This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Renovating an old house is hard enough. But reworking one that’s glommed onto a hillside? It’s not for the faint of heart.
Builders in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles always do it, though. There, a vintage house with a view often descends from street level, held in place, in the case of this 1938 gem, “by a concrete retaining wall on the uphill side and traditional wood framing on the downhill side,” says architect Jeff Troyer, who transformed this home’s interior and exterior spaces.
From the street, the house appears to be an unassuming single story with Normandy-style hipped roofs and a front-facing attached garage. But at the rear, it emerges as an ample two-story house with rooftop solar panels and a balcony looking south (those views!) over a well-furnished patio and a mid-century pool.
“You can see right through the house to downtown LA,” says Brad Kent, recalling the first time he and his wife, Mandy, opened its front door. “We said, ‘We think we’re going to take it!’ Then we saw the layout. ... But then we opened a door and—wait, there’s a downstairs the same size as upstairs?”
The couple, with two young kids, had been renting in Pasadena, CA, and hunting for an old house nearby. But inventory was low and prices high. This house was right across the Pasadena line in Eagle Rock, an in-demand neighborhood in northeast LA. The family was ready to nest. They settled in, spending a year or so getting to know what they did and didn’t love about the place. Besides the views, the house, renovated at one time, held four bedrooms, three and a half baths, and two fireplaces.
But two things grated. The bedrooms were oddly divided between two floors. And the galley kitchen was so narrow, there was no room to really cook. And Brad is a chef. “This is my first house, and I’m 52,” Brad says, leading up to a description of what turned into a rather ambitious redo. Within three years of moving in, the 2,663-square-foot house had acquired a 275-square-foot kitchen with a 60-inch range and more refrigeration than a bodega.
As the culinary brains behind a chain of build-your-own pizza restaurants, he wanted enough firepower, tools, and elbow room to grill, roast, braise, bake, and broil whatever came to mind. “I’ve catered in multibillionaires’ houses, but none of their kitchens was fully usable,” says Brad, who made sure every square inch of the family’s new kitchen could serve his many purposes.
“I’d also worked on a yacht, so I knew the luxury of being self-contained without having to wish for anything.” Working with Troyer, who specializes in bringing new life to old houses, Brad and Mandy drew up a wish list. “They wanted a bigger kitchen, but they weren’t sure where,” Troyer recalls. “They also wanted a primary suite closer to the kids’ rooms. So putting all that together, it made sense to swap,” he says of moving the kitchen downstairs and the primary suite and laundry area up.
A basement kitchen sounds like a throwback to another era, but in this case it would provide needed square footage. “Brad and Mandy have people down there all the time, ” Troyer says— should anyone raise questions—drawn by a 49-square-foot island, a dining area warmed by a fireplace, an open bar, and easy access to the patio and pool. All of this dovetailed with Brad’s love of cooking and the family’s enjoyment of kitchen-centric gatherings, which the old galley kitchen could not accommodate.
One rule of thumb among cost-conscious renovators: Don’t move pipes and drain lines. But it’s hard to move a kitchen without rearranging the infrastructure. Enter general contractor Doug Rens, who would oversee the flipping of the floor plan, demolishing walls, pouring new footings, and remaking the basement as living space.
To further that last goal, the crew would remove the drywall ceiling, exposing the joists and increasing the headroom. They also installed engineered beams to support newly open spaces. These days, building a hillside house involves much thicker retaining walls with deeper foundations, Troyer says. A major renovation of an older house like this one, he adds, requires some shear walls to meet seismic code.
The prefabricated shear panels used here allowed for large door and window openings with no loss of structural integrity. The crew also stripped out dropped ceilings in some areas, gaining 6 to 12 inches, for a total of 8 feet from the floor to the bottom of the exposed joists. The empty bays add a sense of spaciousness. “The original wood had such a beautiful patina,” Troyer adds, explaining why the homeowners kept them unpainted, balancing the warm wood overhead with pale French limestone and white oak underfoot.
The scope of the work left little untouched. Insulate here and there, replace the HVAC, remodel the basement bath, and put down new flooring. Cut openings for a kitchen pass-through to the patio and for an expanse of light-channeling French doors; add new casement windows as needed. Tap crawl space—dirt-floored, with varying heights but not enough headroom to even sit—for a pantry and an alcove in the den off the kitchen. Thank goodness the upstairs hall bath was fine, the chimneys worked, and the roof was relatively new.
With Brad eyeing every square inch of open space as an opportunity to add a bell or a whistle, the crew would have to run wiring, plumbing, and gas lines. And with the joists so beautifully exposed, “we didn’t want to put plumbing, electrical, and ducts in the ceiling,” Troyer says. Where small expansions involved colonizing crawl space, “you demo what’s in the way and dig,” Rens explains. “You make nice big footings and put in a block wall to hold the dirt back, then waterproof it.”
The crew cut trenches in the slab foundation for pipes and wiring, tagging the filled channels with risers to help guide the locations of appliances and sinks. Lines also had to be laid outside, where the plan called for an outdoor kitchen and a heated pavilion with a fireplace at patio level—connected by stairs to a converted shed, off the first-floor level, with its own test kitchen and bread oven.
A detail guy, Brad likes to take care of the small stuff and appreciates others who do the same. He wanted a pot filler over the range, not too low, not too high, and calculated tilt-head room for his stand mixer, then had the upper cabinets raised accordingly. It was Brad’s idea, one day while he watched the crew work on the den, to push out one wall into the hillside, adding a few more square feet for relaxation. As if he ever sits down. Having meal options means having inventory as well as a place to keep it. That mission turned into a walk-in pantry lined with shelves off the dining area.
To create storage this deep, the crew had to cut into low-clearance crawl space and install a retaining wall. While they were at it, they also wired the pantry for temperature control— should Brad get serious about curing meats and fermenting pickles. One thing that gave the crew pause was installing Brad’s custom range—a very heavy, very delicate French confection of enamel, brass, and iron that ultimately required the services of the appliance equivalent of a piano mover.
“Everyone was holding their breath,” Troyer says. “They have special dollies that you and I don’t see every day.” Troyer gamely took charge of commissioning a vent hood that would match the range, and getting its high-powered blower ducted and camouflaged outside. He also drummed up custom grilles for the new forced-air HVAC and designed a new staircase, reversing the old one’s direction and freeing it from enclosure with an airy iron balustrade.
Brad and Mandy shopped for salvaged accents, including a door for the pantry and wood mantels for the fireplaces. They tracked down tiles for the stair risers and decided on tumbled limestone flooring, partly because it is slip resistant. Honed soapstone countertops and walnut cabinets with painted fronts warm up open space that might otherwise feel cavernous.
“I wanted it to be a surprise when you walk downstairs, but comfortable,” Brad says. After all this, the rejiggering of the upstairs seemed fairly straightforward. The crew tore out walls and an existing bath, and built a primary bedroom with exposed rafters overhead, a windowed alcove for a daybed, and a walk-in closet; the suite’s bath has a freestanding tub, a shower enclosure, and a separate WC. The team removed an awkward support post on the balcony to make it feel more spacious. The outdoor kitchen went in at one end of the patio, and the fireplace pavilion at the other. The home office moved downstairs, to the den, and the washer/dryer moved upstairs, to the mudroom, which made sense now that everyone was sleeping on one floor.
Because the renovation was done in stages, the family was mostly able to remain in the house. Brad simply ad-hoc’d a kitchen in the laundry. Of course it was nothing like the one he gets to play around in today. Picture swapping an old fridge parked next to the Prius for an entire refrigeration complex, with separate freezer, ice-maker, and wine keeper. It’s hard to say which part of the house is the family’s favorite. Now that it’s so open to the outdoors, it’s more a matter of everyone loving the whole.
“The house is only 2,700 square feet,” Brad says, “but it feels like so much more because we make use of every part.” “When you open that front door, you want a house that’s going to hug you,” Brad continues. “People who see our house for the first time say it’s so comfortable and warm. We didn’t do this with pillows and blankets; Jeff did it with the right design and layout.”
- THE HOMEOWNERS: Mandy and Brad Kent, with their daughters, Hannah, 10, and Iris, 12 (above). Mandy’s a mammography technologist; Brad is a chef and entrepreneur who helped launch a pizza empire—and compares home remodeling with menu planning.
- THE HOUSE: The 1938 French Eclectic fits against a hillside. The existing house had views of downtown Los Angeles, charm, and history—it was once owned by Lucille Ball’s dressmaker—but felt cut off from the outdoors and wasn’t making great use of its roomy walk-out basement. It looked like a keeper—as long as they could gain cooking space, a primary suite on the same floor as the kids’ bedrooms…and a few amenities.
- WHAT THEY DID: Moved the kitchen, dining area, and den downstairs, and the primary suite and laundry upstairs, relocating the staircase along the way. The kitchen and adjoining dining area open to a poolside patio with a new outdoor kitchen at one end and a pavilion with a fireplace at the other.
- THEIR INSPIRATION: The couple enjoy period design and tracked down an architect who could update the house while enhancing its character. They also wanted a big, pro-style kitchen and easier traffic flow to and from the outdoor spaces.
- LESSONS LEARNED: If you plan carefully, you can stay in the house during a major renovation. Being there reduced costs and allowed them to address problems and opportunities on the spot. Brad realized midrenovation, for example, that dead space behind an exterior basement wall could be annexed for a TV alcove in the den and for his dream walk-in pantry off the dining area.