Cue the Light

Posted online: March 2016

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By Joan Tapper Photographs by Trevor Tondro


If the exterior of Stephanie and Peter Smillie’s Spanish Colonial hints at the home’s history—designed in 1927 by Alexander Bertrand Harmer, this was one of Hope Ranch’s original 13 houses—the striking objects inside testify to the couple’s own story. An early 19th-century map of Africa hung in the high-ceilinged entry hall is a nod to Peter’s South African birthplace and a lanky wooden Polynesian “surf god” statue is a clue to the couple’s global sailing voyages. An ornate crystal chandelier hangs above where Peter was insistent on small windows near the ceiling—not just for the light but for the way sunbeams bounce off the prisms and create rainbows on the walls.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.15.37 AMScreen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.18.35 AM“I am a frustrated designer/architect,” says the noted former commercials director who, with Stephanie, ran a production company in Los Angeles and worked around the world. Over the years, the couple, who have twin teenage sons Lucas and Travis, have owned a Balinese-style house in Malibu, a beachfront spread in Hollister Ranch, and a Wallace Neff house in Hope Ranch, among others. For long periods, they also sailed through the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and South Pacific, but they were living in a contemporary beach house in New Zealand when a business trip brought Peter back to California. While driving around Hope Ranch he saw a For Sale sign, telephoned the agent, toured the property, and called Stephanie to say he’d bought the house.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.15.44 AMAt the time, there were heavy curtains on the windows, and the rooms were “packed to the rafters with furniture,” Peter remembers, “but the house had good bones, and considering it was from the ‘20s, it was in good shape.” To increase the size of the rooms, improve the flow, and, most importantly, add more light, the couple connected with architect Peter Becker, who has a way of bringing historic projects unobtrusively up to date.

Historic restrictions meant that the envelope of the roughly 5,500-square-foot house couldn’t be altered, but Becker combined small rooms, removed low ceilings, and created a tower space in the bedroom wing that functions like a light well. He added a curving “mole hole” passageway to separate public and private spaces and designed an upstairs office for Peter, reached by an outside stairway adorned with handmade tiled risers. “Peter Smillie has astounding taste,” says Becker. “It was a wonderful collaboration, and that’s the best thing in architecture.”

The renovations were carried out by Allen Construction, which kept things as original as possible. “We took the doors and windows and reused them,” recalls Ian Cronshaw, vice president of Allen, who worked long-distance with the Smillies, who were in New Zealand during the two-and-a-half years of construction, “You always want to build a beautiful house,” he adds, “but the owners are the heart of it.”

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Furnishings and art truly add to the heart of the home, as they have accompanied the family across oceans from move to move. Covering one wall of the living room, a huge framed canvas depicts a colonial Portuguese East African scene. Opposite, flanking the French doors that lead to a stretch of lawn and ocean views, are two iconic photographs by Norman Seeff, one of Ray Charles, the other of John Belushi. In the adjoining den, a leather art deco couch and chairs are paired with colorful curtains and cushions made from African fabrics picked up during their travels.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.17.42 AMIn contrast, the new master bath, which replaced a 1970s-style den, is a luxe space of crystal, marble, and mirrored shelves that show off an array of antique perfume bottles. In the kitchen, stainless steel cabinets and appliances complement the boldly veined marble counters in an airy space designed to accommodate a long monastery table made in Argentina in the 1800s. “We have our stuff and stick it where it fits,” jokes Peter. “It’s eclectic—that’s why it works!”

“Hope Ranch is an interesting place—quiet and peaceful,” says Stephanie. “We wanted the boys to be able to run around.” Their five-acre property also includes a tennis court and pool, and now that the twins are 16, a skateboard ramp. A storeroom has been converted to a bunkhouse for younger guests, and a gatehouse turned into a guest cottage. And for a family with a passion for surfing and sailing, there’s always the ocean, alluringly close at hand and glittering with light.

[HOME & GARDEN 2016]

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