Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn
Any kid would envy the summers Maggie Taylor spent during the 1950s and '60s in her family's beach house near Santa Barbara. Her father pitched a cabana on the sand in June and stocked it through September with dry clothes and fresh towels. She rode the surf on a rubber mattress until she could swim to a platform anchored offshore. When she was 7, Maggie and her mother would scuba dive off the Channel Islands, catching reef fish to fill two big aquariums at the house.
The world was her oyster.
"I was on the water all day. We all were. My father was a passionate deep-sea fisherman," Maggie reminisces about Reese Taylor, a Union Oil executive. Her namesake mother's scuba prowess merited the 1950s article "Beauty and The Deep" in the Los Angeles Times. "My parents loved the ocean, and they built this house to immerse themselves in the marine outdoors, and escape Los Angeles, whenever they could."
Now the house belongs to Maggie. It not only holds her childhood memories but also stands as a testament to timeless, innovative beach-house design. Built open-faced to the ocean with a big garagelike front door, the house was―and still is―one of a kind. Maggie is committed to maintaining the integrity of its architecture, established by her father and California landscape architect Lockwood de Forest.
In the 1920s and '30s, Lockwood de Forest gained fame in Southern California for the sumptuous hillside estate gardens he designed for wealthy business and society clients. While a house surrounded by sand dunes and sea was not the typical design venue for de Forest, his philosophy of connecting a space to its environment suited the Taylors' wishes exactly.
For the rugged fishing-and-scuba-diving clients, the landscape architect had to think like a mariner. His plan would be to orient the interiors to the sea, and make the living as easy as sand and salt water permit.
"My father wanted to open up the whole house to the ocean," Maggie says of his request to de Forest. "But there was no technology in the '30s to provide the kind of wide, easy access he envisioned." She thinks the two friends may have brainstormed the solution together―a 12-foot-wide garage door (filled with rows of square windows) that opened manually with a rope pulley.
Originally the house's design called for two garage doors. The exterior door facing the beach stayed open all day in good weather. An identical second door (later removed) was just opposite, across an inside deck. When shut, the second door sealed off the main house to daytime traffic, and the inside deck between the two doors became a shaded pavilion for reading and snoozing. The floor slats were spaced an inch apart so any tracked-in sand sifted through.
This area also eased the transition between indoors and out. "My father wanted the big, open-plan room kept as a formal, sacred space for evening entertaining and relaxation," Maggie remembers. Hollywood style still reigns in the sitting area Maggie's father kept sacrosanct for gracious living and dining. "As a young man, my father worked for Llewellyn Steel and Ironworks, which made the props for the first Mutiny on the Bounty film with Charles Laughton," says Maggie. "He salvaged the ship's wheel from the set and hung it over the fireplace." Portholes from the movie set became windows, and ship propellers were transformed into lamp bases.
The marine theme attained Art Deco sophistication when de Forest installed a linoleum floor patterned to look like gigantic, multicolored fish scales. He also designed sleek maple furniture reminiscent of pieces on a 1930s ocean liner.
Though the majority of the house has remained unchanged during its six decades, Maggie decided a few years ago that it was time to reenergize its interiors. The solid canvas covering de Forest used on the maple chairs was changed to a stripe, and blocks of wood were added to the chair bases to raise the seating height.
"I wanted to keep de Forest's 1930s feeling, not fancy it up, but I needed fresh ideas," says Maggie. So she invited her friend and L.A. designer Ann Knudsen to take a look.
On Ann's first visit, she climbed the ship's ladder to the pilothouse-style bedroom on the rooftop. With unobstructed views of the sunset on the Pacific and lights twinkling on the coastal mountains behind her, Ann understood Lockwood de Forest's intent: "I was meant to feel like I was on a ship at sea. How magical! This house should never be changed."