Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Finally, A House He Can Call His Own

Architect builds California-style home in Long Beach

By Joseph Kellard

At around 9 a.m. on Mother’s Day, guests arrived at the Henrys’ residence on East Walnut Avenue. The group of four didn’t even know Kathy Henry, mother of four, or her husband Matt.

But the Henrys are used to having uninvited guests. This quartet was the latest group to stop by to get a closer look at their new, five-bedroom California-style home, still under construction at the corner of East Walnut and Roosevelt Boulevard.

"This should be in Architectural Digest," one woman half-joked as she greeted Matt where the backyard L-shaped pool wraps under the house.Passers-by and friends alike have told the Henrys that their flat-roofed, sand-colored home seems more suited to the beach or the Hollywood Hills than this neighborhood of older homes, some 1930s Spanish-style — like the one the Henrys tore down to build their new one.

"We get that all the time," said Matt, 39, standing in his yard, which was crammed with ladders, scaffolding, wheelbarrows and a large green dumpster. "Some people stop and talk and ask what kind of home is it. Others say thank you. They tell me, ‘I want to see it when it’s done.’ People just show up. It’s really been exciting."

Henry, a general contractor trained as an architect and a lifelong Long Beach resident, owns HKH Construction, a design company that focuses on residential remodeling. But he has never built his own home, which, he says, has been much more daunting and nerve-racking than building houses for others. But it has also brought him closer to his growing family.

"He waited a long time to do this," said Matt’s wife, Kathy, 41, who is six months pregnant. "When someone mentions the house, I say it’s all Matt. He’s had the ideas for years and they’re his drawings.

We’ve been in the house over 10 years, and we’ve waited a long time to do it. So it’s a testament to his patience and hard work."

In 2002, Matt drew up the plans for the house while coloring with his children. He was inspired by books on Richard Neutra, a prominent architect of the 1940s who was famous for his California moderns. "He did a modern style with a natural feel," Henry explained.

When he began mulling the details of a design, Henry, a graduate of New York Institute of Technology, brought sand from the beach to match a stucco exterior to give the house the appearance of emerging from the sands.

Although the house is modern, he explained, he and Kathy are striving to give the interior a natural but old feel. They hope to achieve this effect not only with the architecture, but also with the materials they’ve chosen: stone-like tiles in the bathrooms instead of porcelain, and walk-in closets on the second floor with sliding doors made of wenge, a dark-grained wood that contrasts with the blond maple floors.

Henry also designed parts of the exterior to integrate with the interior. Each projected, block-shaped section outside the house is paneled in rustic cedar, which in one area will extend onto a broad white wall in the living room.

"Exterior walls pulling in aren’t characteristic of modern design, which has more of a streamlined, sanitary look, whereas the cedar kind of warms it up," Henry said, citing the influence of architect Richard Meier for these touches.

The high-ceilinged living room will have a staircase and a balcony, and a large picture window looks south down Roosevelt Boulevard toward the ocean. A triple-sided fireplace divides the living room and the family room.

In the basement, Henry plans a kids’ playroom that may double as his office, and a staircase will spiral up three floors. The master bedroom has a three-level ceiling ranging from eight to 10 feet high, and the master bath has a special feature: shower heads in the ceiling that project water like rain.

For Matt, the most difficult part of the project was making this house different than anything he’s built before. "When you’re in the industry for 20-something years and you work on enough houses, you kind of get into this track where you don’t want to do what you did at someone else’s place," said Henry, who worked for architect Mike Burkhold, an NYIT professor, in Seacliff and developer Alexander Wolf & Son in Manhattan before starting HKH Construction in 1998.

"At every turn I was stifling myself by saying, ‘you can’t do that because you did that at so-and-so’s house,’" Henry continued. "But that’s silly because there are always going to be some similarities between the houses you build. And what I’ve done for other people has been beautiful, so why not celebrate that and take advantage of that a little bit?"

Henry periodically took his plans to the city’s building department and architect committee to find out what exactly city code permitted. He had to ensure that his home fit the character and style of the neighborhood — including the Congregation Beth Shalom building, which abuts his property and also has a flat roof and square structure.

"In the end, taking up the property and doing this house like we did, for me it’s a love, and I’m inspired by my wife and kids," said Henry, whose family is living temporarily in a home in East Atlantic Beach until mid-summer, when they hope to move into their new digs. "But more than anything, it’s also almost a love or trust and confidence in Long Beach. It’s the town as well, and I wouldn’t make this investment if it weren’t that."

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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