A stop-work order temporarily halted remodeling of an iconic historic Laguna Beach home after questions arose over the project’s approval without review by historic conservation experts.
Even though the city’s chief building director confirmed all work underway was being conducted according to city permits, the urgent order made by the City Council on Tuesday will delay any further changes to the famed Halliburton House. The order is in effect until the council’s next meeting on May 1. Council member Kelly Boyd cast the sole dissenting vote.
The modernistic all-cement monolith known as Hangover House stands like a beacon on a ridgeline with views overlooking Aliso Canyon and the Pacific Ocean. The moniker coined by the original owner, the renowned global thrill-seeker and adventure-romance writer Richard Halliburton, refers to the type of cliff he encountered climbing Switzerland’s Matterhorn, according to historians.
Current owner Mark Fudge said Wednesday he was blind-sided by the council’s action and found out about the stop work order when he saw the notice on the front door of the house. “The city didn’t contact me,” said Fudge. “I didn’t even know there was a meeting of any kind. I don’t even know what the scope is. It’s all news to me.”
The stop-work dictum resulted from public comments made at the beginning of the council meeting by landscape architect Ann Christoph and others and the decision by council members to add the controversial item to the agenda at the last minute.
“The applicant (Fudge) did not go beyond the building permits,” John Montgomery, the city’s community development director, explained to council members. “The plans I reviewed clearly indicate the extent of the floor slab that was going to be demolished and replaced; he did not go beyond that area.”
Montgomery said the demolition was approved to repair and replace plumbing. The process was complicated by original radiant floor heating, integral to modern architecture by such distinguished architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, said Montgomery. Walls and built-in cabinets were removed along with flooring in the bedroom wing of the house.
“All that radiant heating and plumbing was a problem and deteriorated the floor slabs, so he (Fudge) needed to replace that floor slab. He’s not going to have radiant heating as a replacement; he’s just not,” Montgomery said.
Questions arose, however, over why the plans received approval without scrutiny by historic conservation experts, as has been required in recent years of other historic structures such as the Pottery Shack and Heisler Building.
“It’s time to pause, take a breath, look at this seriously so that Laguna doesn’t lose one of its real architectural assets,” said Alan Hess, an architectural historian and author of 18 books, adding that the home would qualify as a national historical building. “Definitely stop any more alterations to the house,” Hess advised the council. “Do the proper studies and then come back and see what can be replaced.”
Hess suggested that some of the damage to the home’s historical significance, such as the removal of original cabinetry, could be replicated and asked the city to conduct a historic resources study to determine that.
The strong lines of the three bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home are inherent to its concrete and steel construction with a unique, sometimes color-stained treatment of the interior cement, another feature of historical significance, said Hess.
“There’s no interior veneers except for the concrete and that treatment is truly remarkable and very sophisticated, especially for 1936,” Hess commented. “This house is important to the story of California and does need to be protected. Do whatever you can.”
City Manager John Pietig confirmed the concern that more was being done than permitted. “The plans didn’t show all the work that was going to be done,” said Pietig. “In order to make the repairs, as I understand it, they had to take out some of the walls and the other cabinets. What started out as a repair-type project, because of the nature of the construction, ended up requiring walls to be removed and other things that weren’t anticipated.”
Neighborhood residents notified the city about potential permit violations after hearing jackhammers on April 5. “This is indeed a great tragedy,” said Christoph, a resident and advocate for historic preservation, “because the house looked as though Richard Halliburton had left and gone away, the dust had settled but really you could imagine him being in the house, the bedroom wing was as he left it.”
Montgomery said he had plans to meet with Fudge on Thursday. Pietig suggested an independent historical assessment to determine if there’s a problem with the project or with California Environmental Quality Act rules pertaining to historic interior remodels, which he said are unclear. The interior alterations on the house were not reviewed by the city’s Heritage Committee.
“We don’t know how to do this,” admonished council member Toni Iseman. “We don’t have houses valued at the level this is. We need to make sure that what does happen is in keeping with the history of the house and the value of the house. Time is of the essence because every day they’re working in there they’re making changes that may or may not be appropriate. We all have the responsibility of protecting this.”
Montgomery told the council that Fudge was “taken aback” by what he felt were personal attacks on his plans to rehabilitate the house. He said Fudge is a resident and intends to refurbish the home to its original integrity. Fudge also has plans to install a swimming pool and build a workshop on an adjacent 8,000-square-foot lot as well as change the new bedroom configurations and add a new kitchen, according to Montgomery, “which they can do in a rehabilitation effort for a historic home.”
Fudge purchased the all-concrete geometric house in late 2011 for $3.6 million, according to reports. “We all support his efforts to rehabilitate the house,” said council member Verna Rollinger, “but when floors, walls and cabinets go away, that’s a little bit more than repairing the cement. It’s in everybody’s best interests, including the property owner, that we’re not losing a resource that can’t be replaced.”
Daredevil and bon vivant Halliburton commissioned architect William Alexander Levy to build the house 75 years ago; the project took 15 months to complete and $36,000 to build. Halliburton’s high-intensity escapades were followed by the masses via radio broadcasts in the 1920s and ‘30s. Halliburton died in 1939 aboard a sinking Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, while he and journalist Paul Mooney were attempting to sail from Hong Kong to San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Expo. He owned the home for only two years.
The council reserved the right to call a special meeting before May 1 if necessary to reduce work-delaying costs for the owner.