Classic communal home
Photo by Carolyn Reyes, original photo on Houzz

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About a decade after the 1960s free-love movement, an idea for communal living by architect Peter de Bretteville came to life in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon, a hillside community sandwiched between the San Fernando Valley and the Sunset Strip that was once known for free-spirited artists and musicians. In 1976, de Bretteville built two nearly identical homes on adjacent lots on Willow Glen Road: one for himself, his wife Shelia and their son, and one for screenwriters Dyanne Asimow and Richard Simon and their two sons.

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Houzz at a Glance

  • Who lives here: Dyanne Asimow in one home (original owner); John Hersey and partner James Rosser (who rent from the de Brettevilles) in the other
  • Location: Laurel Canyon
  • Sizes: Asimow home, 2,188 square feet; de Bretteville-Hersey-Rosser home, 2,476 square feet
  • Lot sizes: Each is about 12,300 square feet (1,143 square meters)
  • Year built: 1976
  • Architect: Peter de Bretteville

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The result was more cooperative than communal. The families shared aspects of their lives while maintaining privacy in their interior spaces. During the course of designing and building the homes — his first constructed project — de Bretteville was given free rein by his friends to bring his vision to life. “We were all very young and excited about this ambitious, crazy thing we were doing,” he says. The photo above shows the open-concept living area in the home of Dyanne Asimow, who is now divorced.

Over the years, the families had parties, and the sons basically grew up together. The shared aspects of the homes include the entry walkway, the pool in the upper garden and other outdoor areas. A continuous terrace in the back runs the length of both houses.

When they were built, the steel-framed structures were an oddity in the neighborhood of stucco and frame homes perched on hillsides along narrow winding streets. During construction, neighbors thought the homes were going to be a library, Asimow says. On the street side of the home, shown above, corrugated metal joins the houses, which have a single staircase leading first to a landing and then to the shared back patio.

Although the homes look identical from the outside, the inside of the de Bretteville residence, shown here, has a more industrial, almost factory-like aesthetic than the other residence. The homes were featured on a recent tour by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“In the 1976 era of shag carpeting, Sea Ranch wood and conversation pits, this was radical. This was an anticipation of the loft movement,” says architect John Hersey, the current tenant. He and partner Rosser, a social worker, have rented the home for 14 years. The de Brettevilles still own the house but in 1990 moved to Connecticut where they teach at Yale University. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville is a professor of graphic design.

The difference between the homes inside is mostly in the finishes. “Mine is all white and brights,” de Bretteville says. “The ceiling in mine is mostly wood painted white, and they left their plywood natural. The steel frame is prominent in mine, painted a mild off-white to contrast with the pure white of the walls. They liked a terra-cotta look, so all the steel is terra-cotta colors.” The de Bretteville home’s floors are reddish concrete, while Asimow’s are wood.

Other than those differences — and making sure there was enough wall space for books and the washer and dryer — whatever de Bretteville wanted to do was welcomed, says Asimow, whose living area is shown above. “Peter never again had another client who said ‘do what you want,’” she says.

While similar materials were used to construct them, the two houses “are completely different,” de Bretteville says. “They’re painted differently, with more natural finishes [in Asimow’s house]. When you first enter each one, you have a different sense of character.” Asimow’s dining room (above) is open from the living room, with treetop views. The kitchen is around the corner.

One of the things Asimow says she likes about the house is that “there is practically no upkeep.” Most everything has held up over the years, but one of the changes she did make was to replace the high-maintenance Pirelli floor tile in the kitchen and bathroom about 20 years ago.

A diner-like seating area adjacent to the galley kitchen has calming views of the trees and surrounding landscape.

When de Bretteville suggested using metal grating for the floor of the catwalk that stretches across the back of the homes, Asimow agreed, not thinking that stiletto heels would ever come back into style. “That’s when people were wearing those shoes that didn’t have heels. And so now, of course, when that happened, people have to walk on tiptoes so they don’t get stuck in the grating.”

Photo by Esther Asimow

All the metal railings and poles were a climbing wonderland for Asimow’s sons. “It was their jungle gym,” she says. Her son Jesse (pictured) taught himself to shimmy up poles, and Asimow said she trusted her sons’ judgment because they didn’t want to do anything they weren’t ready for. It ended up being good risk training for Jesse, who became a big-wave surfer at Mavericks in Northern California — but not before scouting out the waves for two years.

Hersey calls the kitchen at his home “really efficient — great for one person, tolerable for two.” About eight years ago, he made some updates, including adding an island, changing the countertops from an artificial lab bench material to soapstone, and installing Ikea cabinets. Are Soapstone Countertops Right for You?

De Bretteville built a studio for himself and his wife that stretched the width of the house on the north end of the building, locating it there for its abundant light. A house was later built next door, blocking most of the light. Hersey put a curtain over the glass and uses it as his studio.

The bedrooms of both houses are on the mezzanine level, with plenty of natural light from skylights and windows facing the backyard. This is one of the two bedrooms in Hersey’s home, which are connected by a bathroom with a common shared toilet.

A multitude of windows and large doors provide the quintessential California inside-outside feel. Shade cloth hangs over Hersey’s living room, and more shades outside help keep the sun at bay. “The sun is our enemy,” Hersey said, when showing guests around the home. A ladder is needed to open and close the higher windows. Birds and dragonflies are frequent visitors to the inside space. Window Shades to Block Out the Sun.

Hersey says what he loves best about living in the co-op houses — other than being friendly and social with Asimow — is the outdoors. He’s seen deer, bobcats and coyotes on the property. After the home flooded several times, he had a concrete bench built along the patio that acts as a retaining wall. The view in this photo is from a boardwalk above the houses. The common entrance is in the middle, the de Bretteville-Hersey home is on the left and Asimow’s home is on the right. Designs to Suit a Shared Patio.

Steep steps with handholds lead to a trail that ascends the hillside to a triangular pool, used by both homes’ residents.

De Bretteville’s vision of co-living was an experiment that could make or break a friendship — which infamously happened to influential L.A. modernist architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, whose attempt at an open living arrangement on Kings Road in West Hollywood destroyed their friendship.

But the Willow Glen friendships remain intact, and the co-op living movement, carried on by HubHaus, WeLive and others, continues to gain popularity, especially among millennials. Today, Peter de Bretteville feels his tribe got the “fringes” of co-living. “We shared a critical period of our lives together by seeing each other every day.”

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