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A Mar Vista family’s journey to inner space

BrownA cramped bungalow becomes a 5,000-square-foot oasis with plenty of elbow room for all.

The first thing you notice about Janet Mitsui Brown's remodeled Mar Vista home is its sense of balance, harmony and consistency.

The slate on the fence posts is repeated on the chimney, the front steps and into the foyer. The red-toned wood of the double front doors appears again in the eaves and around the windows. The lanterns flanking the fence posts and porch unify its design, a combination of Asian and Craftsman features.

But once you enter the grand foyer, the 5,000-square-foot, two-story house reveals itself as a series of distinct spaces designed for the four individuals who live there: Janet; her husband, Roger Brown; their teenage daughter, Tani; and Janet's mother, Akiko Mitsui.

"I wanted the house to be a reflection of our family," said Janet, an author, illustrator and producer, as well as a practitioner of the ancient Chinese art of placement, feng shui. To achieve that, each member has his or her "own place."

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For her needs, Janet created an office at the front of the house overlooking the garden, plus a media room that opens to her office as well as to the living room and dining room.

When the media room is used for business, sliding opaque glass doors separate it from the family areas. When used for family time, it’s closed off from the office.

Roger, an actor known for his role as Deputy Chief Joe Noland on the 2000-04 CBS series “The District,” ended up with the grand entryway he wanted and a sense of security in the home, provided in part by the artful iron fence, painted to resemble wood, that surrounds the lot.

At the back of the lot is a workshop-office that Roger has dubbed “Man’s World” — no women allowed. Even this reporter was barred.

“The dogs can leave their bones on the floor,” he said, “and no one’s going to move them.”

He has his own bathroom there and will soon add a steam shower.

Females are allowed, though, on the adjacent back patio, where the family entertains often around a stone fire pit and a Japanese grill embedded into a slate-covered table that Roger built. He finds the patio particularly appealing.

“There’s fire, there’s meat,” he said.

The couple’s daughter, a June high school graduate leaving soon for Princeton University, has a cozy bedroom on the second floor. Her mother purposely picked the north side of the house to give the room the softest natural light and a relaxed atmosphere but added a skylight in the high ceiling to keep the room from getting gloomy.

“When my friends come over,” Tani said, “they don’t want to leave.”

Tani’s influence is felt in the foyer, where two stained-glass pieces she crafted — one depicting a Buddha, another a bonsai tree — hang beneath a skylight.

The home’s fourth resident, Akiko Mitsui, has her domain at the rear of the house, with a bedroom and bathroom adjacent to a family room (there is a second family room upstairs), plus a secondary kitchen that serves her needs and is handy to the patio.

Janet also gave her mom her own laundry area, she said, to “maintain harmony.”

Although the remodel wasn’t finished until 2003, the couple had been planning it since they bought the house in 1997 for $286,000. Then, the house was a 1,200-square-foot postwar bungalow on a nearly quarter-acre lot, with bars over its windows and concealed from the street by a huge tree.

“It seemed like a house in hiding,” Janet said.

But it had potential for the family, who wanted a house that needed work in an up-and-coming neighborhood. For starters, they took the bars off the windows, trimmed the tree and cleaned weeds and debris from the lot.

“It was basic feng shui,” she said.

To determine the floor plan of the new house, the couple worked with Los Angeles architect James Weeks. By 2000, the plans were complete, Roger had landed his role in the TV show and it seemed a good time to start work on the house. The family moved to a rental near the ocean.

Early on, Roger acted as general contractor to save money. Janet recalls that he was very happy with his two roles, one at the studio, one at the job site. After six months, though, with only the framing complete, Janet realized he could not do justice to both pursuits.

“You need to do what you do best, which is being an actor,” Janet recalled telling her husband and suggested they bring in a licensed general contractor, the husband of her hairdresser.

Working with Luis Martinez, Janet took a year off work to finish the house. She and Martinez shopped together to buy slate in bulk, which they used throughout the house on floors, fireplaces, bathroom walls and patios; and marble, for counters in the office, the kitchens, the laundry rooms and the bathrooms.

“There’s nothing better than finding a bargain, right?” Janet said.

To continue the Asian features outside, Janet infused the lot with ponds, bamboo and Buddha statues. For help with decorating and choosing colors and materials inside, she hired interior designer Susan Taniguchi.

When the house was finished, the total price tag for the remodel came to a little more than $1 million. Janet calls it “the house ‘The District’ built.” It was recently appraised at $1.6 million.

Having a design that emphasizes personal, private space has actually enhanced their family life, Janet said.

Most important, she added, it has brought a “sense of peace.”

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If you would like to have your remodel considered for use in Pardon Our Dust, send before and after images and a brief description of the project to Real Estate Editor, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012.

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At a glance

Project: Transform a 1940s bungalow into a 5,000-square- foot Asian-Craftsman home to accommodate three generations.

Area: Mar Vista

Architect: James Weeks, Mar Vista, (310) 559-5192

Builder: Luis Martinez, License No. 602195, Hollywood, (323) 816-5410

Duration: 2 years

Cost: About $1 million

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