A West Coast 1957 Modern House

Smitten by terrazzo floors and expanses of glass, ancient California live oaks and a sublime simplicity, a family restores a 1957 Modern house to its original integrity.

Glass walls provide views of the yard and allow the house to flow seamlessly into the back garden. The upper-level glass balcony was added during the recent remodeling. 

William Wright

The story begins when an heir to the Singer sewing-machine fortune gave her son some land in 1957. Pyrns Hopkins had grown up here in Santa Barbara, in the large, early-20th-century house next door to the gifted land. He wanted something more modern for his own home. He contacted the well-known architects Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey, who’d designed the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and asked them to design something contemporary—stylish and up-to-date, but with a relaxed California sensibility.

He got a house nestled amidst the lot’s century-old coastal live oaks. It had the best of Modern Movement features: floor-to-ceiling glass walls warmed with rosewood paneling and built-in bookcases; a stone wall to anchor the living room; terrazzo floors to keep the house cool. Broad sliding doors open to terraced gardens, blurring the distinction between indoors and outside.

A low, mid-century sectional sofa centers the expansive, upper-level living room. Glass walls on three sides provide views of the gardens. The clean-lined teak entertainment center conceals television and stereo equipment.

William Wright

The decades and a succession of owners were not kind to the gracious house. By the time the current owners—empty nesters looking to simplify—found it, the house needed significant restoration. Metal-framed windows and sliding doors had rusted and warped. Walls had been covered with a shiny vinyl in the 1970s. The master bedroom on the east end was dark and uninviting. The original galley kitchen was small and cramped. The once-gleaming terrazzo floors had chipped and broken; one former owner had laid jarringly gaudy Mexican tiles over the terrazzo in the front and back entries. The new owners would come to realize that these problems were the tip of an iceberg.

They fell in love with the property, nevertheless. Its Modern bones were intact . . . and how the dappled light, filtered by the California live oaks outside, lit the glass-walled interior! The Modern-aesthetic restraint had an Asian elegance and serenity in keeping with the owners’ interests and their collections of Japanese art and antiques.

The family hired the late architect Peter Becker, who had worked with Charles Moore and Frank Gehry. Becker was clear on what was needed to restore the house’s sophisticated simplicity while bringing it unpretentiously into the 21st century. Work began with remodeling of the garage that extended from the west end. It was enlarged to three bays, and the original house then extended over it to provide a new kitchen, office, and bathroom.

The new bath off the master bedroom is modern and serene with veined marble counters, cool slate floors, and soft grey concrete walls. Like the steel-framed glass walls and new landscaping, the room has a Japanese sensibility.

William Wright

During early remodeling, severe dry rot (fungal decay) was discovered throughout the house. The owners joked that the thick vinyl wall covering was all that held the house together. Poorly drained water from the flat roof had caused such significant damage that all of the interior walls had to be stripped down to the studs and replaced. The roof would be torn off and redone in a waterproof, state-of-the-art MBR system.

It didn’t go well. Their general contractor had to be dismissed mid-project, and the owners found themselves with a house that had no roof, walls stripped to the studs, and no contractor.

The original house was extended over the remodeled garage, now with three bays, to provide a new kitchen, bathroom, and office space. Warm, durable ipe wood flooring is a counterpoint to restored terrazzo floors in the rest of the house.

William Wright

Happily, a good referral from friends introduced the couple to another project manager and a contractor who did period-sensitive work. Both cost and time estimates were exceeded, however. A major challenge was how to match the existing steel-framed windows and doors. Their very narrow silhouettes were no longer available, as most companies today offer wide aluminum frames. The team located a company that had constructed steel-framed windows for Richard Neutra-designed houses. They were able to exactly duplicate the vintage steel frames.

The existing terrazzo floors were restored, with patient patching and then polishing with a diamond-bit grinder. They shine now as they did when they were installed.

On the upper level, expansive terrazzo floors and walls of glass keep spaces light and open. The dining area and kitchen including added space can be seen beyond. Vintage Japanese textiles hang over the stair railings.

William Wright

After several years of restoration, the house was finally intact. In the new kitchen, durable ipe (ee-pay), also known as Brazilian walnut, was laid for the floors. A dining table designed by Warren Platner for Knoll in 1966, and still in production, sits at one end of the kitchen for informal meals.

Working with designer Randy Franks, the homeowners chose Modern Movement furnishings for the living room, to complement the original floor-to-ceiling bookcases and rosewood paneling. The room was softened with a neutral grey carpet and low, simple seating­—an L-shape sectional and sculptural period armchairs, which surround a marble-top coffee table. The owners’ Asian collections have become graceful accents.

Flat Roof Options for Mid-century Homes 

Houses identified as Mid-century Modern often have flat or low-pitched roofs, which may lead to water pooling and drainage problems. This list of roofing-material options considers their pros and cons. 

BUILT-UP ROOFING Long the most common system, and least expensive, it uses multiple layers of asphalt-impregnated roofing felt and mopped tar (bitumen) topped with gravel for fire-retarding and UV protection. It protects the roof against wind, snow, and pooled water, but is out of favor as a petroleum product that gives off noxious fumes during application and beyond. It can be difficult to find a leak with this system. The black tar is not best for a hot climate.

MODIFIED BITUMEN (MBR) roofing is related to tar and gravel, but uses a sheeting material made of several layers of polymer-modified bitumen. It’s roll roofing applied with heat or liquid mastic, with a surface finish of small rock granules. The mineral surfacing is factory-applied and a reinforced layer provides better flexibility at low temperatures. Durable and easy to repair.

The living room and the master bedroom beyond open to the upper terrace landscaped as a Japanese rock garden.

William Wright

RUBBER or EPDM (thermoset) roofs are made of recycled synthetic rubber. The membrane (black for UV protection or white for reflectivity) is chemical-, weather- and UV-resistant. It must be installed by a trained contractor, it’s somewhat costly, and, while very durable, the roofing can be damaged by branches or foot traffic.

PVC MEMBRANES (thermoplastic) are applied in rolls, and the seams heat-welded. They are pliable and durable with good puncture resistance—but PVC cannot be used with asphalt (tar), which destroys the membrane. A separator goes over existing asphalt.

SPRAY POLYURETHANE FOAM (SPF) roof systems boast easy installation. A liquid is sprayed over the cleaned, existing roof and expands into a surface-conforming foam. SPF delivers thermal, air, and moisture barriers, resulting in a very high R-value per inch. With no seams, leaks are unlikely. A qualified, experienced contractor is a must, and the system is relatively expensive.


Tags: 1957 California glass mid-century modern modern OHJ October 2018 Terrazzo Floors

By Brian D. Coleman

Brian D. Coleman, M.D., is the Editor-at-large for Arts and Crafts Homes and Old House Journal magazines and has written numerous articles on home design. His work has appeared in magazines ranging from Old House Journal to Period Living in the U.K. 

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