Friday, April 5, 2013

Volcano House

Volcano House (Katie Kland)
By Sherri Cruz
Orange County Register

Chapman University has repurposed numerous historic buildings, but a spaceship-style home perched 150 feet atop a volcanic cone?

"We've never quite encountered a house like this," said Kris Olsen, vice president of campus planning and operations for Chapman University.

"The architectural design feels like Austin Powers meets George Jetson," Olsen said.

See more Volcano House images

The home, known as the Volcano House, was a gift to Chapman from the late Huell Howser, who hosted and produced the "California's Gold" travel series on PBS.

Chapman's plans for the Volcano House include poetry gatherings for faculty and students, artist retreats, and astronomy and biology studies.

The house is set on 60 acres in the Mojave Desert, where silence and starry nights reign. It has a 360-degree glass perimeter – 24 glass doors that can be opened to the desert breeze when the weather is suitable.
Inside, a circular stairway leads to a stargazing deck on the roof.

Making the property even more spectacular is a spring-fed lake at the foot of the volcanic mountain.
Olsen has been directing the restoration of the property, which started in earnest last spring and recently concluded.

The home's bones were good, but the property had some deferred maintenance and needed some minor interior fixes.

"We drained the lake and put a new clay bottom in it," Olsen said.

Chapman refurbished the electrical, sewer, heating, ventilation and cooling systems.

Aday Architects in Glendora was tapped to spruce up the interior, while keeping the midcentury architecture intact.

Even the shag rug in the sunken living room was replaced with a new one.

"We found a carpet mill that produces shag and replaced it with similar shag," Olsen said.

"It's in good function for accommodating people now," Olsen said.

In the future, Chapman plans to add dormitories at the base of the volcanic mountain to accommodate large groups for overnight stays.

Howser's gifts to Chapman stemmed from a friendship that was struck between Howser and Chapman's President Jim Doti.

It began with a note Doti wrote to Howser.

After Doti watched a "California's Gold" segment on Old Towne Orange, he invited Howser to the campus. "When I saw it, I was disappointed that he didn't come visit the Chapman campus," Doti said.

Howser took Doti up on the invitation and visited the campus a few months later.

It was love at first sight. "He just fell in love with Chapman, the spirit of the place and the people," Doti said.

Doti was one of a handful of people who knew that Howser was terminally ill.

Howser kept his illness private.

What many people didn't know – not even Doti – was that Howser was the owner of the Volcano House. That mystery was revealed when Howser put the home on the market a few years back for $750,000.

People who knew Howser knew him as a longtime resident of the El Royale Apartments in Los Angeles.

Howser also owned a couple of other homes, but rarely used the Volcano House. He bought the Volcano House on a whim, Doti said.

"I think he bought more of a work of art than a home," Doti said. "He was really into aesthetic kinds of things," he said. "His homes were literally art museums."

Doti found out about Howser's uncommon dwelling during lunch with Howser at the Filling Station Cafe in Old Towne, a couple of blocks from campus.

By that time, Howser had already been working diligently with Armando Diaz in Chapman's media services to digitize and archive his TV segments.

"Huell was a stickler about quality, perfection, having it done right," Doti said.

While they sat on the Filling Station's patio, Doti asked about reports that Howser was the owner of the Volcano House.

According to Doti, Howser said something like: "Oh yeah, I bought that 10 years ago. I hardly ever used it, but I fell in love with the place. Why? Do you want it?"

Doti didn't know if he wanted it. He asked about it only because he was intrigued by the house itself.
But Howser was serious, Doti said.

Howser thought it would be wonderfully serendipitous if the house he bought on a whim could be used for educational purposes.

"He said it would be a culmination of something that was meant to be," Doti said.

With Howser's offer, Doti checked in with Chapman's chancellor, Daniele Struppa. Struppa sent a memo to all the deans at Chapman, asking if they could use the property.

"Without exception, all of the deans said 'Yes,'" Doti said.

Doti called Howser and told him the ideas. "He was pleased. It was his dream."

Howser took the home off the market. Then he took Doti and Olsen on a grand adventure to visit it.

They all met at Peggy Sue's 50's Diner (where there's a sandwich named after Howser) near Calico Ghost Town. From there, they drove 20 minutes along a gravel road. "All of a sudden you see – standing alone – this volcano-shaped mountain," Doti said.

"As you get closer, you see the structure on top of it. It looks literally like a flying saucer landed on the top," he said.

"It's surreal," Doti said. "It's truly surreal."

In addition to the Volcano House, Howser gave Chapman nearly 1,000 TV segments, his book library, the proceeds of the sales from his two other desert homes (now designated for scholarships) and his "found art" collection that adorned his homes.