This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It came down to one detail that persuaded Terence and Rachel Winter to purchase their Beverly Hills home: "It was the moment when we walked in and saw a collection of Emmy Awards," says Terence, creator of HBO's Boardwalk Empire and writer of the upcoming Paramount film The Wolf of Wall Street.
But these weren't just any Emmys. Terence, along with wife Rachel, producer of Focus Features' Dallas Buyers Club (with producer Robbie Brenner), discovered that the collection belonged to renowned TV writer and producer Leonard B. Stern (The Honeymooners, Get Smart, McMillan & Wife), who had lived in the Spanish-style house with his wife since the early '60s.
"The Honeymooners is truly my all-time favorite show," says Terence. "I literally quote Leonard Stern to this day twice a week. So once I knew it was his house, I knew it was meant to be." On a subsequent visit to take measurements, he was greeted by Stern himself, and the writers fell into deep conversation. Winter left several hours later having never even taken out his tape measure. (Stern died in 2011.)
But if the couple was sold on the Hollywood provenance of a 6,000-square-foot, four-bedroom 1929 property, they weren't exactly enamored with the home's pastiche of no less than seven renovations that had resulted in a jumble of conflicting design styles. So the pair embarked on a different type of production, this one a nearly two-year renovation to create a highly livable home base for themselves and their two children (the family also has a home in New York). The result is a Spanish-meets-art deco-meets-glam style jewel of a home. "I was working on Boardwalk Empire when we began work on the house," says Terence, whose HBO show has gone on to win 17 Emmys. "I had lots of books about the 1920s lying around that covered that period, from music, clothes, wallpaper and furniture. We were just soaking it all in."
Luckily, finding the right architect to bring the house back to its roots while updating it for current needs was a no-brainer. Linda Brettler, the wife of writer and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, already was a close friend; she had known the Winters from the days when Terence and Weiner worked together as writers on The Sopranos. "When we knew we were going to do renovations, Linda was the only choice," says Terence, though he admits that there was worry about whether the friendship could survive the trials of a major home renovation. "Matt and I did laugh about it. It's a testament to how much we all love one another that we came out the other end and are closer now than ever."
A Harvard and UCLA grad, Brettler is known for her bespoke renovations of historical properties. Clients include Jenji Kohan, Christina Hendricks and Geoffrey Arend and Bob and Naomi Odenkirk. For this project, she describes the initial approach as a "make-under. The problem with homes of this period is the flow, because they were designed for living with staff. I wanted to bring back the glamour of the original design yet open up the spaces to bring in light and create an indoor-outdoor connection that you really want in a California house."
Brettler likened reconfiguring the floor plan to a jigsaw puzzle. Awkward or unusable spaces such as the den, kitchen and master bath were reflowed and opened up. Split-level spaces were eliminated, and reconfiguring the second floor allowed for the creation of an en-suite guest bath.
Other changes were less obvious, including widened doorways and windows and such new architectural details as moldings, corbels and iron work. Brettler meticulously designed all built-ins, from kitchen islands and bookshelves to bathroom vanities. "I'm a tile fiend," she says. "When I draw up a bathroom, I consider every last detail."
When it came to the interior design, Rachel and Brettler collaborated closely. For initial guidance, Rachel consulted with designer Ruthie Chapman Sommers and later Alie Waldman before ultimately finding her own stride. "It was a wonderful opportunity to tap into all kinds of inspiration," says Rachel. The lavender color of the living room walls was in fact inspired by an interior in the HBO telepic Grey Gardens. "I actually tracked down the production designer to get the name of the purple paint they used," she says.
A love of thrift stores led her to vintage suppliers, where she found unique pieces with standout backstories: The dining room table that folds out to seat four to 12, for example, was the only furniture a family managed to bring with them when escaping Nazi Germany.
Bifold closet doors from the '40s, done in faux snakeskin with nickel and brass hardware, originally were made for The Pierre hotel in New York. "Terry loved them," says Rachel, who cleverly turned them into a headboard by bolting them to the master bedroom wall.
For the main stairwell, "Rachel wanted a white magnesite staircase, which is an unusual and very cool idea," says Brettler of the now rarely used material. Complementing the curvaceous walls of the stairwell is a cluster of metal butterflies from the '60s and '70s that Rachel sourced through Etsy, eBay and Craigslist. "Just figuring out how to attach them was a feat," says Rachel, who used double-sided tape and nails. "It took me a year just to get all of the butterflies just right." And even if the home is ostensibly finished, Rachel may have her eye on a few new things: "Sometimes, after visiting the lavish sets of Boardwalk Empire, I find myself secretly thinking, ‘When this character is killed off, can we maybe get some of this great stuff for the house?' "