How An L.A. Gallerist Left The City Behind

A hacienda-style estate offers sanctuary for a creative couple and their well-traveled trove

Words by SAMANTHA BROOKS
Photography by SAM FROST

 

About an hour northwest of Los Angeles, State Route 126 curves through miles of remote, verdant ranch land, and the air fills with the aroma of orange blossoms.

It’s here, in the 3.4-square-mile town known as Fillmore, that Sarah Walker and Robert Gunderman escaped from Los Angeles nine years ago. Gunderman, a born-and-bred Angeleno and painter since studying fine art at Otis, co-owned Acme gallery before retiring two years ago to focus on his own painting. Walker has an established interior design business with a creative client list that includes the Eagles’ Joe Walsh and his wife, Marjorie, and singer-songwriter power couple Aimee Mann and Michael Penn.

Gunderman and Walker discovered the region while looking for a refuge from the city that was also close enough for friends to come up for day trips. “In Fillmore, we’re an hour from L.A., 30 minutes from surfing in Ventura, and 45 minutes from Santa Barbara,” Gunderman says. The town has its own charm, too, thanks to a collection of quaint vintage and antique shops and highway farmstands.

But it’s this house, Rancho Del Sapo (named for the frogs that occupy the property’s Sespe Creek, one of the last wild-running rivers in Southern California), sited on 15 acres of citrus and avocado groves, that truly sealed the deal. “We love entertaining here,” Walker says. “At least twice a month we have people up for lunches, and we love to throw parties. In the summer we have a tennis tournament on our court.”

The couple also famously hosts a crowd of artist friends. “We collect people like Tomory Dodge, Kai Althoff, Henry Taylor, Aaron Morse and Yuval Pudik. … Through work we’ve discovered a lot of great artists, and many of them have become our friends,” Walker says. “We once had a party for a sculptor friend of ours, and it was about 100 degrees out. Everyone ended up in the pool. It’s important to us that our guests have fun here. Nothing is too precious.”

Located on the end of a gravel-strewn road marked by a colorful burst of bougainvillea, in a small valley between two soaring hills, the house was originally completed in 1983 by father-and-son architects Chris and Peter Choate. Chris had been a partner of Cliff May, and his son Peter had designed homes for celebrities such as Linda Ronstadt, Carol Burnett, and Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks. “The home’s original owner was a geologist and [he] wanted something that looked more like a hacienda than a ranch house,” Walker says. “I’ve worked on countless homes over the years, and this was one of the very few where we didn’t have to touch the floorplan. There’s a strong connection to nature and all of the main rooms flow outside. Everything just made sense.” They did make some updates around the home, most notably in the backyard, where they redid the pool with Spanish tiles around the waterline, added planters with trees and constructed an outdoor fireplace, all the while staying true to the home’s integrity, keeping most of the fixtures, hand-painted sinks and the interior tile from Mexico.

The residence now serves as the perfect venue for their many collections. “I started out as a kid, collecting things like coins and NASA stickers. Now, it’s anything from Royal Copenhagen blue china to 1970s acrylic sundials to cars. At one point, we had about 15 vintage Porsches and Mercedes between us. We were bordering on needing professional help,” Gunderman jokes. “My work projects are the complete opposite of this. Everything is perfectly in its place and much more minimal, but we wanted something more utilitarian and comfortable,” Walker adds.

When it came to furnishing the house, the couple — who have been married for 16 years — gravitated toward a blend of styles and eras. In the breakfast room, a table that once belonged to Gunderman’s grandparents lives near a set of Bertoia chairs. In the living room, a vintage Milo Baughman sofa from Thayer Coggin, one of Walker’s finds, sits opposite an RH leather chesterfield sofa. “It was the last room we hadn’t finished, and we had talked about getting a chaise for the space, but who wants to sit on a chaise? I saw this sofa and did the insane thing of bringing home furniture to an interior designer,” says Gunderman, whose artwork hangs throughout the house.

Outside, more than 30 pieces of vintage Brown Jordan furniture from the ’50s and ’60s, mostly sourced from a Billy Baldwin–designed estate in Beverly Hills that Walker had worked on over a decade ago, are displayed alongside collections of succulents planted in vintage terra-cotta vessels by designers such as David Cressey.

When the Thomas Fire threatened the area in December 2017, the couple spent 10 days in fear of losing their home, faced with the constant agony of what possessions they would choose to quickly load into their cars should they have to evacuate. “It was too hard to decide. It was like we either wanted to take everything or nothing,” Gunderman says. Walker adds, “The fire came right up the hill next to the home but didn’t touch the house. It was a horrible thing to go through, but in the end it made us that much more connected to the property. It really cemented us being here.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of C Magazine.

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