My House: Writer Susan Orlean’s Modernist Masterpiece in L.A.

My House: Writer Susan Orlean’s Modernist Masterpiece in L.A.

By Debra Spark
Susan Orlean and her husband John Gillespie revive a classic Schindler with verdant views of the San Fernando Valley.

Writer Susan Orlean and her husband, investor John Gillespie, were so struck by the work of Austrian-born architect Rudolph W. Schindler that when they happened upon his Los Angeles Roth house, they bought it— even though they lived in New York. They’d come to Los Angeles for a temporary stay so Susan could research her book Rin Tin Tin, a precursor to this season’s best-selling The Library Book.

The Kallis House is known for its butterfly roof, which enabled Schindler to add clerestory windows to bring in more light. For the exterior paint, the couple ordered a custom color from Behr. "We were trying to approximate the gray-green of a Martini olive," says John.

As Frank Lloyd Wright aficionados, they spent their downtime touring houses for fun. Later, when they were officially bicoastal, they sold the Roth to buy the 1946 Kallis-Sharlin house, which is considered by many to be Schindler’s late period masterpiece. After Micha Kallis, an artist and art director for Universal Studios, the house was owned by Kallis’s cousin and her husband, who raised their children there. 

As the third owners, Orlean and Gillespie are working with architect Jeff Fink, who specializes in restoring Schindlers. Fink developed his own enthusiasm for the maverick architect after being introduced to his work in a UCLA classroom. "He did not get the design credit then that he is now given," says Fink of that time. "And we, being rebels, latched onto his lack of high budgets, the way he pushed the limits of his building materials, and his facility with design. He never repeated himself."

We sat down with Orlean and Gillespie to learn more about what it’s like to live in a restored classic.

Susan, you turned the carport in your previous Schindler house into a writing studio. Where will you write at this house? 

Susan: We're converting a small dining gazebo on the courtyard into a studio. It’s not original to the house but designed by the architecture students of Schindler scholar Judith Sheine, in keeping with the principles of the house. Currently, it’s just screened in, so we're replacing the screening with glass and installing heat, AC, and Internet. 

John, what about you? Where do you work in the house, and where is homework central for your son? 

John: I’m one of those people who avoid work until the last second and then am content to do it wherever I find myself. The view of the San Fernando Valley from the sofa in the living room is so amazing that I usually find myself there. Our 14-year-old son has a beautiful room on the first floor of the house with a big picture window right in front of his desk and computer screen.

Can you tell me the story of the beautiful couch in your bedroom? 

John: It’s a huge, angled sofa called a Janus which was designed by Edward Wormley for Dunbar Furniture in the 1950s. My mother found it in a thrift shop in perfect condition for under $100. They now get auctioned for many thousands. I somehow talked her out of it, and it fits perfectly in our bedroom. 

I heard you met Frank Gehry, who once wrote a paper on this house. Can you tell me about that? 

Susan: We were seated together on a small plane, and we mentioned to him that we owned a Schindler house. He lit up and began telling us about how he had tried to get commissions for Schindler when he was aging and in need of the work. (According to Gehry, Schindler wouldn't take them unless he found the wife of the owner attractive). And he shared the story of Schindler's last days, when he was assigned a hospital room with his rival—and one-time dear friend—Richard Neutra. Gehry wrote his third-year paper at USC School of Architecture about the Kallis House not long after it was built.

Among the unusual features of this house are the display shelves in the upstairs hallway for art. Can you tell me about some of the art you have in the house? 

John and Susan: The art is work we've collected, together and individually, over many years, and each piece has a story—either because we know the artist, or came upon the work in an interesting or surprising way. Among other things, we have two Warhol prints, which were part of a set that was the first major purchase we ever made together as a couple, and a framed bird-seed bag Susan found at a bird market in Hong Kong. We have a set of vintage catcher's masks from a local antiques dealer with a great eye for ephemera and two 1960s Finnish hooked rugs that John's mother found in Europe. 

That dining table seems perfect for a dinner party. Do you like to entertain? Can you tell me about a recent dinner at your house? 

Susan: We love to entertain, which is why we were so excited about this house. It’s a perfect space for just about any size gathering. We actually gave our first party here before we moved in, when the house was not even close to being habitable. It was a brunch for 80, and we gathered on the courtyard. People wandered through the house, stepping over construction equipment and tiptoeing on the beams and unfinished floors. 

Copper Real Good chairs by Blu Dot surround an antique dining table. The overdyed green rug is by Aga John.

I heard that people who own Schindlers in the Los Angeles area like meeting other owners of Schindlers. What's been your experience with that community? 

Susan: We've loved meeting them and feel a kinship that's particular to sharing affection for something very specific. It's a really friendly group of people, eager to show off their houses and trade tips on how to keep them shipshape. Maybe it's like people who love 1956 Thunderbirds: You feel like you understand each other's language.

See the full home tour: Writer Susan Orlean Restores a Schindler Classic in L.A.

Get the look: A Writer Couple’s Schindler-Designed Gem

More My House:

Architect Ester Bruzkus’s Irresistibly Playful Berlin Loft

Kitchy Kitchen’s Claire Thomas Restores an Endlessly Charming L.A. Midcentury


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