Brilliance on a Bluff


A worn fixer-upper becomes a La Playa hillside treasure

BY THE MILLENNIUM, the odd-looking house on the tony Point Loma ridge (the hillside that is now the scenic La Playa neighborhood) was worn beyond its years. That’s what deferred maintenance can do to a structure built in 1951. Nonetheless, it’s what current homeowner Sharon Zell fell for
the day she first set eyes on it. 

“I was driving around Point Loma with a Realtor, looking for a home to buy in San Diego. I had sold my woodworking firm in Sun Valley [Idaho] and was living temporarily in a Coronado condo,” says Zell, who followed in her father’s homebuilding footsteps. “The Realtor was surprised when I asked him to put it in reverse because I liked what I saw: a fixer-upper with a magnificent view of downtown, North Island, San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean.”

Zell bought the house that bore resemblance to something San Diego icon architect Irving Gill might have designed. But by midcentury, Gill was long gone and any historical influence by him on the project might be its rectangular shape, multiple levels and white-plaster façade.

Zell is an accomplished architectural draftsman, but has no formal degree or license to build. For that, she began assembling a team, which included veteran architect Jack Wagenaar and 30-something builder David Brandsen.

The trio spent the next two and a half years revitalizing the house by adding a wing and basement. The land is sloped down the hill far enough that Zell doesn’t worry anyone to the south will ever block her view. The project was completed a year ago.

The original contract involved two permits: (1) the renovation and remodel work and (2) the addition to the north side, which consisted of a basement and two stories on top of it. Four more permits followed to allow for steps down the hill, expanding the tiny garage, retaining walls on the hillside and widening the curb at the street. 

The garage on the north side was added, along with a room above that Zell turned into her drafting office. The interior footprint was reshaped to maximize view opportunities, including opening a kitchen wall downstairs so Zell could enjoy the view through the new living room. 

Because she lived in Idaho the entire time, Zell’s team communicated with her by phone, email and pictures sent to her.

“She would come and stay in town every couple of months and hang out and work with us on the project,” Brandsen says. “She was wonderful to work with and made the entire project go really well. She has a passion for construction and architecture and just a love of the process as well. Having built and remodeled multiple other custom homes in several cities, Sharon knew what she wanted and knew how to tell you what she wanted. Everyone on the job knew not to challenge her on anything, because chances were that she was right!” 

Determined that this house would be exactly the way she wanted, Brandsen says, no expense was spared, especially when it came to the wood and stone amenities. T wo examples are the living room’s marble fireplace, where halogen spotlights call attention to glass sculptures in niches on either side, and the family room fireplace made of solid eighth-inch silicon bronze. 

Other highlights include numerous patio and terrace areas, wide-plank white oak floors throughout and a staircase in the entry that appears to be floating. The railing is solid bronze with a dark patina and half-inch glass inserts. A local carpenter fashioned the entry door, with Zell adding custom glass inserts. A control system allows her to switch on and off all of the lights from almost anywhere in the house. 

The master bedroom features a walk-in closet with commanding views through one of several sets of floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, wood and glass doors. Folding doors that open to 20 feet transform the residence into an open party house at a moment’s notice.

The local cabinetmaker involved on the project received all the door and drawer fronts from Zell’s custom veneer shop in Sun Valley. All of the semi-exotic veneers were hand laid and cut in Idaho and shipped here on pallets. The interior doors were designed by Zell and handmade at her shop.

The creative use of marble in the bathrooms showcases Zell’s building experience. Four of the five showers use solid-slab marble on all of the walls. There were no slabs available that were large enough to go full height, so she used a detail strip between the slabs. The result is marble showers rarely seen, even in the most detailed custom homes — a fitting touch to a remodel that will be a joy to live in for years to come. 

Homes: By Thomas Shess Photography by Martin Mann

Categories: Home Design