Traditional Building Portfolio



Family Ties

A southern California firm that specializes in the Spanish Colonial Revival style updates an Arthur Kelly design.

Project: Alta Canyada Residence, La Cañanda Flintridge, CA

Architect: Michael Burch Architects, La Cañada Flintridge, CA; Michael Burch, Principal; Diane Wilk, Architect

Contractor: John Caire Construction, Glendale, CA

By Will Holloway

In the 1920s and '30s, renowned southern California architect Arthur Kelly designed hundreds of residences and buildings in and around Los Angeles. Kelly's project list includes the Westlake School for Girls, the Wilshire Country Club, the Christie Hotel in Hollywood, a Tudor style estate in Holmby Hills that would later become the Playboy Mansion, and his own home, a 2,200-sq.ft. Spanish Colonial Revival overlooking downtown Los Angeles, Catalina Island and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

Kelly's house was built in 1925 in Alta Canyada, a then-new subdivision with curving streets and large intersections in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains (Alta Canyada is now encompassed by the city of La Cañada Flintridge, about 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles). The three-bedroom, two-bath frame and stucco structure rose on a sloping site with a tile roof above a one-story façade facing the street and a two-story façade at the rear.

In 1999, the house was purchased by Michael Burch and Diane Wilk, the husband-and-wife team that make up Michael Burch Architects. "It was what we like," says Burch. "It hadn't been touched, except for the kitchen, which had been redone in the '70s. So we remodeled the kitchen, added a pool in the backyard and added a powder room." Burch and Wilk were also trying to start a family, so they planned on a one-bedroom addition in the sideyard. Then one day Wilk called her husband from the doctor's office. "‘I have something to tell you – are you sitting down?'" he recalls her saying. "‘We're not going to have twins, we're going to have triplets.' And I said, ‘Just a minute, let me pull over and stop the car.' Our lives have never been the same since."

Nor has the house. In lieu of a simple one-bedroom addition, the architects removed one bedroom and bathroom, as well as a laundry room and the garage at the basement level, from the north side of the house. They then added two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a master-bath dressing area and a library on the first floor; a study/office on the second floor; and a family room with a bathroom and laundry room, as well as an adjoining three-bay garage, at the basement level. Because the existing basement had seven-ft. ceilings, an excavation lowered the floors to make room for the new family room and garage. As the house sits about 200 ft. from the Sierra Madre fault line, three steel moment frames were required. In total, 2,000 sq.ft. were added, nearly doubling the size of the original structure.

"The section is quite complicated," says Burch. "The spaces overlap and interlock and we have some spaces that have seven-ft. ceiling heights and the loft has a low ceiling, so it was a complex addition. Because we have a very nice street frontage – I think 160 ft. – I lined up the rooms en-suite – from the existing dining room through the existing living room, the entry hall, the study and the new library." With all the rooms on axis, it is possible to stand outside and look through the window of the new library all the way through to the window in the dining room at the opposite end of the house.

Although a second floor was added for the new study/office, Burch and Wilk were careful to retain the house's one-story appearance from the street. "The original house was one story with a laundry room below, and we now have a full three stories in the back," says Burch. "So it was quite a trick keeping the scale of the single-story massing from the street. It's very hard to add on to any house and not make it worse, but I think we actually made the house better."

As their own clients, Burch and Wilk didn't have to make some of the compromises, whether programmatic or budget-related, typical of many projects. "Fortunately," says Burch, "my wife and I have very similar tastes and outlooks when it comes to architecture. We didn't have to talk ourselves into spending money in the areas where it was really worth it." As such, the project included extensive use of Tunisian Tile (supplied by South Pasadena-based Mission Tile West), inlaid floor tile, stenciled doors and cabinets, and beamed and stenciled ceilings. The stenciling was done by Agnieszka Kaleta, who also works for the firm.

Burch notes that all new and existing elements were carefully matched. "Some people say we don't have the craftsmen anymore, and I don't understand that," he says. "We actually exceeded the craftsmanship of the original house with the tile work, the carving and the wrought-iron work. I don't understand the argument – I think it's sort of a red herring – that doing traditional architecture is inappropriate and is unfeasible because the craftspeople don't exist anymore. At least in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, it's just not true."

The connections between Burch and Kelly don't end with the Alta Canyada house: Kelly's Westlake School for Girls (now the Harvard-Westlake School)? Burch's grandfather was the contractor; Burch's grandfather's own home in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles? Kelly designed it. "My father had these photographs of it – a beautiful Spanish style house – and I had always asked him who designed it, and he'd said that my grandfather did," says Burch. "What a surprise to find out 50 years later – living in Kelly's old house that I'd completely renovated and expanded – that Kelly had designed my grandfather's house. It was really pretty amazing."

The renovation of and addition to the Alta Canyada house was completed in 2006, and if actress Diane Keaton's reaction is any indication, Michael Burch Architects was successful in meeting its goals – to restore where possible, renovate as needed and add on as seamlessly as possible. "She was looking at a Paul Williams house across the street for her book California Romantica," says Burch. "She saw our house, we walked her thought it, and she said, ‘You have to be in my book – this is a genius house.'"  

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