Morgan Phoa Library & Residence

Our work on what would become the Morgan Phoa Library & Residence involved the restoration and expansion of a historically designated and architecturally significant Los Feliz home designed by the renowned California architect Wallace Neff, built in 1926 and named the Petitfils Residence after the original owner.

Despite adding a two-story garage and private library to the site and executing a comprehensive interior overhaul to the existing structure, we erred always on the side of reverence to Neff’s original work, viewing it as a collaboration between like-minds spanning decades, generations, and styles.


Additional Credits: Roland Halbe (photography)

The Architect

Edwin Wallace Neff is one of SoCal’s most influential architects, and his 1920s and 30s work in the greater LA area developed a distinct aesthetic now commonly referred to as “California” style, a brand of Spanish Colonial & Mediterranean Revival ubiquitous among the upper classes of the time (and still in vogue today).

Born in 1895, Neff established himself in the early 1920s, gaining prominence for a long list of personal residence commissions from the rapidly growing subsect of LA’s wealthier Midwestern transplants and burgeoning Hollywood elite. In the 40s he began developing “bubble” homes, a dome-shaped dwelling made of reinforced concrete cast over an inflatable balloon ; envisioned as an inexpensive solution to the timeless housing crisis, his design’s never gained mainstream traction, and of the few that were built only one remains standing. Neff continued to practice into his 80s, briefly retiring to the last-remaining dome house in Pasadena (built for his brother in 1946) before moving on to an assisted living facility, where he passed away in 1982 at the age of 87.

The House

The Petitfils Residence, built for oil tycoon Edward Petitfils in 1926 was one of Neff’s earlier commissions and representative of the Spanish Colonial Revival style that would dominate his later work.

A two-story L-shaped home, the Petitfils Residence consisted primarily of three gabled structures: the main house running east-west with two slightly offset wings to the north and south, the north largely made up of a garage with two arching doors. Decorative flourishes abound—a hipped roof with red clay tile, multi-paned fixed and casement windows, and a smooth stucco exterior. The original front porch was a round wooden structure supported by two Tuscan columns, and the main entry door arched with decorative steel and glass. Several windows have decorative wrought iron grilles, and a small stained glass window occupied a prominent space in the entry coat room.

A notable house immediately upon construction, the Petitfils Residence was featured on the cover of the September 1927 issue of Pacific Coast Architect . However, in 1929 a disastrous fire destroyed a good portion of the home (as recorded with a heroic tale on the Petitfils’ canine companion, Babe ) and the architect was brought back to fix his damaged work. Neff reimagined the house as a single story, and his updated plan successfully blends the new portions to the original, remarkably leaving no evidence that such a major disruption had ever occurred.

Our Work

In 2004, the Petitfils then-owners embarked upon what proved to be an ill-conceived renovation, tacking on an additional family room inconsistent with the overall style and site plan . Brought on by the current occupants in 2011 with the directive to restore, modernize and expand, the scope of our work on this most recent iteration of the home ultimately included the interior renovation of the added family room and kitchen, the revamping of ceiling archways and demolition of a north-facing wall in favor of a new entryway, a carefully designed palette of hardscape introducing a balanced outdoor area and pool addition, and, most prominently, the construction of a new two-story garage and private library.

Special attention, of course, was made to sufficiently integrate our new work with Neff’s original Spanish Colonial Revival style, and we diligently re-established many signature design elements including arched doorways, vaulted ceilings, gabled roofing and wood paneling.

The most significant aspect our work was the construction of a new two-story garage and private library, most recognizable for a distinct metal screen façade. The screen panels are made of bronze anodized aluminum—water jet cut for patterned and precise variable apertures, referencing the original home’s precast concrete window grilles . The adjustable shutter-like screens offer clear views of the entirety of the property, or alternatively privacy and shade.

A Legacy

Now named the Morgan Phoa Library and Residence, the 2015 completion of the additions successfully met the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation by preserving the historic character of the property while minimizing the change to the home’s distinctive materials, features, spaces and spatial relationship. The updated home retained its historic designation and maintains the structures original spirit while promoting modern advances with new technologies, materials, and insight.

Awards

  • California Preservation Foundation Design Award 2017
  • Residential Architect Design Awards, Renovation/Adaptive Reuse 2016
  • Los Angeles Business Council, Residential Award 2016
  • AIA|LA Residential Award (Restoration/Renovation) 2016
  • AIA|LA Design Awards, Adaptive Reuse/Historic Preservation Citation 2015