The Family Tree

The Family Tree

By Andrew Wagner
For this San Diego family, the phrase "putting down roots" has taken on a whole new meaning.

Pannikin Coffee and Tea has been a San Diego fixture since 1968, when Bob Sinclair opened the first of five shops. Over the years, the business has poured a million cups of joe, and has also served as a launching point for the careers of various family members, including Bob’s stepson, Torrey Lee. In the early ’80s, while working at one of Pannikin’s shops, Torrey met his future wife and business partner, Kimberly. In 1998, keeping the business in the family, Kim and Torrey bought Pannikin’s wholesale division, Cafe Moto, headquartered in two faded warehouses on the outskirts of downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter.

For this San Diego family, the phrase "putting down roots" has taken on a whole new meaning.

But if home is where the heart is—and heart is no small part of any successful business—then the real tale of Cafe Moto begins with another storied structure about a 25-minute drive from downtown, in La Jolla. Resting quietly on a quaint block, Kim and Torrey’s house sits where the family home has been since 1949, when Torrey’s grandmother, Peg Sharpe, bought the house. Torrey’s mother and uncle grew up in the simple ranch house, where they spent their days playing in the spacious front yard.

The blue-tiled master bathroom stands in contrast to the muted tones of the rest of the house. The tile is recycled glass from China.

Torrey’s mother eventually moved out and started her own family, which by 1965 included Torrey. Today, Torrey recalls visiting his grandmother at the old house. "We would play in the front yard with all the neighborhood kids and we used to tie a rope swing to the tree, which of course was much smaller," he says. Little did Torrey know that 30 years later, he would find himself standing in that same front yard with his own family, contemplating that tree and its fate.

Almost all of the Lees’ chairs, tables, and dressers are by the now-defunct Norwegian furniture company Peter Wessel. They were purchased from a friend whose grandfather was the accountant for the company. The friend hated the pieces and sold them all to the Lees after her grandfather passed away. "She’s a real Pottery Barn girl," Kim says.

"We bought the house from my family when my  grandmother passed away," Torrey explains. "We had been living downtown in a huge loft that was much closer to work, but when we had the opportunity to buy this place, we had to take it." But while the 1,200-square-foot ranch house offered the sprawling front and back yards, the now over-50-foot-tall podocarpus tree, and a kid-friendly neighborhood, it didn’t offer a lot of space for a young family of four to grow.

Madeline and Gabriella check out the handprints of their grandmother and granduncle, which were cast in the original foundation in 1956.

"The house had very few windows and was divided into rooms in the strangest ways," Torrey says. "We just knew we had to do something, and do it soon, before the girls got too big." Without having a real idea of what they wanted or how to go about getting it, the couple put out a call. "We approached about three [architectural] firms," Kim says, "but they all wanted to get rid of the tree and we just couldn’t imagine that."

Kim and Gabriella enjoy their kitchen, which spills out onto their backyard deck.

Torrey’s sister recommended that the couple talk to her friends Jim Brown and James Gates, who together make up the San Diego firm Public Architecture. "Kim and Torrey gave us the program for the house," says Brown, "and we immediately knew what we wanted to do, and the tree was going to be a big part of it." That was enough information for the Lees to know that these were their architects.

The Lees commissioned local artist Blair Thornley to create a large painting, which Public then mounted on a slider. The painting now functions as a sliding door to close off the TV room when necessary. "Blair coated it in acrylic," architect James Gates explains, "so they don’t have to worry about handprints."

The first design Public presented was a sweeping, airy house that warmly embraced the massive tree and got everyone’s mind racing. "But it was going to be too expensive," Torrey says. "Plus," Brown adds, "when I look at that design now, it was confused and impractical." Sitting in the light-filled living room of the new house on an August afternoon, Kim happily supports that sentiment, nodding in agreement, "This is much better."

Gabriella swings on the rope swing hung from the podocarpus tree. The twenty-foot-tall, steel-framed, custom-built wood screen provides enough privacy to give the outdoor space the feeling of a room, with the 50-year-old polocarpus tree acting as a roof.

Public reworked their concept and quickly came up with a new design that still featured the tree but dropped the idiosyncrasies of the first plan. Acting as the contractors for the job, Public stripped the old house down to just a few walls and the foundation and set out to create a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-story house out of what was once a two-bedroom, one-bath, one-story bungalow. Since the footprint of the house would have to remain the same, the architects sought to increase the home’s size through the creation of what they call outdoor rooms.

Taking advantage of the sizable front yard, Public extended a wooden screen approximately 18 feet from the new structure that runs all the way around the house, in essence giving the home an extra 800 square feet on the ground floor. The 20-foot-tall, steel-framed, custom-built wood screen provides enough privacy to give the outdoor space the feeling of a room, with the old podo-carpus acting as a roof. But the slatted structure also takes advantage of the temperate San Diego climate, as cooling breezes from the nearby ocean easily cut through the faux fence.

Inside the house, what was once an eight-foot-high ceiling has morphed into a 22-foot double-height living/kitchen/dining area, free from the white stucco walls that once divided the space into bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. The old six-foot-wide window facing the street is now a series of floor-to-ceiling windows that engage the massive tree looming just outside. The walls of the 350-square-foot living room open to the outside room, extending the interior another 450 square feet. 

The architects also added a second story, giving the two girls, 12-year-old Madeline and nine-year-old Gabriella, their own private kingdom, while Torrey and Kim’s master bedroom remained where it had been in the old house—on the first floor just off the living room. But in this new house, it’s hard to get the short end of the stick, as every room has its own deck. "I don’t know if the girls quite grasp the outdoor room concept," Kim explains, "but they do their homework and stuff on their patios. It’s cute, but I think when they’re older, they’ll really appreciate the decks. I know we do."

Though the old house is now unrecognizable, the architects and homeowners remained ever mindful of the importance of the place, paying homage to the past in many ways: The podocarpus tree so central to the family’s history—and the house’s design—still stands proud. Part of the old foundation in the garage, containing Torrey’s mother’s and uncle’s young handprints, is now accompanied by a new foundation featuring Madeline and Gabriella’s young handprints. And a steel-stencil pictograph history panel for the front of the house was created by Public, relaying the complete story of the structure, from empty lot to happy home to a fourth generation of Lees.

Today, with the warm San Diego air flowing freely through it, the house seems more a part of the surrounding neighborhood and city than a shelter from it. It’s a fitting space for a family whose history and livelihood have been so tightly tied to the booming Southern California city for years—and now, years to come.

To see more images from the project, view our slideshow.


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