Bob White’s New Campaign
A Mount Helix estate provides a contemporary backdrop for the retired chief of staff's collections and lifestyle
After a long career in high-profile politics and a lifetime of travel, Bob White was ready for a new campaign: to remodel his 1970s-era Mount Helix home.
“I just wanted to have my own space in the world,” says Bob, who founded the public affairs consulting firm California Strategies and served as chief of staff to Pete Wilson through his terms in the San Diego mayor’s office, the state Assembly, the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate.
Bob says he’s often asked why he would continue to live in eastern San Diego County when so much of his work is in the state Capitol, and there are certainly tonier places throughout California he could reside. “People don’t bug me here,” he says with a laugh. He can come and go without too much political commentary from his neighbors, and he can cheer on his beloved alma mater, San Diego State University.
The location and footprint of his home also suits Bob well, but when he bought it, the house needed an update that would accommodate his evolving needs: a modernized home with display space for his memorabilia and artwork that made room for family members and staff, and that was more accessible for his wheelchair, which he didn’t need until later in life.
He also wanted tradespeople who would listen to his design ideas and keep construction running smoothly since he splits his time between here and his Sacramento home.
Bob hired architect Bill Bocken, general contractor Starrett Construction and interior and landscape designer Joyce Von Graven of J.M. Von Graven Co., whom Bob has known since they attended Helix High School in La Mesa together. Now they are next-door neighbors.
“I think that the most significant thing about a house is that it’s personal,” Bob says. “Your house is a reflection of your taste, and mine is fairly eclectic and probably pretty out there.”
Joyce stayed true to Bob’s personality. “It doesn’t look like somebody came in and decorated,” she says.
It was his travels through Japan that sparked Bob’s love of modern architecture and minimalist composition. The 7,800-square-foot Mount Helix home uses straightforward but substantial materials to ground its contemporary design. Through the dramatic pivot entry door of blackened steel and glass are black basalt floor tiles and fireplace surround, walnut wood floors stained the darkest of ebony (Bob doesn’t like the color brown), mahogany cabinetry, stainless-steel finishes, and glass that erases visual barriers. For contrast, walls throughout are white, except for the deep-black paint finish that cloaks the office.
The sculptural focal point of the interior is a glass, stainless-steel, and walnut stairway cantilevered over an I-beam and anchored on a platform of cast glass set in a blackened-steel frame, giving it the appearance of floating in the foyer.
For all its levels and high-end finishes, it’s easy to forget that this home is handicap-accessible. All the kitchen appliances are at countertop-height for ease of access. Bob enters the home by lift from the garage, and accesses its floors with a central elevator. The wood and stone floors seamlessly transition without thresholds. The only carpet in the home—in the loft library, to insulate against noise—is low-pile and inset. Stainless-steel handrails throughout the home are used for balance and, in the master bathroom, also function as towel bars.
“All the materials are really very simple and they’re carried throughout so you have this great, neutral background,” says Christine Tolentino, design associate for J.M. Von Graven Co.
The clean-lined architecture is the perfect foil to Bob’s colorful collections. “It makes his artwork pop. It makes everything that belongs to him pop,” Christine adds.
Bob has hundreds of books displayed in his second-story library; photographs with world leaders that line the walls and shelves in his office; and an expansive art collection that includes fused glass from Greece, ornate dolls from Japan and Indonesia, and vivid abstract paintings by Thanh Chuong of Vietnam, Michael Nisperos of Mexico, and closer to home, Ed White of Julian.
Outside, the landscape is its own work of art. The back of the house enjoys wide views of the El Cajon valley and beyond. The front of the home is a vignette of succulents, five varieties of bamboo, a coral tree, natural boulders that were craned into place, and California Gold slate pieces that were shattered and artfully arranged by hand. Planters are shaped with COR-TEN steel and poured-in-place concrete.
“We really feel like landscape has to be viewed from inside as well as the outside. It’s part of your view corridor,” Joyce says.
That’s why she designed the custom water feature and placed it just outside the large picture window in front of the living room bar. As Bob sits in front of the fire, he can watch water spill from a column of flamed granite into a black granite pool surrounded by river rock. Bent steel rebar along one side of the pool resembles swaying reed grass.
Bob says his home’s new design is beautiful but also functions well for his daily activities, from reading the morning newspaper to hosting dinner parties.
“It’s not just where you live, it’s how you live,” he says.