The actress and longtime friend and designer Stephen Shadley reemphasized the facade’s Spanish colonial style, giving it a simple—albeit monumental—wood door and metal grillwork at the windows.
This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Architectural Digest.
Who says opportunity knocks only once? Not Diane Keaton, who ignored it once, then grabbed it with both hands when she again heard it tapping on her door. Opportunity in this case was not a choice part in a movie but something that was just as important to a woman whose passion is restoring old California homes: a Spanish Colonial Revival in Beverly Hills with a beautifully proportioned interior courtyard. She actually bought the house when it first came on the market at the beginning of the decade, but she backed out during escrow and let another buyer take it. “It needed a lot of work,” she explains, “and I got cold feet.” When it went up for sale again two years ago, she bought it a second time—this time for keeps.
The house was designed in the 1920s by California architect Ralph Flewelling, who was also responsible for one of the most visible landmarks in all Los Angeles, the fountain at the busy intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. In the few years they owned it, the previous residents had made some appealing changes, combining several small rooms to create a large master bedroom upstairs and a huge kitchen/family room downstairs. “Diane loves big spaces,” says New York designer Stephen Shadley, a close friend who has worked with her on several renovations. “No ceiling can be too high, and no space can be too big for her.”
But the owners had also made some changes that were more appalling than appealing. They had raised the entrance hall ceiling from one story to two, and, in the process, they had created a space that had all the charm of a cardboard box, without a box’s utility. “It was by far the worst room in the house,” says Keaton. “The size was completely wrong.” To tame that awkward space, Keaton and Shadley—their working relationship is now so close that it goes “beyond collaboration,” says Shadley—turned it into the library, replacing its flat ceiling with a groin vault and lining the walls with bookshelves. Now when people walk through the door and see an extensive book collection devoted entirely to the visual arts, together with pots and other artifacts from an earlier California, they know exactly what Keaton’s passions are: art, architecture and the often neglected heritage of her native state. “The library sets the mood,” says Shadley. “It’s a distillation of everything that goes on in the house.”
Keaton’s image, the result of her Oscar-winning performance in Annie Hall (1977), is that of a lovable flake who wears men’s hats and can’t keep a straight thought. In fact, she is better organized than most Harvard M.B.A.’s, and her hats—20 brimmed hats, two top hats and 34 caps and berets—are displayed as neatly in her bedroom closet as they would be in the best hat shop in New York or London.
A similar appetite for order extends to the planning of her house renovations. For every item, from windows to doorknobs, she can turn to one of her loose-leaf notebooks, where dozens of images are carefully catalogued and labeled. “She’s incredibly disciplined,” says Shadley, “with a work ethic beyond anything I’ve ever known. After she moved in, I would return every few weeks, and she would still be up on a ladder in the library, rearranging books.”
Such organization paid off when she encountered another recently added design disaster in the living room: an absurdly pretentious fireplace with twisted pilasters and a scarlet-and-black heraldic medallion. “Horrifying,” Keaton calls it, and it did look as if it had been borrowed from the set of a very bad movie. To find the kind of fireplace she wanted, she had only to flip through one of her notebooks.
There, in her fireplace chapter, she found the image she wanted: a Spanish fireplace with a simple arched brick opening surrounded by plain white plaster. It seemed so fitting that she repeated it in the fireplaces in other rooms, including her bedroom and the kitchen. “When she gets something she likes, Diane uses it over and over again,” says Shadley. “It’s a limited vocabulary, but it works well.”
Sometimes a rug or a painting set the tone in a house. In this case, that uncomplicated arched fireplace was the key. Once its look was established, everything else, from colors to window treatments, followed a similar path. The overall design was to be plain and simple, with a deep but not reverential bow to California’s Spanish heritage. “I wanted to bring the house back to its core simplicity,” says Keaton. “Simplicity feels authentic.”
In the living room, Spanish authenticity meant darkening blandly brown floors and ceiling beams. In the combined kitchen and family room, where Keaton spends much of her time, it meant the reverse. The room, which reflects the water in the pool, was made as light as possible. “It was very, very dark,” she says, “and I wanted to make it light and breezy. I have two kids—the Ds. My daughter, Dexter, is 12½, and my son, Duke, is seven. For kids a home needs to be warm and livable, a place where you can jump around, make a mess and enjoy your life.” Along with two kids jumping around, Keaton has two dogs, an aged corgi she found abandoned on the side of a road and a golden retriever that she retrieved from a rescue organization.
When she was a girl, Keaton and her parents often visited the Spanish missions that line the coast of the Golden State, and on those trips she fell in love—in love with courtyards, in love with arches and in love with the romance of old California. “I think that this house is like a miniature mission in Beverly Hills,” she says. If it was not one before, it is now. In addition to a delightful courtyard, Ralph Flewelling had provided the house with arches aplenty. But there were not enough for Keaton, and she turned almost every rectangle—the front door, for instance—into an arch. “Diane just loves arches,” says Shadley, who shares her affection. “The arch is probably the loveliest architectural feature of the Spanish Colonial Revival in California.”
Courtyards provide light, arches create shadows, and Keaton delights in both. “Light and dark,” she says. “That’s the contrast. That’s the allure. That’s the drama. When you’re living in a place, you want to have the unique appreciation of life that they bring.” That unique appreciation continues even after dark, when lights are turned on beneath the cactuses that hug the exterior, and the walls are decorated with shadows, as well as light. “I should be in the business of lighting,” she says with a laugh. “I think these things. I’m a nut! But I just know what’s right for me, and lights make the house seem alive.”
Keaton is fond of mottoes, and atop the books in her entrance library, she has, in giant letters, stenciled a gnomic sentence: “The Eye Sees What the Mind Knows.” And what the eye sees and the mind is soon to know is that Keaton is her house, and her house is Keaton.
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