It takes a fiercely devoted person to reside in the Garcia House; specialized craftsmen are required for chores ranging from washing windows to swapping light bulbs.
In 2002, John McIlwee and Bill Damaschke acquired the Hollywood Hills property from Vincent Gallo—a three-hour lunch with the filmmaker/provocateur confirmed they were the rightpeople to restore this 1962 John Lautner icon (named after original owners Russ and Gina Garcia). Says McIlwee, “When I say this project is kismet, I mean it. Totally meant to be.”
While structurally sound (Lautner was an engineering genius), the modest-sized abode had been redecorated to extremes, original designs either ripped out or ruined, forcing a meticulous overhaul. The entertainment business manager (clients at Shepard McIlwee include Courteney Cox and Selma Blair) and the Chief Creative Officer for DreamWorks Animation set out to reclaim its beauty after years of painting, paneling, contact-paper over wood cabinets and—no thanks to the Disco era—mirroring. Says McIlwee, “John [Lautner] had once said something like, ‘If there are better technologies and materials, I want you to upgrade them.’” They enlisted restoration masters, architecture firm Marmol Radziner of Venice (known for their projects such as Palm Springs’ Kaufmann House), and now-S.F.-based interior designer Darren Brown (Frank Sinatra house in Palm Springs, Parker Palm Springs). In stretches over the course of the five-year renovation, McIlwee camped out in a sleeping bag with no power or running water.
McIlwee and Damaschke replaced virtually every surface, fixture and faucet with elements appropriate to the era yet still relevant to modern day (new Miele ovens with 1960s design). They also consulted two invaluable resources: architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who lives down the street, “pulled out his negatives [of the home],” and Head of the Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art at The Getty Research Institute, Wim de Wit, accessed rolls containing the Garcia House’s original blueprints—including a pool which had never been constructed.
“[Lautner] homeowners are a very important group of people,” explains de Wit. “In the Julius Shulman photo archive—they often look at photographs taken right after the completion of the house, since those are the best record of what the house really looked like…what was really built.” This kind of research and discovery gave them confidence to follow through with massive changes. The terrazzo marble took three months to match. The pool alone required four years to build.
Today, the gravity-defying Garcia House stands as an otherworldly feat soaring above the lush foliage of L.A.’s Nichols Canyon. Not an ounce of the masterpiece touches the ground 60 feet below. Instead, two V-shaped stems sprout almost organically out of the hillside to cradle the glass-paneled ellipsis. Garden walkways lead to an eye-shaped pool underneath—a wink of turquoise against cool concrete. Indoors and out, stairwells and landings of dark lava rock and confetti-like terrazzo flooring sweep seductively throughout, while more angular surfaces, like honed granite in the kitchen, demarcate specific functionality. Under the vigil of a Mattia Biagi dripped tar bust “on loan” from friend Mayer Rus, the living area appears larger than life, yet expertly scaled—and always in perspective. Surrounded by Contemporary art and raw, sparkling cathedral geodes, a curvaceous sofa is offset by an equilateral triangle table crafted by Lucite master Charles Hollis Jones. As the day progresses, the sun creates dazzling geometry of light reflected in every movement—particularly arresting when glowing through glass inserts of bold popsicle hues.
The project remains the couple’s proudest achievement, even as they embark on another home (the Gerald Ford Estate in Palm Springs). Modernism buffs and inquisitive architecture students still motor by—“boy do they!”—and a fair share of tourists juggling film maps search for the domicile that unforgettably slid down the hill in Lethal Weapon 2. Keeping a healthy dose of realism about the attention, the couple doesn’t sequester. They throw casual buffet dinners quite often. (“The house is not prissy,” adds McIlwee. “I have great carpets. I serve red wine.”)
Additionally, McIlwee is immensely active in philanthropic projects, whether it’s the board of the John Lautner Foundation and Project Angel Food, or as an art patron and supporter of The Hammer. Benefits, tours and entertaining are simply an aspect of such residential stewardship. “You get a different sense of space when you’re in [the house], versus just seeing a picture of it or the floor plans. That’s the part of me that knows you have to participate and share it.”
With its cutting-edge Raymond Pettibon drawings, designer furnishings and stunning geometry, it may be museum-worthy, yet Damaschke and McIlwee really do live here. “At the end of the day, it’s still a private residence,” says McIlwee.
Written by Alison Clare Steingold
Photographed by Coliena Rentmeester