“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.” —RUMI
This tall, stately English Arts and Crafts-style farmhouse stands on a formidable hill, high above the city, with its steeply pitched roof soaring skyward in intriguing contrast to the nearby neighborhood of low-slung bungalows settled into the earth.
It’s the first home designed by Wallace Neff, long before he became the architect to elite Hollywood stars of the day. His clients of the silver screen included the Marx Brothers, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, and legendary directors King Vidor and Darryl Zanuck.
But his first client was his most important one—his mother.
In 1919, 24-year-old Neff, who studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the legendary Ralph Adams Cram, had not yet earned his architectural license. But his strong-willed mother wanted her son to become an architect, and she had the perfect project for him—a summer home in Santa Barbara.
Neff teamed with local architect William Edwards for this important commission and drew on his knowledge of European and Gothic-inspired architecture to create this brilliantly simple and cozy English farmhouse-style getaway for Nannie Neff, who was the daughter of Rand-McNally Corporation founder Andrew McNally.
A 1921 California Southland feature reports, “Throughout the construction an endeavor was made to reduce the architecture to its simplest form; moldings, cornices and all forms of ornamentation were omitted, leaving merely an organic structure where each member has a definite purpose in the construction.”
Nearly a century after construction, it remains as it was built—simple, organic, purposeful.
Today, this architectural treasure is in the hands of Carole and Clif Magness, who live simply in a gentle retreat that seems to float above it all. Carole notes, “We feel so privileged to be stewards of this home, with its footprint unchanged, a real rarity in a home of this era.”
This is a house that found them a couple of years ago when the couple wanted to purchase a getaway from their home in Portland. They were in the market for a place in Santa Barbara to “escape the rain and get some sun,” as Carole puts it. The last thing they expected was to take on a major design, renovation and landscaping project of an historically significant home.
“We passed right by it,” she admits. “There was so much outside overgrowth, you really couldn’t see what was there. But we got a glimpse of the roofline, and we were just kind of silenced.”
When the couple arranged to see the home the next day, Carole recalls, “I was overcome with the feeling that the house just needed me. It wasn’t in our price range or at all what we were looking for, but there it was. Maybe it sounds clichéd, and it certainly made no sense—it’s not a reasonable thing—but as we walked around, it just sort of sunk in.”
The couple set about their task, but soon learned the magnitude of the project they’d gotten themselves into. They lived uncomfortably in the house during the renovations, sleeping on an AeroBed, working hard to get the place back in shape. “We realized we bit off more than we could chew, but we had to finish,” Carole says.
They dealt with outdoor challenges: hauling off three dumpsters full of overgrown brush, cutting some trees, saving others, moving stones on the property to build impressive planting areas and retaining walls near the beautiful brick terraces. The inside posed more challenges. They refinished original wood floors, baseboards and the staircase; made plumbing repairs and brought the old knob-and-tube electrical system up to code; restored the massive brick fireplace that dominates the living room and restored the finish of the original iron hardware that had gone to rust. They even removed decades worth of wax from the original and unique herringbone-patterned brick floor in the dining room.
They scoured every part of the property for hints of its earlier grandeur and were rewarded for their efforts. They found the original window screens in the attic, splintered and full of spiders, but well-worth restoring. Wooden ceiling beams—ruined when a previous owner had them sandblasted and painted many shades of brown—were painted white, requiring a dozen coats.
With major renovations complete, Carole teamed her discerning designer’s eye with her sense of sustainability and really got to work, transforming the old worn house into a home of good cheer. Bathrooms were freshened with hand-painted tiles and pretty period chandeliers; a half-wall removed here, a sink replaced there, an old tub given new fixtures—it all works together like a charm.
In the kitchen—functional, but stuck in a ’70s time warp—Carole decided to reclaim the old cabinets instead of throwing them into the landfill. She had the shelves strengthened and repainted; with the doors removed, the overall effect is light, orderly and appealing. The functional pantry, designed by Neff, is still intact, but the original door is customized with screening and a Julia Child inspired pegboard for efficient storage.
Bedrooms—one even had contact paper affixed to the coffered ceiling—were simplified and allowed to simply reveal their functionality as retreats from the world outside. Without large closets, she observes, if you live in this house, “you can’t be an accumulator.”
Every place the eye rests is calm and meaningful: the tiny celestial mobile that hung over an infant’s crib years ago; a stack of books—Prayers for Peace, Baudelaire and French Cooking in Ten Minutes—topped by a gleaming singing bowl; a selection of colorful children’s shoes worn years ago, displayed in side-by-side acrylic cases.
“It’s the Virgo in me that approaches something in an unadulterated way. A sense of calm frees your mind. Everything is possible when you’re not looking at a bunch of clutter,” says Carole.
The home was featured in the last Pearl Chase Society Historic Homes Tour. During the tour, the most repeated comment was some variation on “I feel like I’m walking in a cloud.”
Indeed, the place is completely decorated in white and blue—deceptively simple in its color scheme with subtle variations in shades and finish—which reinforces the ethereal feeling throughout. Since the two-story home is perched high above the city, multiple views extend far beyond the pavement, all the way to the wide blue Pacific. It’s an otherworldly quality, the rarified flow from here to there, like inhabiting an island or, yes, even a cloud, floating above it all.
In the classic book Wallace Neff: Architect of California’s Golden Age, published by Santa Barbara’s own Capra Press, a couple of photos show the Magness’s home, one featuring the living room with a large game table placed in front of the distinctive fireplace. In those long-ago days, there was a built-in window seat, which was removed years ago, where comfortable white couches are now placed for ease of conversation. Carole points to the historic image, saying, “This picture really is worth a thousand words. It’s from a time when people interacted with family and friends and played games together, taking pleasure from each other’s company. It’s from a time when everyone wasn’t couch-potatoed out. That’s what this house is all about, the pleasure of knowing each other and not being distracted all the time.”
Although built as a summer getaway from the hustle-bustle of the big city, with its breezy Dutch doors, maid’s-quarters-turned-guest-room and clean lines, it’s a home for all seasons. A cool retreat in the summer, a cozy place to gather in the winter and a place that beckons the visitor to relax and stay awhile at all times.
And a visible clue alerts the perceptive passer-by that there’s something really special about it. In a community where every other house has a red door—likely because of the feng-shui connection with good luck and prosperity—this one is different. The front door is a cool, calm green. Turns out, a green door is associated with peace, growth, renewal and harmony.
Carole points to the original hand-wrought iron ornament affixed to the green door and notes, “It’s an artistic impression of an octopus by the sea. And the color, it’s ‘Jolly.’” A monarch butterfly flutters by, floating on the cool breeze in a place where peaceful transformation abounds and home extends all the way to the sky.
Carole Magness is available to “help people live in beautiful spaces in the way they like to live.” She can be reached at www.magnessinteriors.com.