Case Study: Taylor Beach House by SPF:architects

When Zoltan Pali, FAIA, got a call about the Taylor Beach House from his early mentor, Jerrold Lomax, FAIA, it was as if their friendship had come full circle. In 1992, a young Zoltan had landed at Jerrold’s firm—you might say on his feet. At that point in his career, Zoltan was “wavering around like some sort of wild grass in the wind,” he recalls. “When I met Jerry, I finally understood how I wanted to do architecture. It was a big deal, and we kept in contact after I started my own practice.”

Los Angeles architecture enthusiasts know Jerrold Lomax as a modernist who worked for famed architect Craig Ellwood from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. The firm designed Case Study House #18 in Beverly Hills, along with Malibu’s Steinman House and Hunt House, which was named an Architectural Record House of the Year in 1959, and for which Jerrold was the lead designer. 

A mile and a half up the beach, Jerrold began working on the Taylor Beach House in 1970, commissioned by prominent real estate attorney Marshall McDaniel. Viewed from the water, the two-story home’s thick exposed structural columns, bands of white stucco, and large expanses of glass stood out among its lower-profile wood-and-stucco neighbors. Inside, the crossbar of the open, H-shaped floor plan was topped with a skylight that dropped down through a central stairwell to the main living spaces. And on the street, the façade’s spare composition—a mute front door flanked by two seamlessly integrated garage doors—was another indicator of a master’s hand.

The attorney was the home’s sole owner until the Taylors bought it in 2012, intending to do a complete renovation. Naturally, they called on Jerrold, who was still working and living in Carmel. Early in the planning, however, the 87-year-old architect was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That’s when Zoltan got the call. “He said, “You have to carry on this work, and I said, ‘Alright.’”

As the clients’ desires evolved, the project became a gut renovation that preserved the exterior form. “One of the greatest periods of my life was working with Jerry,” Zoltan says. “Our conversations were never about the concept of a house but about the details: how you make materials come together, making it as light and transparent and efficient as possible. That’s the ethos of the Midcentury Modernists, and it’s what I practice. The project was always: how do I stay as true as possible to that and still bring the house into 2021, maintaining that purity, lightness, and elegant simplicity.”

Skylights and Bridges

For Zoltan, this was a way to honor his friend’s legacy. On a technical level alone, the building systems had never been touched, creating the opportunity to install vastly improved windows and doors that withstand salt and moisture. The makeover also benefited from today’s higher quality of mechanical, lighting, and electrical subcontractors, not to mention carpenters who can achieve crisp detailing with materials and techniques that weren’t on hand a half-century ago. Aesthetically, of course, the task was to take the home’s lightness and transparency to the next level. Zoltan and the clients agreed that this meant bringing more light into the core of the house, whose narrow, deep lot is hemmed in by neighbors. 

Structurally, the need to preserve the location of shear walls meant that the floor plan’s broad strokes did not change. The front door still opens directly into the garage on the street-level top floor, but the garage is now lit with a horizontal glass slot and a massive skylight. “The original entrance was through the middle of the garage, and it was a beautiful space,” Zoltan says. “That made sense because the new owner is a car guy with four cars. You walk past the cars and come to a large glass pivot door.” 

That door opens to the house’s most transformative move: a skylit central atrium and luminous stair hall. The atrium’s operable skylight is part of a 40-foot-long span that begins in the garage. “Originally it was just a fixed skylight,” Zoltan says of the space over the stairs. “It moves over like a mini-stadium roof and opens the house to the air.” He replaced the floors and stair treads under the skylight with glass laid over aluminum grating. “The glass stair is almost machinery, refinery chic,” Zoltan says. The aluminum framework was both an aesthetic and a structural choice. “We couldn’t use too much steel, to avoid compromising the existing structure,” he says. “Triggering a full seismic renovation would have necessitated almost a teardown. By adding only a certain amount of load, we were able to just upgrade the existing structure.”

Up or down, the dazzling staircase is an invitation to explore. In the foyer, a run of stairs draws you up to a roof deck, through an opening in the skylight. Straight ahead, double doors lead to the primary suite, which claims the entire top floor. Removing one of the two secondary bedrooms created space for a large bathroom, dressing room, office, and powder room, while a gym replaced the other bedroom.

Downstairs, the architect created three en-suite bedrooms, a laundry, and a media room on the north end of the house. Facing south toward the water, a larger kitchen and breakfast room, dining room, living room, and study flow out to the terrace through a sliding wall system. “It’s all about light,” Zoltan says. The terrace’s glass end panels have a special coating that allows views out but not in. 

At the clients’ request, he also enclosed the west stair notch, formed by the H-shaped floor plan, with sliding glass doors to create a sun porch. “It acts as an exterior space, but you can close it off if you don’t like the weather,” he says. The notch on the east was also enclosed to allow for expansion of the primary bath and kitchen. Throughout, slim-profile steel windows enhance the sense of transparency. 

Level Best

With the most ambitious interventions out of the way, other elements fell easily into place. Finishes are simple: engineered oak flooring, white walls, white Thermofoil cabinets, and marble countertops. The effort required to prepare for the reconstruction, however, was a different story. Builder Tyler Udall says it took almost nine months to get the structure to the point where it could be measured for finish materials. 

“In these older beach houses there’s so much movement because of moisture,” he says. “The house was out of level by almost 2 inches from one side to the other. There was a lot of planing and furring of wood, and a lot of self-leveling lightweight concrete poured. When you’re putting in new windows and doors and modern details without trim, solving that problem is a very complicated puzzle. Once we got all that done, it went pretty quickly. But it was arduous; everything had to be absolutely perfect.”

No doubt Jerrold would have appreciated the rigor. Materials, finishes, and details adhere to the minimalist and elegant architectural ethos he espoused during his long career. And as the uplifted design makes clear, in the right hands, even a masterpiece can have a satisfying second life.

Taylor Beach House

Malibu, California

Project Credits

Architect: Zoltan E. Pali, FAIA, SPF:architects, Culver City, California

Builder: Tyler Udall and Ron Udall, Tyler Development, Los Angeles

Engineer: C.W. Howe Partners, Culver City, California

Project size: 5,000 square feet

Site size: 8,000 square feet

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Matthew Momberger

Key Products

Cabinetry: Thermofoil high-gloss white

Countertops: Calacatta Colorado

Dishwasher/Warming Drawer: Miele

Garage doors: Renlita Custom Opening Solutions

HVAC: Daikin

Range: Lacanche

Refrigerator: Sub-Zero

Washer/Dryer: Whirlpool

Window wall systems: Styline Door & Window Systems