Over a decade ago, Patrick Bernatz Ward and his wife, Shannon, were living in New York while looking for an LA home from afar. They wanted the kind of older California home that came to mind when they thought of their childhoods—both having been born and raised in Los Angeles. Plus, they were up for a project.
“But either [many of] those homes have been demolished, or there’s been the mansion-ization of everything,” says Bernatz Ward, an architect and designer at his namesake firm. “So we really wanted something that primarily had a really wonderful garden, since we spend so much time outdoors.” When they found the house they would soon own—a 1890s home in East LA, which was set to be torn down—it was the garden that sold them. “Obviously, we could see the potential, but the garden, it was almost like a dream—it was like everything we had wanted,” the architect recalls. There were 120-year-old olive trees and 100-year-old palms. There were amazing low plots and stepped terraces. It may have been all covered by abandoned cars, vats of garbage, and oil barrels—but the couple was inspired nonetheless.
“We still joke that if we’re ever planting something new and we’re digging deep, we’ll find a toaster from 1952 or something,” says Bernatz Ward. “But it was everything that we were looking for. And I will say, it has taken a very long time for it to look like [it does today].”
The over-a-century-old home may have been crumbling due to severe neglect, but its history was notable. It was an original real estate spec house, perched on a hill, built in a perfect square in a vernacular style known as Pyramidal Victorian. “We had to do a lot,” says Bernatz Ward. “Originally there was one bathroom, there was even essentially the remnants of an old outhouse on the property, and it didn’t have a foundation that was up to code.” The home was pretty much resting on a boulder and needed several immediate fixes to make it habitable. The couple took their time on the home, but as the architect’s practice started to take off, he knew it was time to get this project finished. The last three years became the final push to the finish line.
“There was quite a bit of detailing that still existed, just in terms of the wainscoting and some of the lattice work,” says Bernatz Ward. “It was severely damaged in places, and so we either repaired or replicated it at an old historical mill shop in the Valley.” Bernatz Ward’s studio is known for its use of local materials and an obsession with historical context, so he immersed himself in building methods, finishes, and design applications from generations past, and explored how they could be reused or reinterpreted to meet the needs of 21st-century living. The context of this home informed the restoration throughout.
Moving through the space, the detailing used for the kitchen cabinet millwork bridged the original 1890 structure with the newer kitchen addition. The dining area was modeled on the architecture of old sleeping porches to allow for more natural climate control. Stone masonry in the garden was sourced from the property and fashioned into walls. “We repaired and refinished a lot of the original windows, but there were areas where we wanted to [combine] the scaling of [the original] windows with a more contemporary take without it feeling like, ‘Oh wow, that’s a big modern window.’” says Bernatz Ward.
Most of the furniture in the home is designed by Bernatz Ward himself: The living room armchair was constructed out of local black walnut and fashioned after a traditional captain’s chair, while the coffee table has an ebonized stain and is made from local live oak. Elsewhere, the white oak dining room chairs were stained with cochineal dye made from the nopal cactus in the garden. The primary bedroom table lamp was fashioned out of polished chrome and a turned red-gum eucalyptus finial. Where the designer didn’t make new pieces, he sourced vintage furniture that naturally fits in the space.
Today, Bernatz Ward describes the winding street that leads up to the house as being reminiscent of San Francisco. Nearly a decade after buying the home, which is perched high up on a hill, Bernatz Ward and his family can sit in their little garden feeling secluded in a hideaway. They can look out and see the city—and a house no longer crumbling around them.