns that are not employed in a traditional fashion.”
Southern California, and the South Bay in particular, is littered with example after example of badly designed oversized stucco boxes in the so-called Mediterranean style. These homes, usually designed by developers on spec are no more than boxy rectangular forms with a few colonnades, balustrades and Italianate fountains slapped on without any real understanding of the tradition from whence they came. This home is just the opposite.
Built around a formal central courtyard, and a study in symmetry and grace, this mini-villa, draws you in from the street with its alluring and beguiling form. The entryway features a forecourt, which is approached from the street by a formal staircase that descends around an elaborate wall fountain. To further the dramatic experience, Sweeney designed a balustraded entry loggia, featuring Corinthian stone columns that, “support a beautifully painted plaster groin vaulted ceiling,” he says.
Sweeney created strikingly thick exterior walls, which “employ double framed wall construction, in order to achieve the appearance of masonry construction,” he says. Add to this deeply recessed windows and doors, and the home takes on the look of a typical Tuscan home, many of which have lasted almost untouched for centuries. The authentic look is further reinforced via a rustic mission tile roof, iron balconies, run plaster eaves and plaster or stone door and window architraves.
Though the bones of the house were absolutely authentic, the new owners wanted the interior to match the exterior. “When we bought the house it was kind of Miami Vice meets Dynasty,” laughs the new owner. “We tore out everything; basically we just left walls and started over.”
The couple loves Italy and Italian design and wanted to translate this love to the authenticity of both the design and spirit of the villa. Working with interior designer Kathryne Dahlman of Studio City and Montecito, they replaced every surface of the home with authentic elements like hand painted ceilings, French limestone floors, and a mosaic-tiled pool that may be one of the most beautiful in Southern California. The central courtyard received a loving touch and was restored to a traditional gravel lined space that is resplendent in potted lemon trees that scent the cool night air with blossoms during the spring months. “I love all the rooms in this house,” says the owner, “but the view from the master bedroom is my favorite. It’s like being in a cockpit with a 360-degree view.”
George Sweeney, AIA