A Venice real estate agent and his architect son buck the McMansion trend
By Joe Piasecki
When lifelong Venice resident Terry Ballentine and his wife Lorraine envisioned their dream retirement home, they knew two things for sure: They wanted to stay in Venice, but they didn’t want to live in one of those big glass-and-metal boxes taking over the landscape.
So Terry, a real estate agent, asked his architect son Ben Ballentine to turn their existing home into a Craftsman — something modeled after the more traditional Venice homes that developers have bulldozed en masse to make way for contemporary designs with much larger footprints.
“I told Ben I wanted an old house with new stuff,” Terry recalls. “I’ve always admired the Craftsman houses built in Venice in the early 1900s: the openness, the big front porches, the expansive living areas and all the wood. The wood’s really special.”
The Ballentine house at 513 28th Ave., a block south of the Venice Canals, is more than a matter of personal taste; it’s a statement piece about where Terry grew up — “a tribute to a historical Venice architectural style being torn down,” as Ben puts it.
Over the past 15 years or so, skyrocketing real estate prices have given rise to what many longtime locals describe as a pandemic of developer tear-downs and rebuilds that maximize square footage and pump-up resale values. According to an analysis by Douglas Elliman real estate, the average sale price for Venice homes in the second quarter of this year was more than $2.3 million, up 5.7% from the same period last year.
Lot by lot, block by block, single-story homes are being replaced with towering box structures, reshaping the community’s visual character and economic diversity. In July, The Wall Street Journal published results of a study that found Venice home prices had more than tripled between 2000 and 2015, while the neighborhood’s overall housing stock shrank by 700 units as builders consolidated smaller lots to build larger single-family homes.
‘It feels developer-driven, rather than people having a vision for a home. Everyone is capitalizing on every last inch of space,” says Oren Safdie, a playwright with a background in architecture who lives in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice. “Brooks [Avenue] is especially bad. It looks like a satire by an architectural magazine. Sealed windows with central air and heating by the beach? It makes no sense.”
“We call ’em Lego boxes,” says Laddie Williams, a lifelong resident of Oakwood, where the transformation has been most profound.
Calling themselves the Venice Coalition to Preserve Unique Community Character, Williams and other Venice activists sued L.A. City Hall last year to stop what they call “Venice Sign Offs” — a pattern and practice of labeling new homes as remodeling projects to fast-track them through the approvals process. In many cases, everything but a single wall or support structure is razed to make way for new construction of larger mass and scale.
“[Developers] come into the community saying they want to be part of the Venice vibe, then they put up something totally different: all cement, steel and glass. There’s no intention of fitting the community character that Venice became famous for,” says Williams. “These Lego boxes tower over the beautiful bungalows, shotgun houses, Craftsman and vintage styles that are going away.”
The lawsuit, dismissed by summary judgment in June before it could reach trial but eligible for appeal, counts as many as 230 Venice Sign Offs over just 21 months in 2014 and 2015.
The Ballentine house was a different kind of remodel: technically an 1,100-square-foot second-story addition to a 1,200-square-foot Midcentury home.
Terry’s parents — a transplant from Iowa and the daughter of French immigrants, who married while working at Douglas Aircraft (now Santa Monica Airport) during World War II — bought the three bed, one bath stucco-and-frame house for $12,000 in the 1960s, and Terry inherited it in 2009.
“We weren’t just scraping the house,” says Ben, who sought to “build a 21st-century home that would respect the work of the original Craftsman architects.”
While taking some artistic license to open up the kitchen and living area, Ben, being much more familiar with contemporary designs, painstakingly researched historic Craftsman designs and materials.
“We wanted to get it right, down to the mantels handmade from courtesan oak — that was a traditional material — and the custom front door with leaded glass,” says Ben. “We replicated a lot of what you see in the original Craftsmans around here. A big emphasis of this house is the details. It’s a big step from the moderns, where there’s decidedly simplified detail because it’s more about space.”
Locals appreciated the effort. The Venice Neighborhood Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee endorsed the project for California Coastal Commission approval in 2015, and neighborhood reaction has been pretty glowing since construction wrapped up last year.
“It’s a very special house,” Lorraine says. “People walk by and say ‘I love your house.’ Strangers.”
Neighbor Fred Barthel, who has lived on the block since 1979, also appreciates the work.
“Terry and Ben were trying to do what’s right — building something that fits with the neighborhood instead of that box style that people are turning over as fast as they can build them,” Barthel says. “Thank goodness.”