Oldies But Goodies
Oldies But Goodies
The former crack houses next door were interrible shape. Cynthia Foster and Karel Samsomput them into intensive rehab. Before thethree run-down 1920s semiattached bungalowsin Venice, California, were even listed on themarket, the couple took a leap and negotiated a dealfor $1.7 million. The price was essentially the value of theland. “In traditional economics,” says Samsom, an environmentaleconomist, “you do not do what we did. Youtake all this down and build prefab, sustainable bunkers.”
But they refused to tear down the teardowns. Foster,a writer and actor, and Samsom, who has lectured onsustainable entrepreneurship at several universities in theU.S. and Europe, “loved the architecture and the history,”he says, and were looking for an opportunity to apply theirpassion for solar energy, recycling, and sustainability.And Venice Beach has long had a hold on the couple’shearts for its artistic, bohemian nature and for the beachfrontand canals that remind Samsom of his hometownof Leiden, in the Netherlands. Their rescue operationeventually became the Venice Beach Eco-Cottages, whichopened for short-term stays this past January.
Located four blocks from the beach, the cottages werebuilt as vacation rentals in 1922, back when Venice was aseries of islands navigated by gondola and crossed withsmall bridges. In 1929 the city ofLos Angeles filled in the lagoonand replaced many of the canalswith paved roads. “I can neverunderstand why they did that—like tearing down Penn Station,”says Samsom. Over the years, asthe area deteriorated and lost itsstatus as a tourist destination(Venice was the site of hundreds of oil wells, among othercoastal disturbances), the cottages became housing formigrant workers. In the 1970s and ’80s, when Venice wasso dangerously drug-addled that few dared stray from theboardwalk at night, the cottages became crack houses.
The rehab of the bungalows took nine months. Fosterand Samsom had no business plan and no architect. Theywere their own contractors, and Foster says they approachedthe undertaking as “a giant mixed-media artproject—the art of sustainability.” It was a perfect fusionof the talents of the artist and the environmentalist.
Out went old aluminum windows and appliances,donated to Habitat for Humanity. In went solar panelsthat generate enough energy to power the buildings. Thegiant eucalyptus tree outside presented a problem, itsbranches blocking the sunlight. The couple found anartisan tree surgeon who skillfully trimmed the tree, tookthe branches to the desert to dry out, and carved them intofireplace mantles. “I felt that if we kept our resources onsite, we would somehow keep the history and energy ofthe place,” says Foster. They also hired workers to removethe kitchen tiles and reinstall them as a bathroom mosaic.
At every turn, they rejected the use of plastic andpetroleum products or anything made in China. “Wedid not want to save money on the backs of somebodyelse,” says Foster. “I feel that buying from big-box storesis essentially supporting slave labor and unregulatedchemical pollution of the earth. I don’t want to be a partof that.” They shopped in salvage yards, flea markets,and thrift shops, and on eBay. In their 12-year-old Volvowagon, they hauled back farm sinks, Hoosier cabinets,claw-foot tubs, and vintage light fixtures.
The 1920s were Foster’s main design inspiration. Sheturned vintage tablecloths into kitchen curtains. Timeworncrystal doorknobs became curtain holdbacks.She dressed up flea market chandeliers with antiquatednecklaces and crystal beads. Kelly LaPlante, her likemindedinterior designer, helped her source materialsand figure out how to refashion a cast-iron birdcage intoa swivel chair.
Foster and Samsom found eco-companies that makeorganic mattresses, bedding, and shower curtains.Spa robes and towels are a blend of bamboo and organiccotton. Recycled blue jeans, from a company calledBonded Logic, serve as insulation. In fully equippedkitchens, sparkling stainless-steel pans dangle from oldtrumpets and bugles. Forget about Teflon.
They also use a green cleaning service. All threecottages have identical square footage (450) and featurerotating exhibits of paintings and photography by localartists. Each has a breakfast nook, a living room, and abedroom, as well as a bathroom with floors made fromnaturally antifungal used wine corks. Cut-up licenseplates provide the address numbers of the cottages, eachof which has a name and its own aesthetic. The PapaHemingway Cottage is brown and beige and masculine,the sort of place to inspire pulp fiction. Le Bébé Cottagemixes midcentury modern with Rococo flourishes. AuntZoe’s Place is like a cheery, kitschy lake cabin. This lastcottage takes its name not from a beloved aunt but froma flea-infested, undernourished dog the couple broughthome from one of their junkyard trips—who in turn isnamed after the veterinarian who nursed her back tohealth. “Yes,” Foster says, “even our dog is repurposed.”
Venice Beach Eco-Cottages: 447 Grand Blvd., Venice,California; 866/802-3110; $200 per night for a three-night minimumstay (sleeps two to three people), $1,250 and upfor a week; venicebeachecocottages.com.
"Oldies But Goodies" originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Culture+Travel. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Culture+Travel's Fall 2008 Table of Contents.