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Restoring Harmony

A California Bungalow sheds the indignities of time and remerges in a grander, historically sensitive, form.

Project: Dechter residence, Long Beach, CA

Architects: Kelly Sutherlin McLeod Architecture, Inc., Long Beach, CA; Kelly Sutherlin McLeod, AIA, principal in charge

By Dan Cooper

Sometimes, you can improve on an historic structure; of course, it's easier if the building was severely defaced in the mid-20th century. Such is the story behind the Dechter residence in Long Beach, CA, which was built in 1911 as a somewhat modest bungalow with a commanding ocean view.

When Sherie and Brad Dechter first entered the house in 2000, substantial historically inappropriate modifications had been made to its exterior, most notably a 1940s modernization that continued in phases well into the 1970s. Despite the alterations and neglect, the Dechters saw beyond the disrepair; enchanted by the remaining original Craftsman detailing, they decided to buy the property.

"The house had been owned by the same person during the 50 years prior to our acquisition in 2000," says Brad Dechter. "It was later turned into housing for students at California State University, Long Beach. It may have been a fraternity house, and then it was turned into a duplex and rented to individual families.

"The interior had been abused over the years. We initially thought we'd be able to paint and 'spruce up' the place. But from the foundation to the roof, everything was ruined, and what was to be a simple cleanup/re-paint in my mind turned into a major project."

Realizing that their fixer-upper was in actuality more of a basket case, the Dechters enlisted the services of Long Beach-based Kelly Sutherlin McLeod Architecture, Inc., which was the project architect for the conservation of the Gamble House, one the preeminent Craftsman structures in the country.

"The Dechters purchased the house 'as-is', and it turned out to be in much worse condition than it had originally appeared," notes Kelly Sutherlin McLeod, AIA. "Exploratory excavation revealed that the building did not have a foundation; stem walls merely ran into the ground on a site with a history of settling soil levels. We raised the house on cribbing, poured an all-new concrete foundation and stem walls, along with new concrete walls for the existing partial basement."

As with any project of this scope, there were surprises, which McLeod and the Dechters worked their way through with aplomb. "Restoration projects are evolutionary and require a process of exploration and evaluation," says McLeod. "The final scope of work often cannot be defined until the evaluation is complete. With the Dechter residence, layers of alterations needed to be peeled away, and original materials and finishes needed to be identified and researched. Very little of the original house remained at all, much less intact, but what was discovered was used to set the direction for the overall building configuration as well as the exterior and interior design details."

Fortunately for all concerned, including the house, the Dechters did not abandon the project in despair. "The success of the Dechter residence project was firstly due to the commitment of the clients to a quality project and the vision developed for their needs and the property," McLeod says. "It is not an easy feat for owners during the initial phases when the discovery of substandard construction seems unending and the work scope escalates."

The exterior of the original house had been obscured by insensitive alterations and additions, and, as these were removed, remaining portions of the original historic building came to light. The structure was built as a very simple two-story rectangular building, but, as McLeod states, "the clients wanted a more dynamic exterior form, which would capitalize on their unobstructed 120-deg. ocean view, so window openings were maximized and a sleeping porch was added off the master bedroom at the second floor."

To achieve these goals while maintaining stylistic integrity, McLeod adds, "the primary orientation of the house and the roof configuration were maintained, and the design vocabulary of the building exterior is based on the original building details uncovered during the exploration phase of the project: long roof eaves with exposed rafter tails, heavy timber outriggers, continuous redwood water table and trim, exterior wood casings and attic vents at gables and cedar shingles – all new components were designed and installed to match the original."

There were many tasks to be executed in the house's interior. When the previous owner converted the house into a multi-family unit, the upper and lower floors were sealed off from each other and the original stairwell was completely covered. The second-floor alterations were removed and the stairwell was once again opened to connect the two floors. The original pocket door at the lower landing of the stairs was also restored. The Dechters retained the kitchen in its historic location, as well as the butler's pantry, which was restored back to its original function.

The highlights of the house's interior are the two grand public rooms, the dining and living rooms. "When we first saw the dining room," says Dechter, "we knew that it was a beautiful room, and that the stained glass was wonderful, even though a wall was built behind it blocking the natural light. Also, the interiors of the cabinets were painted turquoise, and the mirrors on the built-in cabinets were tarnished and old. The first thing we did was bring in a crew who were experts at refinishing old, beat-up wood. These rooms then became the vision, focus and standard for what we were trying to achieve in terms of coloring, quality and design throughout the house. Through all three years of construction, those rooms set the standard and became the beacon for what was to be done."

"The second-floor framing was reinforced to remove a large sag in the living-room ceiling," Mcleod says of the living room. "The fireplace mantle was original, but the surround and hearth had been replaced with non-original slate veneer. The oak mantel was removed and restored, new Batchelder-style tile were installed at the surround and hearth and the mantle was reinstalled back in its original location.

"The second floor of the house was returned to its original configuration with the open stairwell centered within a surrounding space leading to perimeter rooms," McLeod adds. "The guardrail around the second-floor opening and stairwell no longer existed and needed to be reconstructed. Both interior and exterior rails were designed in a simple Craftsman style, complementary to the design vocabulary of the house, and all meticulously crafted by the finish carpenters. Built-in bookcases, for the owners' extensive book collection, were designed for second-floor hallway walls; wood trims and casings continued the original design." The historic beam design, found in the living and dining rooms, was replicated and continued into the kitchen and the family room. All new windows, doors, wood casings and trim were custom made to match the originals remaining in the living room and dining room as well."

A crucial partner on the team was master finish carpenter Randy Wise, who, along with colleague Ken Kleffman, recreated the historic feel in sections of the house that required replacement or new, interpretive woodwork. "One challenge was finding quartersawn white oak with a superior grain in sufficient quality to match the existing lumber," says Wise. "We had to go back East to find select widths, because there are only so many board feet in a cut. We'd select a certain amount and wait for the next cut. We wound up going through a wood broker to match the grain and quality, especially with the 9½-in. bands."

Wise reflects on the Dechter house project with enthusiasm. "I was delighted to be involved with this project," he says. "I've worked with Kelly on several projects before and she's very exacting and pays a lot of attention to detail. The biggest challenge was to be true to details and to follow the vision of the original builder and the present-day architect. I had to make new and old construction meet in harmony and flow together."

Through the decades of the 20th century, the back of the house had become a conglomerate of outdoor patio and deck areas that were crudely enclosed and finished. "The non-permitted substandard construction was removed and the back of the house was reconstructed for the new family room and expanded kitchen underneath an original bedroom on the second floor," says McLeod. "A modern brick fireplace was removed, and a new stone fireplace was built in the corner of the family room. An original mahogany bookcase was discovered in this part of the house. This bookcase was restored and re-installed in the new family room and served as the inspiration for the new woodwork in the room to be crafted in mahogany."

Masonry artist Carl Del Nero, owner of Long Beach-based CDN Associates, installed all of the interior tile work in the bathrooms and the living-room fireplace, the new stone fireplace in the family room, the new brick fireplace in the master bedroom and the exterior clinker brick and quarry tile decks.

For a homeowner and architect obsessed with detail, another challenge was the hardware. McLeod points out that "while researching for a metalsmith to reproduce cabinet hardware to match the original found in the dining room for installation in bathrooms, pantry and kitchen, the very same cabinet pull was discovered in a turn-of-the-century vintage-hardware catalogue.

"Also, Alsop Lock and Key of Wilmington, CA, reproduced the cabinet hardware and, at the client's request, stainless steel was used in lieu of the original pewter to avoid tarnishing. The diagonal lines of metal straps at the new exterior posts reflect the diagonal element in the original cabinetry hardware design."

"We had 176 cabinet and drawer handles custom made," says Dechter. "All of the remaining door and window hardware – hinges, backplates, etc. – is solid brass, which was stripped of its lacquer finish, chemically treated and sealed with a clear powder coating to protect it from the elements and give it an aged coloring."

The Dechters followed through on their commitment in every aspect. "We bought 111 light fixtures that were period appropriate," says Dechter. "Salvaged brick was used throughout – four truckloads were brought in from an abandoned site in Iowa."

Preservation architecture is a unique niche and McLeod feels that "restoration projects present an exciting challenge of maintaining truth in history and design integrity by finding a harmonious balance between preserving original historic fabric and implementing new construction." This, she says, must be coupled with "innovatively meeting the client's program requirements for their contemporary lifestyles while honoring the historic value and authenticity of the historic building as it enters into the new phase of its ongoing history – as a home for its current caretakers.

"Equally important was the respect held between members of the Dechter residence project team, which allowed for healthy team collaboration," she continues. "It is important for clients to hire architects, engineers and contractors who are truly qualified in their fields and the specialized work required for the project. Successful completion of projects is more easily obtained when project team members understand the project intent and are secure with their own professional standing, allowing them to respect fellow team members in their roles on the project and work collaboratively as team players."

The Dechter residence is located in the Long Beach historic-landmark district known as Bluff Park. At the time the district was designated by the city, the house was not included as a contributing landmark structure, due to the extensive alterations that had been made to the property. The house now sits proudly on Ocean Boulevard as a showpiece, harmonious with the surrounding historic district – the Dechter residence was the recipient of the Long Beach Heritage Coalition's 2005 Preservation Award. 

 

 

 
 

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