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Not Just a Tract House Anymore

Kathy's Remodeling BlogWhile Gretchen Zee bought her 1960s tract house in Santa Barbara for its lush one third-acre ocean-view lot overlooking an oak-covered hillside, she had to go outside the house to get any sense of nature.

The house was, in fact, backed up to the views, oriented to offer visions of the driveway from the family room’s picture window.

In theory, the kitchen, at the back of the house, offered canyon views. However, besides a small window over the sink, the stove and cabinets stood between the people and the panorama.

“They just plunked these houses down without any sensitivity to where anything was,” said Gretchen, who bought the house in 1988 with her husband, Tony, a physics researcher and professor, and their two young sons, Peter and Andrew, then 5 and 11, respectively.

Gretchen, an architect, wanted to remodel the house right away. The money to do it, however, was not available.

But the house helped bring about a remodel when, in a short period, the roof wore out, the kitchen sink cracked, the stove broke, and the dishwasher headed for its demise.

The logical response would have been to simply remodel the kitchen. But Gretchen, even with her fertile architect’s mind, couldn’t imagine simply upgrading it.

Finally, it occurred to her that the kitchen had to be moved to the driveway side of the house, where the family room was, and the family room moved to the view side of the house.

At first, Gretchen had no idea how exactly she would transform the space. Night after night, as she pondered the “new” house, her eyes settled on a large, abstract painting by Tony Zee’s sister, Chicago artist Stella Zee.

As Gretchen took in the painting’s large, sensuous forms swirling round with blues, yellows, browns and grays, she decided to use it as a starting point for the new color scheme.

Architecturally, the new space feels at once contemporary (unique ceiling angles, unusual colors), Asian (clean lines, use of red color) and a bit traditional (thick baseboard moldings and wooden floors).

Today, the newly positioned dining room and family room overlook the canyon through a walls of glass doors and windows, and both have high, slanted ceilings that were pushed up into the home’s ample attic space.

Removing a wall to create the great room required, for structural stability, a supporting post near the entryway. Gretchen installed a large red post, which, in husband Tony’s native China, is said to bring fortune to a family.

With Stella Zee’s painting as the visual centerpoint, the ceilings are painted a pale gray, with the slightest touch of lavender, while two walls are a buttery yellow and two are a dusty green.

The subtle colors end at the new kitchen. While the baseboard cabinets are maple, the ceilings and counters are bright white and the glass-fronted wall cabinets are stained bright red, with the whole illuminated by a large, glass skylight.

The entire project cost $40,000 and took four months to complete Gretchen has no regrets, especially none on the red cabinets, which she said would be considered “too risky” by most of her friends.

“What’s the big deal?” she said. “If I don’t like it, I can just paint it.”

(Photos: Jennifer A. Robinson )

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