SOMETIMES, HOMER DELAWIE goes to see the mid-century homes he’s designed. He takes leisurely drives around Mission Hills or Del Mar or Point Loma, where he lives with his wife, Ettie, and raised six children. In his 80s now, he’s stopped visiting the ones that have been ruined—stuccoed over or added onto beyond recognition. Fortunately, many remain, newly appreciated modernist masterpieces as sparkling and sublime as the day he built them.
The Feller residence in Point Loma was built in 1962, although Delawie began planning the home in 1958. It’s perhaps his favorite—if he had to choose. He fondly remembers getting together on Saturday mornings with Louis Feller to go over plans.
Feller was a builder; his wife, Betty, was a concert pianist and very active in the Jewish community. They were movers and shakers who chose a corner lot with prime city, bridge and bay views.
“He wanted everything first-class,” Delawie says. “They wanted a home to entertain their friends.” He remembers a stir caused by the marble floors: “No one had ever had that before. Betty was quite a character. She had a party, and one of the women said, ‘Betty, I’ve never seen vinyl as cute as this,’ and she threw her out of the house!”
Essentially, the Fellers gave Delawie carte blanche. He designed a house of steel beams and glass, with a flat roof and 10-foot ceilings. The main level is an H, with rectangles that intersect and views that extend from every corner.
Visual surprises are everywhere. From the front entry, at the side of the house, the sightline runs down the short leg of the H, a stunning 80-foot marble hallway that ends at a glass wall with a garden beyond.
“This hallway is the spine of the house,” Delawie says. On the long legs of the H that reach from the “spine” are the living areas. To the left of the entrance is a large living room with a suspended fireplace and glass walls. It looks out across the pool to the master bedroom, also walled in glass.
Throughout the five-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bath house, there are black-walnut cabinets and floors of travertine and marble. Delawie also added an aviary at Louis’ request. Downstairs is a guest suite and two cabañas, and access to the house from a large motor court. The pool deck is terrazzo, unheard of at the time.
Years passed, Louis died, and the home fell into disrepair. Decorating fads had come and gone, and the house had been painted green with brown trim. The interior was covered with huge, overgrown plants, and the walls had yellowed from years of cigarette smoke. In places, the steel mullions had rusted away, and the glass was holding up the roof. A shoji-screen fence around the house listed at a 45-degree angle. An old Caddy sat abandoned in the motor court. It had been there so long, dripping dew had made holes in the metal.
Then Betty put the house up for sale in 1997, and its fortunes changed. The former owners of Signature Gallery saw the fine bones beneath the decay. A loving repair began, and Delawie was contacted to advise on the restoration. The interior walls were replastered and the marble floors refurbished by the son of the original installer at Pellegrino Marble Company. Restored to nearly its original state, the home is again glorious.
The day the Caddy was taken away by St. Vincent de Paul, the neighbors stood in the street and clapped.
DURING HIS LONG, successful career as an architect, Delawie built some 60 residences, many of them in San Diego County. Born in Santa Barbara, he served in the Navy at the end of World War II. Afterward, he took a battery of Veterans Administration tests that suggested a career in architecture. He took the leap and enrolled at California Polytechnic at San Luis Obispo’s fledgling architecture college.
On vacation in San Diego in the late ’50s, Delawie was driving up Fifth Avenue and was struck by The Design Center. He sought out its architect and met pioneering modernist Lloyd Ruocco, who invited him to work on a studio for Channel 10 (one of the first TV stations in the county), beginning a three-year partnership.
In 1961, Delawie went out on his own. The 75-person firm he founded prospers today as Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues Barker, on India Street in San Diego.
Early on, Delawie built modest houses on overlooked hillsides, minimally disturbing the sites. The flat-roofed post-and-beam homes were made from natural materials such as redwood and glass. Like Ruocco, he used space judiciously; built-in cabinets, for example, became walls. Delawie built for young couples, cost-effectively. Jutting out over canyons, the houses took advantage of views, with main living areas and a master bedroom above, and space to add bedrooms below. Interior atriums provided light and ventilation.
Delawie’s contributions to civic and commercial architecture in San Diego are enormous. “One of my favorite projects,” he says, “is the big fountain at the end of the Prado.” It’s the one filled with wading children in the summer, across from the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (which he designed in collaboration with architects Michael Wilkes and Larry Rose).
The paperwork is in to add the Feller residence to the local historical register.
“This property and Mr. Delawie’s work are so important to San Diego’s architectural history that we’re hoping this goes through quickly,” says Marie Burke Lia, a historical property attorney, who is consulting. It would be the second Delawie residence to be recognized. (The Goldzan residence on Mount Helix received the honor in 2006.) The city’s Historical Resources Board would then supervise future alterations.
And on those occasional drives, Homer Delawie will never have to take this masterpiece off the tour.