A Colonial–style house in Los Angeles is rooted in tradition

Years ago, a dusty little lane dotted with ranch-style houses and stables followed a babbling creek deep into a Pacific Palisades canyon. That dusty little lane, still rustic and bumpy, has since become one of the most exclusive addresses in all of Los Angeles, and—not surprisingly—many of the original, unassuming homes have been replaced with monster mansions. But one home near the end of the lane does surprise, mostly because it looks so old, but also because it feels so right.“People ask how long the house has been here,” says Susan Harbert, a community activist, who with her network–executive husband, Ted lives in an American Colonial–style home. “They’re amazed to learn that it’s new.” To create such authenticity, the Harberts—armed with snapshots of Ted’s boyhood home in Pound Ridge, New York, for inspiration—enlisted the help of architect and garden designer Brian Tichenor and interior designer Madeline Stuart. “We really started from nothing,” Susan says, “but we always had a vision. The house would be formal, but not too formal, and it had to be comfortable.”For Tichenor, the biggest challenge was “to keep the house from feeling too grand for its location. I tried to nestle it into the surroundings as much as possible.” With the stream on one side, a steep hill on the other, and more than 20 sycamores in between, situating the home was definitely tricky. “I came to this project as a garden designer first, and fit the house into the land as it was.” He succeeded: the windows of the house frame many of the grand trees, the great lawn seems to have inched up on its own from the little stream, and the pool and guesthouse are sited invitingly at the base of the hillside.

While Tichenor worked with what the canyon offered, Stuart and the Harberts had to travel farther afield to complete the home’s décor. “You can’t furnish a house like this and make it feel authentic without going to the source,” Stuart explains. “Los Angeles doesn’t have the history for it.” So she and Susan went shopping together in San Francisco, Manhattan and Hudson, New York, and small towns in Connecticut. “It really wasn’t about just me imposing things on the house. Susan was there every step of the way.”

“It was amazing to come upon pieces with Madeline that we thought we’d never find,” adds Susan. “Like the sink in the flower–arranging area off the kitchen.” Stuart agrees: “That was a real coup. We saw it in Hudson and got it for a great price.” Plenty of other special items fill the house (like the powder–room sink that Stuart says, “came from a dealer who only sells things if he feels they’re going to the right home—like adopting a puppy”), but perhaps the most important is the sideboard they discovered at the San Francisco Winter Antiques Fair. “We bought it even before the house was built,” says Stuart. “It’s elegant and gracious, but not imposingly formal. It’s exactly what we wanted the house to be.”

Tichenor struck that balance in the overall design by creating rooms of varying sizes. “There are hierarchies of spaces here,” he says. The imposing main stair, for example, leads to the paneled hallway of the private bedroom wing, where “moldings crunch down the scale of things. We achieved intimacy by articulating the space into progressively smaller areas.” The generous master suite, while large in actual square footage, is broken down into a cozy sleeping area, a comfortable sitting space, and a shared bathroom. “The house was designed according to an old–fashioned scale and lacks the pretense of so many new homes,” remarks Stuart. “The rooms aren’t grotesquely huge. It’s not about people saying, ‘Ooh, isn’t it grand? Isn’t it fancy?’”

Nevertheless, Tichenor, who had worked with the Harberts on previous projects, knew that the house had to be grand enough to accommodate large numbers of people (the couple frequently host political and charity events) and remain family–friendly at the same time. “We’ve created two parallel houses,” he says. “There’s a public side and a private side. The kids can comfortably be upstairs while 300 people are in the backyard.” The “public” rooms are appropriately elegant enough to have welcomed important politicians (the Harberts are active Democrats), but the “private” rooms, the outside dining area, and the garden were designed with the children—Emily, 11, and William, seven—and family life in mind.

With attention being paid to such concerns, it’s understandable that Susan once doubted her family’s home would ever reach completion. “I thought I’d never be able to stand in my backyard, look up at the house, and see smoke coming out of the chimneys,” she says. There’s still some filling in to be done, but according to Stuart, that’s the way it should be: “You can’t make an instant universe,” she says. “Things need to evolve to be honest.”