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Made in the Shade
House & Garden, July 2005

Soon after they married, Robert and Ruth Mirvis moved from Ohio to Los Angeles. It took some time for them to recognize the subtle changes in the season, and to appreciate the indigenous palette. Eventually, L.A. became familiar ground, and they decided they wanted a Spanish Colonial house.

It took nine years to find the one they loved. Then, seemingly simultaneously, Ruth located a graceful 1926 house with three bedrooms and two colonnaded courtyards, and interior designer Jarrett Hedborg.

The spacious house is “romantic and charming, evocative of another era in the southern part of Spain,” says Ruth, who wanted to keep and enhance those qualities. Architect Donald Goldstein undertook a year of renovation. The home’s gracefully austere bones had stood up well to four previous owners, so the remodeling focused on details. This meant researching galleries and tile suppliers, haunting auctions, and tracking down local artisans capable of reproducing wrought-iron fixtures and hand-finished doors designed for the original owners. “We enjoyed every minute of it,” said Robert, who became a dogged design detective, eager to incorporate tiles designed by Julia Morgan, architect of San Simeon, and touches that make reference to the Pasadena homes designed by Greene & Greene.

Now the house exudes the kind of sophisticated yet welcoming warmth that makes people want to move to southern California. Elegantly, effortlessly, it integrates comfortable interiors with natural exteriors.

The scent of orange blossoms, so dense it is a physical experience, hits on the front walk. Next to the wrought-iron gates, left open to signal welcome, there are Meyer lemon trees with fruit the size of baseballs. Inside, a bold adobe red hints of California’s China connection and colors the shaded colonnade. The sun-washed courtyard features succulents in clusters of clay pots and a lotus-dotted fountain with a restored cast concrete sylph, a whimsy original to the house.

“This is the classic ideal of outside living,” Hedborg says. “Because the weather is so benign, you can afford not to have glassed-in or screened-in enclosures. You need shade, but you don’t need much else. The weather tells you what to do.”

If the weather speaks to the architecture, the house all but told those involved how to enhance it. “There was some kind of vibration in the house,” said Nancy A. Kintisch, Hedborg’s longtime collaborator and the artists and fabric designer who painted many of the decorative finishes. Rooms couldn’t be anything other than what they became, she insists. Hedborg also listened, a technique he has learned from his Hollywood A-list clientele. The dining room, for example, whispered “moonlight” to provide background to two paintings: a Herman Stuck of cowboys and packhorses resting in the same shimmering moonlight that illuminates the roiling waters in a William Ritschel painting of the Monterey coast. Kintisch created the illusion of shadows in the moonlight by replicating the design of the home’s gates on the dining room walls in delicate, almost sheer colors. To capture the light she evoked, Hedborg used pewter tea paper on the barrel ceiling.

Upstairs in the master bedroom he created a refuge cross-ventilated by French doors overlooking the two courtyards. With careful massing of the furniture and layering of the colors in the fabrics, Hedborg was able to create the feel of the fountains’ soothing sounds.

The house also provided display space. The Mirvises’ pottery collection expanded as the couple trekked to the celebrated Zanesville, Ohio, auction for important pieces by makers such as Roseville and Weller. French art glass of the 1920s and ’30s, once an interest, became something larger as they realized how little is left. With the proper setting for display, their passion for California plein air art grew. They acquired work by Millard Sheets, Granville Redmond, Edgar Payne and others.

“They collect from the heart, responding to work where they can see the artist’s hand,” Hedborg says. “This is not a trophy collection; it reflects their sensibility. Yet the fact that they would go for a Jessie Arms Botke double portrait of two cockatoos on a gold-leaf background takes a level of sophistication.”

That painting hangs in the cavernous yet intimate living room, illuminated by custom-designed skylights. A bold tripartite screen of the Monterey coast by Ferdinand Bergdorf counters a still life of flowers by Mexican muralist Alfredo Ramos Martinez, who was active in the 1920s. Both pick up the colors used to paint a wainscoting and trim. The patterns suggest those in Syrian and Indian pieces that Hedborg and the couple found in California antique shops. Jeff Hiner, Hedborg’s associate, arranged the glassware and pottery for double-take impact against the couple’s favorite nineteenth-century faux bamboo pieces.

The cozy library is where the Mirvises discuss what’s next. Now that their three children are grown and raising children of their own, collecting has added another facet to their lives, as has the house. Robert wants to solve the puzzle of identity of a man who appears in profile in two panes of thick leaded window glass in the library. Ruth continues to delight in her dialogue with the house. She’s tickled that she placed her desk where the previous owner placed hers. “There’s such warmth, a calming feeling being here,” Ruth says. “I don’t take it for granted. It gives me a thrill every day.”