When Santa Barbara Magazine asked me to write an article about the massive remodel done by Imaging Spence (yes, that’s her given name), I kind of dreaded it. You may recall that her husband Gerry Spence is a famous attorney and author, and I feared that the couple might be snotty and ostentatious and arrogant. But they are the exact opposite: humble, self-effacing, fun and delightful. And their remodeled house is stunning.
Here’s the story I wrote:
To hear Gerry Spence tell it, his wife has a way with both houses and husbands.
“Look what she’s done with me,” says Gerry, a photographer, painter, poet and pundit, author of 14 books, and an undefeated trial lawyer who represented Karen Silkwood, Randy Weaver and others.
“Without Imaging Spence,” he claims, “I’d be a homeless waif.”
But when Imaging, his spouse of three decades, says “Don’t tell me you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she’s actually referring to the ho-hum Montecito property she transformed into a gracious Mediterranean manor with arches, columns and corbels, and the enchanting gardens she has imagined since childhood.
The couple, who live half the year in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, bought the home on 24 canyon acres because, Imaging says, “I needed a project.”
At the time, the Spences owned a George Washington Smith-designed home on 2 1/2 acres in Montecito, with gardens designed by famed architect Lutah Maria Riggs. When their real estate agent said, “Imaging, I’ve got a property you should look at,” the couple agreed to see it.
Ignoring the house, Gerry and Imaging hiked all over the ocean-view property, taking in the creek, sycamores, oaks, eucalyptus, cypress and century-old olive trees. As the couple looked toward the pool, they spied two ducks floating there and a bobcat stalking from a nearby hill. When the bobcat made its move and the ducks took flight, Gerry took it as “a sign” that the couple would be protected there: “Well, we have to buy this house,” he said.
(Photos: Santa Barbara Magazine)
While a lesser woman may have bought the property in spite of the home—described by Imaging as a “pure white, flat-walled, windowless house with a Kmart parking lot”—she wanted it because of the challenge it brought. “The more difficult the better,” she says. A tireless renovator, she regrets that her husband has spent years living “in a cloud of sawdust,” but continues nevertheless.
“I don’t know how I could survive without building,” she says, grateful that Gerry “understands my need to do my creative thing.” He says: “It tickles me to watch her.”
She does her own designing, drawing, supervising of craftspeople, choosing of paint and fabric, and even sewing. The home she designed in Jackson Hole has been featured in Architectural Digest. Though not formally trained as a designer, she does it all, Gerry says, with “an educated eye.”
Imaging grew up steeped in history and art as the daughter of Mendel Peterson, head curator of history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. During summers spent wandering through museums filled with paintings and columns and fountains, she “felt like a princess” and thought: “I have to live like this.”
But for the fulfillment of that dream, this house did not look promising. The white walls seemed out of place in the natural landscape. And the orientation was skewed, with the kitchen facing the mountains to the North and the living room, which Imaging considers “a nighttime room,” facing the morning sun and ocean view. Worst of all was the relative lack of windows, unforgivable in such a setting.
On the other hand, the layout of the house was interesting, with a wide corridor stretching from the front door on the North to the rear patio on the South, connecting the major rooms and two courtyards, one of which was built around a gnarled old olive tree.
To avoid the need for a permit for a totally new house, which Imaging called “the 100-year-plan” in Santa Barbara’s restrictive building environment, she decided to take most of the house down (it had termites anyway) and build it back up on the same footprint, which qualified it as a remodel. She switched the kitchen and the living room, so she could enjoy sunshine during breakfast.
Building up the new house, executed by local contractor Kevin Archer, took more than a year, during which time Imaging and Gerry lived in a converted tool shed when they were in Santa Barbara. “We stayed in this one little room with this little bathroom,” she said of the cottage, which is now a guesthouse, and pointed out the table where she drew her plans. She set up an office trailer for Gerry on the site (he writes every morning before breakfast), and quarters for their housekeeper. During the last six months of building, Imaging moved to the tool shed fulltime to supervise the finish work.
Where the stucco box once stood has risen up what looks to be at least a century old—a solid, wide hacienda with wide arches, beefy columns, old brickwork and a tile roof. The thick walls and leaded glass windows are “very George Washington Smith,” she says, referring to the local architect of years gone by. Ceilings were pushed up and outfitted with beams, which she drug around the property with a truck to add a sense of age. “You should have seen her,” Gerry said, dubbing it the “Imaging Spence antiquing system.”
What had been a solid wall in the master bedroom gave way to large windows to enjoy the ocean view from the Spanish Colonial bed, which is Gerry’s favorite spot in the house. “We hang out in bed and read,” Imaging says.
The dining room ceiling was lifted, shaped and painted by a muralist to reflect views in Santa Barbara. Imaging’s favorite room, only eight feet wide and outfitted with wooden lofts, a window seat and colorful pillows, is for visits from their 13 grandchildren, which Imaging say have turned her into “an idiotic, crazy, doting grandmother.” A new courtyard, replacing the Kmart parking lot, revolves around a grand fountain surrounded by agapanthus and full-grown queen and kentia palms that were dropped in by a crane. Across the creek sits the barn renovated into Gerry’s office.
Once Imaging had the house finished, she started on the three-year landscaping project. The first year, she had a “dreadful” weedy field behind the house contoured to slope up toward the North Star and down toward the house. She then brought to life her vision of a series of four fountains starting from a pergola at the top of the contour. A large fountain sit below that at the top of a palm-lined “allee,” another in the front courtyard, and then another on the back courtyard, this one accented with crane sculptures. Likewise, brickwork stretches along the north-south axis, and through the house, to create a sense of balance and unity that can be felt as well as observed.
“People don’t know they know it,” Imaging says about constancy in architectural design, “They feel it.”
During a tour of the house, Gerry tags along, commenting about his wife’s “undiscovered genius” and the lessons he learns from the “protective cocoons” she has created. Early in their marriage, she demonstrated the art of compromise when he balked at the wallpaper she wanted to put up and she said gently: “There are a lot of wallpapers in the book. I’m sure there’s one we both like.” Such an attitude, he says, could solve many of the world’s conflicts.
She also taught him, with her dad’s help, to appreciate the beauty of rugs as artworks and reflections of lives and cultures. Before he met Imaging, he was strictly a carpet man. “I was ignorant,” he admits.
Gerry also takes a lesson from the grand yet cozy living room, which Imaging has furnished with a global flair—temple bells from Tibet, posts from Afghanistan, a rug from India, textiles from Turkmenistan, a wooden bell from Indonesia, Aztec statues and two Italian chairs she inherited from her Aunt Flo in Mississippi. “What does it tell you about mankind?” Gerry asks. “There is a sense of spirit in all countries and when they join together in one room, you feel good.”
Imaging’s next projects include painting a mural on the kitchen ceiling, building an addition to the guest cottage and making improvements to the gardens.
Imaging believes she and Gerry will “live here the rest of our days,” and all the more so after Gerry told her: You better make this the way you want “because I’m not moving.”
Not to worry, Imaging says: “I can’t image leaving this spot.”
(Photos: Santa Barbara Magazine)