Lilian Pfaff interviews Adam Bandler, the owner and partner of Oficina.LA, about his design philosophy and experience living in and renovating 1100 Montecito Drive.
Why did you buy this house in 2017?
When we moved back to LA after being in New York for about ten years, we were excited to move to a place that was proximate to both nature and city amenities. We shopped for quite a while in Mount Washington and in Rose Hill and we kind of just stumbled across Montecito Heights by chance. It was the perfect antidote to the very urban lifestyle we led in New York: just a five minute walk to Flat Top Park, ten minute walk to Debs Park, and a five minute drive to all of the bars and restaurants in Highland Park. Flat Top is a super interesting area and it's in the process of being purchased by the city, at least that’s my understanding. Northeast Trees has been carefully removing invasive plants and installing native species, and cleaning up some of the trails. It is a huge public park—but a local secret—with some of the most sweeping views of LA, from downtown to Dodger Stadium and Griffith Park and the Hollywood Sign.
What about the house itself?
We are designers and were very attracted to the house. Who doesn’t want to live in a proper LA Mid-Century? We did a lot of research on it. The flexibility of the plan lent itself to adapting the house to our needs, and the ample backyard was perfect for our kids and puppy. When we renovated it, we tried to stay close to the original intentions of the house. The neighborhood is landmarked on Survey LA but the house itself is not protected:
The Montecito Drive Residential Historic District is significant as an excellent and unique example of hillside residential design that exhibits technological innovations in engineering as applied to the modern hillside architecture of Northeast Los Angeles. Contributing residences within the district retain the dramatic cantilevers, modular configurations, and pre-fabricated materials which enable them to adapt to the dramatic terrain of the canyon upon which they are sited.
While I wouldn’t argue that the house itself is a masterpiece, the accumulation of the 39 residences add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
What was your design approach?
When we purchased the house it was in pretty bad condition due to neglect from the previous owner. We made a serious attempt with our renovation to bring it closer to the original design from 1963. We replaced the original aluminum windows—which I love, but they're single pane and not very energy efficient—with the closest version we could find. We had to replace almost the entirety of the sub-floor due to termite damage and rot. We uncovered a drywalled beam, built out of old, tight-grain Douglas Fir, the kind of stuff that you can't find anymore, so we refinished it to become a centerpiece of the house. Douglas Fir became the basis for a very restrained materials palette, and we used it for the floor and all of the millwork. The Marine Grade Douglas Fir plywood is a kind of mid-century motif, maybe most famously used by Rudolf Schindler, but we tried to finish it with all natural materials and designed it in a more contemporary language. We wanted to reduce the amount of materials as much as possible so that it didn't feel too noisy, to really emphasize the simplicity of the house, and, most importantly, bring the views of the canyon into the house.
Did you bring all the original features back to life?
Most of them, especially the elevated courtyard. It is not a courtyard in the classical sense: it is a small balcony that's flanked by the living, dining and bedrooms. Some owners find this wasteful: you are building this house in the sky and you’re not maximizing the square footage? But we actually demolished part of the original house in order to bring that character back and maximize the views. It is the space where we eat dinner almost every single night, thirty feet above the ground.
What do you think of the neighborhood?
There is an amazing esprit de corps in the neighborhood; most of us know each other and are friends, and we all share tips and tricks on maintaining the houses since they’re nearly all the same! It is really fun to go into our neighbors’ houses and see how their plans have been adapted, and we all kind of debate which is the most original. And we all share the same infrastructure. When the Montecito Heights Development Corporation developed the houses with the architects Richard Kearney and John Lawrence Pugsley, marketed as ‘The Cliffs’ in the 1960s, they designed them on one long retaining wall that curves around the topography of the hill. The repetition of the steel columns and rectangular forms along this beautiful sweeping curve reminds me of the more heroic European modernist projects from the 1930s, albeit in a post-war American language: single family, no shared walls, and private outdoor space!
Do you know why there are two types of houses in The Cliffs development?
My understanding is that there is the kind of deluxe version which is the two-story A-frame and then the working-class single story which is the one that we have. The motivation for the design of the house was not just to deal with the complicated topography of the hill but also to use simple manufactured building systems. Steel was lightweight, available, and not so expensive at that time, and could be pre-fabricated. In that sense it was part of that California post-war project of how to build inexpensive single-family residences.
What is on the ground? The lot in total is about 7,000 sqft.
We made the decision not to fence in the property and again it's part of the spirit of the neighborhood. For us it is like a free space for play, so our kids go down there and we can take the dog. There is a kind of secret road that takes you up to this amazing view on Flat Top Hill, where you can hike up straight from our backyard. The ambition was to develop it further. Part of that comes from seeing our neighbors do pretty substantial vegetable gardens or fruit trees. The parcels are around 8,000 sqft, they are quite narrow and go deep down the hill. We have not utilized it as productively as we can, but we have sketches for an ADU underneath the house and landscape plans.
What did you do with the kitchen? Was the original layout like this?
We’re not sure. It is quite common for the kitchen to be in the location where our kitchen is in many of the other houses, which makes me believe that it was the original location. When we moved in, the kitchen had a really bad renovation with dark cabinets and black tile countertops, and it made the whole entry sequence feel very cramped. There was a very small entry door we replaced with a new sliding glass door, also, I believe, more original to the design. We gutted it and rebuilt everything in the workshop that I have in my garage. I love to cook and I reconfigured the layout to make it a bit more ergonomic and open. We replaced the built-in island with a farm table that we designed out of salvaged Douglas Fir. With the help of one of our neighbors who is an excellent craftsman, we built the table, and then with two other neighbors we marched it down the street and christened it with a neighborhood cocktail hour! Definitely a communal effort… This is one of the things I thought I would miss about New York—everybody knows each other, and I thought without the same density here in LA that that would go away, but we know more neighbors now than we ever knew in our twenty-unit building! For example, we have a mature papaya tree—and papaya is not my favorite fruit—but one of my neighbors loves it and trades us for oranges and loquats.
Did you make any other improvements?
We also gutted the bathroom, because the subfloor had to be replaced and all of the plumbing redone. At the same time we tried to improve the space. It’s small, but we found a great double sink by Duravit, and also installed a deep Duravit tub. The bathroom had a very tiny window and a gorgeous Cypress tree growing right in front of the bathroom. We installed a larger operable window, so when you're in the shower, it almost feels like an outdoor shower. It is still private from the neighbors because the tree obstructs the view and we added privacy glass. All of the sliding doors and some of the windows are new, but we elected to keep the beautiful jalousie in the second bedroom, again in a nod to the Mid-Century style.
We installed a cool roof over the existing roof to reflect more sunlight and make the house more energy efficient and added an AC. We restored the fireplace; I’m not sure if it's original but it’s definitely in the mod spirit of the 1960s! And during COVID, when we were stuck at home, we removed all of the concrete in the front yard and installed grass so the kids could play while we could still monitor them from the kitchen.
The front yard, especially during the Spring bloom, is stunning. There is a plum tree that produces some fruit—if you can get them before the squirrels —and it blossoms in a beautiful pink flower. And there’s so much Jasmine on the front fence that when they’re in bloom, you can smell the house down the street. In the back, we rescued as many of the plants as we could, including the tall California Black Walnut. In short, we did all that we could to make the house suit our domestic, and aesthetic, needs, and to maintain the house to last.