Artist and professor Gilah Hirsch has lived in her Venice home since 1974, and she has no plans to leave.
Rather, she continues to make it into a very personal space.
To get a feeling for Gilah's home, you could study one of her paintings: mysterious, mystical, flowing, teeming with nature. According to a review of her paintings by Artweek magazine: “Each stroke, each gesture is charged with a tremendous energy and immediacy.”
But while most of Hirsch’s works are with her but a short while — from her brush to the canvas and off to collections around the world — her largest creation, at 1,500 square feet with an added art studio, has been a 33-year remodeling odyssey.
It was 1974 when Gilah, as a newly hired art professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, beat out several developers to buy a 1904 duplex in a Venice neighborhood she called a “heroin slum.” The duplex had been built as a beach house and had neither electricity nor heat. In the 1970s, the ice man still came around.
Inside, Gilah faced black walls, pornographic wallpaper, klieg lights and shotguns.
“It was a disaster zone,” she recalled.
But over the next three decades, Gilah transformed the duplex into a highly personalized living and work space (she has three assistants to manage her worldwide speaking, showing and teaching engagements) that reflect her passions for art, nature, color, history and world cultures. Except for the roof framing, floors and load-bearing walls, every square inch is a Hirsch creation.
“Everything you see,” she said, “I’ve done.”
To the left is the two-story building she added in 1995, replacing an old horse barn, with stucco and red tiles to match the style of the duplex. The new structure houses a garage and apartment on the ground floor, an airy 35-by-40-foot art studio on the second floor, and a rooftop rose garden with views of Venice and Los Angeles.
Inside the house, the living room is a profusion of art, tile, rugs, stained glass, furniture, silk pillows, plants, masks, lamps and artifacts. Some 100 carpenters and craftsmen have helped Gilah over the decades, constructing walls, moldings and built-ins. She counts more than a dozen types of wood in her home, including birch, mahogany, redwood, oak, walnut, cherry, Birdseye maple, cocobolo (from Central America) and jarrah, a species of eucalyptus.
While the original duplex was gloomy, Gilah remedied that with skylights, three of which were salvaged from a parking garage in Santa Monica. Other salvaged pieces include a stained glass window from a church in Albuquerque, and old windows from Holland.
The social center of the house is a carpeted area Gilah has dubbed “the pit,” a rectangular spot surrounded by a low wooden wall and rimmed with pillows, where she feeds guests from all over the world, and engages them in philosophical dialogues. Visitors, who have included the Dali Lama’s official biographer, stay in the guest room off the living room, in a canopied bed Gilah calls “Fred the Bed.”
Above the conversation pit, a broad stained-glass window, designed by Gilah, creates a mandala of colors on the floor as light from the setting sun streams through. During the week around the summer solstice, the mandala of light travels along the floor across the back of the house.
Hirsch became attuned to nature by spending years, literally, in solo wilderness adventures, including months in total isolation in an Arizona forest cabin with no electricity or running water. Her time in nature inspired her art and her philosophical papers, including a study on the origins of global alphabets and their relationships to the shapes in nature.
The center of the house — between the living room on one side and the offices on the other — contains Hirsch’s private quarters. The kitchen is galley-sized, and furnished with a 1940s stove she found in an alley. The bathroom’s black whirlpool bathtub is ensconced in a wood-lined cubbyhole, surrounded by potted plants and illuminated with a skylight. Her bed feels like a loft, set on a platform above storage spaces and reached via a short ladder. A strategically placed skylight gives her a view of a tall palm tree and the antics of a colony of crows.
Hirsch calls her home style “astro-archeological architecture,” designed according to the sun, the moon, the trees, and her own inner urges.
Having spent much time in Tibet, she wanted her home to feel spiritual and quiet, like a monastery. She has been an unusual constant in Venice, a community famous for its changing spirit.
“It’s very nourishing,” she said of her home. “It’s a refuge in Los Angeles.”