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High Flying Design

Radical reuse and extreme recycling soar at the Wing House in the Santa Monica Mountains.

By Mark Storer

Photo by Studio EA

Extending out past the exterior wall and over the patio, the expansive wing of a 747 seems to soar over the house and toward the sky.

 

he Boeing 747 in all its variants is one of the most recognizable aircraft flying today. The iconic slow-sloping humpbacked jet was the mainstay of transcontinental travel throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and that familiar shape remains a high point of design and engineering. In passenger service, however, it has nearly come to the end of its time, as most airlines are retiring the aged jumbo jet in favor of newer, more modern aircraft. Near California City in the Mojave Desert, at what is affectionately known as the “airliner graveyard,” one can see dozens of 747s being carved up for parts and metal by avionics and aviation enthusiasts.

Indeed, it’s where architect David Hertz came across an old Boeing 747-200 built in 1970 — reportedly the 28th one built — and originally owned by Trans World Airlines. Retired by TWA in 1992, it was later purchased by former charter airline Tower Air (which ceased operations in 2000) for scrap. When Hertz acquired it, he envisioned repurposing it not for spare parts or metal fabrication, but for a unique residence that he was tasked to build above the coast in the Santa Monica Mountains in Ventura County. It wasn’t just trickery or whimsy that led Hertz to the aircraft, either, but a careful partnership with Francie Rehwald, a retired automobile dealership owner who sought out a suitable place to build a unique home for years. Rehwald settled on 55 acres above the Pacific Ocean with sweeping views of Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara Islands to the southwest and of the Oxnard plain to the north. 

The pair had in common the desire to reuse materials in what amounts to a kind of extreme recycling, allowing what is old to become new again and creating useful and aesthetically provocative habitats.

“This land up here was first sort of developed and used by Tony Duquette,” said Hertz. “He was a Hollywood set designer and artist and he was sort of known for radical reuse and repurposing of materials.” Hertz, whose office is in Venice, became a student of Duquette’s work and now owns 42 acres adjacent to Rehwald’s that include a compound known as Xanabu, built by Duquette some 60 years ago. “I became interested in working with those kinds of materials,” Hertz said. “A part of it is how do you not use primary materials to create buildings and instead find what’s already there to build.” Since then, Hertz has made a unique career as an architect choosing to reuse, repurpose and recycle materials of various kinds to create buildings and homes all over Southern California.

Hertz’s own family history has long roots in the Santa Monica Mountains and along the border of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. His father and uncle built Paramount Ranch and he has always had an affinity for the landscape here. He knew Rehwald’s property well.

Rehwald hired Hertz after an exhaustive search and interviews with many architects. In the end, their visions for the home she wanted to build were similar. “I stood on that property and couldn’t imagine a building with a wall and a window,” Hertz said. “The idea was to create a floating roof that didn’t have any walls and had floor-to-ceiling glass.”

But where Hertz’s original design was what Rehwald refers to as “more masculine,” with straight lines and defined angles, she wanted a more feminine aesthetic. “I started thinking about feminine form, applying that here, and I happened to be traveling when I looked out at the airplane and really saw how curved and how light and sort of diaphanous it was.”

Duquette’s spirit lives on the property with a number of pagodalike structures and other statuary, some from films he worked on, which he built from recycled materials gathered from Naval Base Ventura County surplus. They dot the approach to the Wing House, which isn’t visible until you come up next to it. 

The story of how the house was built was covered in local and even international media. The aircraft measured over 230 feet long, 195 feet wide and 63 feet tall. The airplane was precisely carved into pieces and hauled by truck to Camarillo Airport. When it was time to deliver the wings to the property, they were carried via sky crane helicopter over the Santa Monica Mountains and gently laid down as a team of contractors expertly began to put the two wings and the tail wings together.

“It was luck, good fortune that brought me here,” said Rehwald. “I love being up here. It’s the peace and tranquility of these hills.”

Hertz echoed her sentiments. “It’s magical up here with the views of ocean and the mountains. It’s one of the more unique places in the world.” Netflix thought so, too, and Rehwald’s home is featured in a show that appears on the streaming service called World’s Most Extraordinary Homes.

The house is actually a pair of buildings and the surrounding yard or compound, including a pool and a number of simple gardens, with a water feature made from one of the four engine cowlings of the aircraft. 

The main house where Rehwald lives is a broad open-floor plan with simple concrete walls toward the back of the structure and a window for a wall on the front side. The kitchen, dining area, great room and sitting room all flow into one. The wing-as-ceiling is in full view and the wing’s lights serve as ambient lighting in the house now. The windows open at both the front and the back of the house, allowing for cool breezes. Rehwald used a part of the fuselage to separate an office from the kitchen. “It was the idea of recycling or reusing something that was really exciting to me,” said Rehwald. “When I got to see the airplane, that’s when I knew — standing underneath it. It was so beautiful.”

Rehwald was very active in building her home and even worked on the wing itself, turning screws and polishing metal. She worked with a friend on the design of the landscape, and together they built simple gardens with an Asian theme to soften the sharper edges of the property, using local plants and flowers, all of which seem to point back to the views of the hillsides and the mountains.

A winding staircase, originally designed to reuse the aircraft’s first-class stairwell, leads up to the large single bedroom. “The building code wouldn’t allow for that narrow stairwell,” said Rehwald, “so we had a metal fabricator design this one.”

In the upstairs bedroom, roofed in by the tail fins of the aircraft, the wall of windows continues. Outside, the landing lights of the wing serve as lights on the garden. “It took six years to build and I’ve lived here for seven,” said Rehwald, who took up occupancy in a trailer while the house was being built.

Both the main house and the guest wing use hot water ambient heating — also called hydronic radiant heating — that runs under the concrete floor. The guest wing sits adjacent to the pool and Jacuzzi and has one bedroom on the north side of the house and a living room and large open shower area on the other. The two rooms are separated by a large covered patio that serves as a dining, living and entertainment area. Rather than enclose it with another window wall, Rehwald chose to keep it open, though covered by the wing-roof, as an informal guest area.

Across from the main house, over the driveway, peering through trees and sinuous rills of a sloping hillside, several more pieces of the airplane’s fuselage stand. Rehwald plans to build an open-ended art studio out of the pieces.

Standing at the guest house, facing the main residence, the view is of the wings, juxtaposed in altitude, one above the other, soaring against the wide expanse of mountain and sky. The Wing House’s shape, defined by the hills over which it stands, follows simplicity and form and is an homage to working with the landscape and, in this case, the skyscape. There’s nothing overtly overwhelming about seeing Rehwald’s home — and yet, it is breathtaking and graceful. 

Overwhelmed is the only response to seeing the Wing House in full flight. 

David Hertz Architects Inc. FAIA
S.E.A. Studio of Environmental Architecture
310.829.9932
www.davidhertzfaia.com

An engine cowling has been cleverly converted into a fire pit. Its twin (not shown) is a water feature on the other side.

The wings, in cross section, are surprisingly curvaceous, lending the house a softer, more feminine aspect that makes an elegant contrast to the hard-edged industrial materials — metal, glass, concrete — used in its design.

By day or night, the Wing House creates a dramatic outline against landscape and skyscape alike.

04-01-2018

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