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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rebuilding the fence the Bratts built

Droves of architecture and design fans drove up narrow Lemoyne Street a few weeks ago to tour the new Echo Park house of artist Jonathan Williams and writer Kim Pesenti. What they found was a home of simple forms and clean lines, reflecting the couple's desire for a modest residence that was far from flashy. But, in their front yard, stands a hard-to-miss monument of sorts to the previous owners, the Bratts, who apparently had no problem attracting attention. The Bratt property was known for an approximately 100-foot long, teal-green fence that was something of a neighborhood landmark. It was punctured with holes filled with pieces of stained glass and wood shutters and decorated with kitschy shields of armor, butterflies and a lady bug with the greeting "Come on in."

"Right away the question was, 'Should we keep the fence?" said Williams after the couple purchased the property in late 2004. The immediate answer was "yes."

The fence was built by the previous owners Ben and Gerlinde Bratt, who had lived on the large hillside property since 1967 before Williams and Pesenti purchased it. The fence was part of a whimsical world the Bratts had created on their hillside, complete with narrow paths and patios decorated with driftwood and countless other odds and ends. The paths and clearings were given names that appeared on plaques. A few weeks after purchasing the property, Williams and Pesenti were married in the backyard on Concord Street.

"They lived a very magical life," Williams said of the Bratts. "The fence obviously was part of it."

* * *

While the new owners loved the fence, as did their architect, Rachel Allen, there were issues. Williams was not too crazy about living behind such a big barrier, which towered eight-feet in some spots and lacked any openings in one large section. "I moved here because of the sense of community," said Williams, who has lived in Angeleno Heights and Echo Park for about 20 years.

Many sections of the fence had also rotted away and needed to be replaced. Then there was the color: teal green. "It was an awful color," said Williams. A few months after the couple purchased the house, Williams arrived to discover that all but one of the stained glass windows in the fence were missing "I think people who loved the fence have [bits of it] in their homes."

The need to find new stained glass and replace sections of the rotting fence "gave me an opportunity to remake it myself," said Williams, an artist.

Williams replaced the solid section of the wall north of the front gate with a new structure he designed to have the same rhythm of openings, vertical slats and solid surfaces as the south side. On the other side of the front gate, he managed to retain a small section of the original wall that had not rotted away but lowered the whole structure about two-feet to make it less imposing from the street. The whole fence was painted a muted sage green.

The fence's home-made look seems at odds with the new house's clean lines and mid-century flair. But Williams sees similarities between his new home and the old fence. "It fits perfectly with the idea of the house design: to be warm ... and a home that works for our family and not a show piece."

Since moving into the house last November, Williams enjoys watching the sun poke through the stained glass and emerge on the other side. "I get nods and waves from people on the street. People seem to appreciate that we kept the fence."

He does not know if the Bratt family has seen the fence since it's been remade (Ben Bratt had died by the time Williams and Pesenti had purchased the property). Along with a small section of the original, the fence still contains a piece of stained glass that was left behind and patches of the old teal paint are still visible. The Bratts probably would have enjoyed that.

Bottom photo by Jonathan Williams.


  1. I live down the street from the house. I've talked to Jonathon several times. He comes off as a genuinely nice guy. I didn't sayt much to Mrs. Bratt apart from "hello" as I passed her on the street. She had a pitbull that would inhabit the crawlspace beneath that green deck. Whatever happened to her? Is she still in Los Angeles?

  2. What cool people.

    Every now and then I see indications that there is any entirely different "culture" of LA that is growing and developing on the Eastside that is cool, comfortable with diversity, and not obsessed with status. I think these folks are the poster children for what LA should be like.

  3. Very very cool.