This iconic midcentury home by Theodore Pletsch is one of more than a thousand houses he designed in and around San Gabriel Valley, California. While under threat of demolishment, the people from the neighborhood reacted strongly against the idea, which left the home vacant for a longer time. With no intention to live in the 1961 midcentury themselves, the homeowners took in tenants, who felt the home was an extension of their family.
First of all, could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Born in England, I’m a filmmaker, having initially started as an editor and then moving into independent films and forming my own production company.
When my wife and I were living in downtown Los Angeles, we had a very successful film location agency. We had four lofts in an incredible old warehouse building in the garments district. These lofts were enormously popular with shoots, everything ranging from commercials to Netflix and Amazon shows, magazine covers and music videos.
The loft we lived in was by far the most in demand location. All of our furniture in that loft was midcentury, nothing else would have suited it. We spent a lot of money and time sourcing the pieces so when the time came to move, we knew we wanted something with character and something that would suit our furniture and taste.
How did you come to live in your house and what drew you to the midcentury style?
We quite literally outgrew our loft. We already had one son who had just turned one and my wife then fell pregnant with twins. We saw the ad for the house and knew it was meant to be and then did everything in our power to get it. Built in 1961, it had remained in the family it was built for until the death of the parents and was sold by the children in 2012.
It was then purchased by a couple who planned to demolish it to build a McMansion. Given that the surrounding houses were all built around the same era and were largely occupied by owners who’d also been there since that time, they faced an enormous backlash from local residents and spent nearly a decade attempting to get permission to tear it down. During that time, the house largely sat empty until we were fortunate enough to become its final tenants while the owners pursued their planning approval.
What do you think was so special about this period in American design?
Not only was it an era that was to me the epitome of glamour and romance, but it was also incredibly practical in terms of design. The layout of our house was typical: no corner being wasted and the use of built-in units and furniture were designed for convenience. Obviously it’s a period that’s had a certain renaissance due to shows like Mad Men but there’s no doubt it’s a style that has endured and for good reason. You can’t help but be seduced by it.
What do you know about the architect who designed your house?
Theodore Pletsch came to California in 1912 and, having narrowly avoided the 1918 flu epidemic, went on to graduate from the USC School of Architecture in 1925. He built an impressive 1,300 buildings in and around the San Gabriel Valley. Over 500 of those were houses like ours. He also designed storefronts and offices. He was a keen walker, regularly hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains, and remained in Altadena until his passing.
Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility when living in a house designed by such a famous architect?
Absolutely, even as a tenant. You find yourself taking care of things that little bit more and always want the house to look her best. We did everything we could to ensure every room felt loved and respected. I’ve been fortunate to live in some beautiful homes, but that house was definitely one that felt like an extension of myself, and us as a family. You feel a responsibility to the family that was raised there for half a century, especially when you know you’re going to be the last people to love it.
What are the advantages/struggles of living in a midcentury house?
Things go wrong, often. Frequent plumbing problems, mainly due to the length of pipes because we were on so many acres. The oven was original and quirky to say the least, as was the pool filter. Of course heating and cooling a house that large is costly. But that’s all part and parcel.
What’s your favourite part of the house and why?
It’s hard to pick one. You’re talking about five bedrooms, four bathrooms, three living rooms, endless hallways, the kitchen, terraces, the pool. It was a 9,000 square foot house positioned at the top of just shy of seven acres of land.
But if I had to choose, first, the main living room. That room had the wow factor for anyone that walked in and looked through those endless, vast windows at an uninterrupted view of the mountains, our grand piano, the sunken seating area by the fire where I’d drink Champagne with my mother-in-law.
The huge terrace it led out to was also breathtaking. I loved the his-and-hers dressing rooms in the master bedroom, my wife’s was white shiny marble and mine dark rich wood panelling. And of course the pool, where I’d swim and sunbathe every day with its interrupted views over the Rose Bowl and Pasadena.
Last but not least, do you have any tips for people interested in buying a midcentury house today? What should they pay attention to and why?
The primary issue to be concerned with when looking at a midcentury home is it’s age, and the condition of the roof, windows, doors, heating system, etc. Because of the inherently custom nature of these homes, maintenance and replacement of virtually any part of the structure is not inexpensive, nor are contractors who appreciate and are qualified to properly restore an historic home easy to find. Before purchasing, get a thorough inspection by someone conversant with midcentury homes, and find a midcentury-qualified contractor to do his own inspection and speak to what issues will have to be dealt with, on what timeline, and what the cost may be.