House of Dreams

Posted online: November 2016

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By Jennifer Blaise Kramer Photographs Lisa Romerein

When Gretchen and Robert Lieff moved into their 1929 Spanish revival home in Montecito four years ago, Gretchen felt the need to warm up to it. The 10,500-square-foot manse had been in her husband’s family, and with seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms, it felt very big. Under the moniker Los Suenos, which translates to “The Dreams,” the house was hailed to be the last one George Washington Smith designed before he died. In an effort to fall in love with her home, its legends, and its grandeur, Gretchen did some digging outside and in, surprising herself along the way.

“The first thing I wanted to do was authenticate the garden, as I’m in the garden all day long with our dogs,” says Gretchen, whose life is devoted to animals. With four pups of her own—Rhodesian ridgeback Jambo and border collies Alamo, Ranch, and Creek—she’s also the founder of Davey’s Voice, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing animal abuse. When she takes on a project, she gives it her all, which is exactly what she did here. After she tended to the garden, which was originally done by landscape architect A.E. Hanson, she worked her way inside— along with their contractor, Richard Heimberg—on restoring each room.

To keep things as authentic as possible, Gretchen started looking for historical documents. To her surprise, she found thousands of drawings of the house signed not by the famed George Washington Smith, but by Lutah Maria Riggs, Santa Barbara’s first female licensed architect, most famous for the Lobero Theater. At first, having never heard of her, Gretchen thought, “Lutah who?” But as she researched more and more, discovering how closely Riggs worked with Smith, who died in 1930, it became clear that this woman was the true talent behind her home.

“It was all Lutah,” she says. “Then I just kind of melted into the house.” As she brought the interiors—from the formal foyer to the Hemingway-glam salon—back to life, Gretchen simultaneously started having “Lutah Gatherings” at the house with friends. Their art and architecture talks later formed the Lutah Maria Riggs Society and led to her coproducing the Lutah documentary (with Leslie Sweem Bhutani and director Kum-Kum Bhavnani) that screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2014 and is still being shown all over the world.

At home, Gretchen and Robert fell in love with some of the architect’s iconic original touches such as the artistic stone-tiled floor in the master bathroom. They also framed several of Riggs’s drawings and hung them in the stairwell, while many more created a new Lutah Maria Riggs archive at UC Santa Barbara. As big art collectors, the couple furnished the home with longtime pieces that seemed to fit perfectly here, standing out prominently on many of walls, which are accentuated by 15-foot ceilings. One series plays off the checkered marble floors in the dining room, while oversized photographs shine on the wood paneling in the living room and den.

“There are a number of elements of this house I find enjoyable, but my favorite is the library, which is essentially my home office,” says Robert, a prominent lawyer and founder of the class-action law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, known for landmark cases including the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He winds up there most nights with the dogs—three of which are named as an homage to their San Luis Obispo County Lieff Ranch that lies on Alamo Creek Road, where they produce their label Lieff Wines.

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Well-positioned windows let light bounce down the long hallway and through the master bedroom. The U shape of the home makes its large scale feel smaller and pulls everyone out to the courtyard filled with roses and citrus trees. Knowing that at one point, eccentric former owners held old Hollywood parties, Gretchen loves to sit out in the courtyard by the square-shaped pool and hear what she calls “the murmur of history.”

Surrounded by mature olive trees and peaceful fountains, the couple is happy to have brought back a significant home that they feel is a true testimony to old Montecito. Gretchen likes to think of Riggs working on it alongside Smith, during a time when women were rarely seen holding a hammer—and how special their partnership was creating these kind of residences, which are truly dream homes in today’s teardown world. “They did such a beautiful dance together, and this was their final one,” Gretchen says. “This house epitomizes her.”

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