October 2011

Love Shack

An adventurous couple transforms a dilapidated 19th-century farmhouse in Los Feliz into an offbeat family compound by MAYER RUS / photographs by JACK COBLE

  • A compact Danish wood-burning stove is the sole source of heat in the 19th-century farmhouse. The crisp, contemporary decor is anchored by a carpet from Fedora Design. Sofa and chair are by Alexandra Angle.
  • The original white farmhouse and new pavilion clad in black 
corrugated metal.
  • The alfresco passageway with painted floor.
  • The dining area is anchored by a custom table and Windsor bench.
  • Alexandra’s Negiste chair beside a family portrait.
  • The Angles’ daughter, Elefe, who was born in Ethiopia.
  • The master bedroom opens out to the yard.
  • Elefe's bedroom includes Trove wallpaper and African fabrics.
  • The Angles relaxing with Elefe.
  • An antique zinc tub accents the yard.

To say the bones of the place were not promising would be an understatement. When designer Alexandra Angle and her husband, Eliot, first saw their 900-square-foot house two years ago, it had no foundation, no heat, crumbling walls and an electrical system begging for a conflagration. Every window was a different size. The bathroom floor consisted of plastic tiles laid over dirt. “It was the kind of place no one would buy—ever,” Alexandra says. “The kind of place people run screaming from.”

Still, the derelict property was not without its charms. Built in the late 1800s on what was once a pumpkin farm, the patched-together dwelling sat on a petite parcel surrounded by Concord grapevines and grapefruit, orange and loquat trees. Tucked behind a 1920s duplex within walking distance of Los Feliz shops and restaurants, it was invisible from the street. One step through the front gate, and the city outside disappeared. “People thought we were insane, but we loved the shack quality,” Eliot recalls. “Once we decide to do something, we jump in.”

Regardless of the structural changes required to make the house livable for the couple and four-year-old daughter Elefe, the Angles would go to great pains to preserve its quirky antediluvian character. That meant maintaining the original architectural oddities, as well as coming to terms with the decidedly diminutive space—a screening room, spa bath and Pilates studio would be not part of the program.

“We got rid of practically every piece of furniture,” says Alexandra. “Deaccessioning was part of the fun.” One big concession to spatial comfort was a 450-square-foot addition with two bedrooms and a small bathroom. (If anyone needs a proper bath, there’s a fully plumbed 19th-century French zinc workers’ tub out in the garden.) Connected to the main house through a vine-shaded outdoor passageway, the sleep shed echoes an archetypal barn, particularly with its corrugated metal siding.

The interior is a whimsical amalgam of farmhouse style and contemporary design—Old MacDonald via Milan Furniture Fair. A quaint vignette in the upstairs library/office belies an eccentric story: a chair of Alexandra’s own design in quilted gold fabric, a portrait of her great-great-great-aunt done on a trip to Florence in 1865 and a massive whale vertebra that washed up on her family’s island in Maine.

Nurturing a connection between indoors and out may be one of the great clichés of the California lifestyle, but this home has truly been made for alfresco enjoyment. In addition to the zinc tub, there are well-appointed outside areas for living, dining and recreation. And then there’s that outdoor passageway. When the L.A. weather decides to play against type, the couple simply invokes the immortal words of Mr. Longfellow: Into each life some rain must fall.

The Angles acknowledge that this kind of bohemian rhapsody isn’t for everyone. There is, for example, still no heat in the old farmhouse, save for a tiny Danish wood-burning stove in the living room—which requires custom-cut wood due to its compact size. But this, too, they take in stride. “We’re romantics,” Alexandra muses. “Cold romantics,” Eliot adds with a grin.