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Between the Hills and the Sea

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The ideal spot at The Top of the World.

By Sally Eastwood | Photos by Jody Tiongco

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The sweeping curves of Park Avenue carry you up and away from the heart of bustling downtown, towards Alta Laguna and Top of The World. Just past Thurston Middle School, Hillview Drive spokes off Park, running parallel and just below the main road. This is where the scenic area became victim to the fires of 1993. Many houses are new and some original residences survived due to the efforts of some hard-working firefighters. The result is a variety of home designs side-by-side: modern, Mediterranean, cottage and cabin—each unique and each with great views of the surrounding canyons and the ocean beyond. Three families share their experiences of living around Laguna Beach’s Park Avenue.

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Eric, Annee, Eliana (17), Aaron (15) and Shira (14) Alcouloumre, and Kona, Oreo and Boo (rescue cats).

Family Compound

Annee and Eric Alcouloumre and their family live in a home that includes a guesthouse, pool area, playground and a small orchard, perched on the edge of the canyon overlooking the curves of lower Park Avenue. “We fell in love with the house and made an offer the day we first looked at it,” Annee says. “This was the first house built on Hillview. The original parcel was an acre in total.”

From its beginnings in 1979 as a large but rustic mountain cabin, Annee and Eric transformed the house in 1993, doubling the square footage to create a private compound for an active family and their philanthropic activities.

“We completed the renovations, moved in, then two weeks later the fires came through,” she says. They arrived back after being evacuated, to find their home still standing due to quick-thinking firefighters. “They filled a trash can with water from the pool, grabbed a dog bowl and scooped up water to throw on the fire.” That dog bowl now hangs on a wall in the kitchen along with a plaque to memorialize its impressive credentials.

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Space: 7,300 square feet, six bedrooms, 7.5 baths in the main house; two bedrooms, one bathroom in the guesthouse.

The heart of the home is the 1,000-square-foot great room, created by local architect Mark Singer. Annee wanted the design aesthetic to match the style of the existing home, and that’s exactly what Singer achieved. It’s a soaring, majestic space, with skylights in the roof allowing light to pour in. The Alcouloumres have hosted dance parties, Hanukkah celebrations and fundraisers, featuring jazz bands and musicians from the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

The house contains a wing for their three children, which includes bedrooms, bathrooms, a hangout and a library-cum-homework space. Annee’s favorite spot to relax is the formal living room, decorated in muted colors with a French flair, and a replica of a coffee table that Coco Chanel had in her Paris apartment in the 1920s.

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Fabulous Features: The 1,000-square-foot great room.

Outside, multiple deck areas provide views of the canyon and ocean, and usher in welcome breezes that travel up the canyon. The property’s orchard has lemon, peach, nectarine and pomegranate trees.

Annee muses: “It’s a great neighborhood. We’re all friends here and we get together regularly for dinner together. It’s quiet, close to all the schools and close to downtown: a perfect family home.”

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Deborah Braeger.

Contemporary Canvas

Stepping into the courtyard of Deborah and Arthur “Art” Braeger’s concrete-clad home with its angular facade, you are enveloped in the warm embrace of a bright three-story atrium containing a towering Japanese maple and a genial Asian figurine welcoming visitors. “I toured Fallingwater a few years ago and was struck by Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of space: narrow entryways opening up to spacious living areas,” Deborah says. That’s the feel you get when you enter here.”

The home has two floors of living space overlooking the canyon and ocean, plus a third floor art gallery, topped with a frosted glass ceiling that floods the area with light, while filtering direct sun to protect the paintings.

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2,500 square feet, two bedrooms, 2.5 baths.

The home didn’t always look this way when the Braegers bought it. They inherited a property that needed a lot of work. “Art owns a construction business and that’s the only reason we were willing to take it on,” Deborah says.

Art’s design flair is evident throughout, from the courtyard entryway to the kitchen cabinets, countertops and backsplashes and the limestone-clad bathrooms of the dual master suites. Deborah laughs at people’s reactions when she tells them her husband did everything. She says, “I just left him to it. My girlfriends couldn’t believe I didn’t get involved.”

Furnishings include antique chairs, Japanese-style screens, and modern metal and glass in the dining room. Since the Braegers are passionate art collectors, this eclectic, cultural mix is pulled together with paintings, sketches, French posters and sculptures. One iconic sculptural piece was created by Mary Louise Snowden, whose father worked for Auguste Rodin. When Rodin passed away, he bequeathed his tools to Mary Louise’s father, who in turn, passed them on to her.

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Fabulous Feature: The entry courtyard and atrium with waterfall.

Contemporary yet cozy, Art and Deborah’s house is their haven. “The first time I walked in, I could see myself living here, despite what it looked like back then,” Deborah says. “We looked at a lot of houses, but this is the right place for us. I always feel a sense of calm every time I come home.”

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Stevan, Rona, Alex (21) and Danielle (17) Gromet, and Kobe (golden retriever), Lizzie (cockapoo) and Luna (kitten).

Park Avenue Villa

Laguna Beach is known for many things, but large, flat parcels of land are generally not one of them. Stevan and Rona Gromet’s home on Park Avenue is among the rare few that can boast a 15,000-square-foot lot. “We were looking for a larger house with a family floor plan and a flat lot,” Rona says. “We didn’t want a windy road, and we didn’t want traffic.”

The Tuscan villa they eventually purchased checked another box on their list of must-haves: it was completely finished. “After going through renovations in our prior home, I just wanted to move in with my toothbrush and not do any more,” she comments.

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5,000 square feet, four bedrooms, 4.5 baths.

Designed by Capistrano Beach architect W. Wayne Collins, the home is the epitome of Tuscan grandeur. The imposing wood and glass front door’s massive scale complements the cut stone of the walls and the iron gates. From the front, the house retains its privacy. The back opens up to the pool area and the canyon beyond. Neutrals and earth tones play up the Mediterranean theme, with comfortable, oversized furniture to fit the large rooms. The formal living room holds a grand piano and has hosted concerts during fundraising events for institutions such as the Laguna College of Art & Design.

Adjacent to the family room is a covered loggia, complete with outdoor fireplace and cozy sofas to curl up with a glass of wine on cool evenings. A large patio area features a rectangular pool and hot tub, as well as a grassy area where dogs Lizzie and Kobe can play. The Gromets use the outside area a lot. “We’ve had holiday parties, fundraising events and Laguna Beach Live concerts. It’s a great indoor/outdoor space,” Rona says.

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Built in 2004, purchased in 2006.

The icing on the cake is a rooftop deck, complete with fire pit, perfect for watching the sunset. Rona says, “We came back from a vacation in Tuscany one year and when I got home, I felt I was still there.”

Stevan concurs. “We’re close to town, yet there’s no road noise, no lights, and it’s very quiet. It’s just a great place to live.” LBM

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