Love and Judaism are built into couple’s distinctive home
There is divine justice in the fact that the daughter of a survivor of Auschwitz now lives in a beautiful home wrapped in a metal sheath pierced with Hebrew letters and filled with Judaica.
Meyer Wiesel, who died in 1987, survived the Holocaust — the only member of his family to do so. And now, the Jewish heritage of that boy from the Czechoslovakian town of Topolčany — who would later become Michael Morris of Denver — plays out daily in the most public fashion possible in the Cheviot Hills home of his daughter, Maxine Morris, and her husband, Bob Hale.
“It is like a giant mezuzah,” Morris said with a laugh during a recent afternoon interview at the house.
Indeed, like the V’ahavta prayer of love hidden inside every mezuzah’s decorative casing, this home is a 5,000-square-foot, three-story declaration of ahavah — love — with the word repeated in hundreds of perforations across the corrugated aluminum that encases its structure. The design is an expression of gratitude and deep affection between the two people who built the house, with the Hebrew letters inscribed both forward and backward, becoming, as well as an expression of their Judaism, an abstract, decorative pattern allowing light and shadow to seep through into the private spaces inside.
The “Beit Ha-Ahava” — “House of Love,” as it has become known — was, of course, a very personal project. In 2008, Morris, director of research finance operations at the Rand Corp., met Hale, a highly regarded architect and principal at the Los Angeles firm of Rios Clementi Hale Studios. (Hale has also been a vice president at Universal Studios and a principal architect for Frank O. Gehry Associates, including working on, among many projects, the landmark Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.) Morris and Hale fell in love and decided to marry. Both lived on the Westside, and when they thought about designing and building a new home for a life together, they found they had very compatible tastes in modern design.
“I was the architect, Max was the client,” Hale said. “She had a lot to say about it.”
They married in 2010, but had bought the property while engaged (the house wasn’t completed until 2012). Hale said he had always envisioned wrapping the exterior with perforated corrugated aluminum, but, at least at first, he’d simply thought of a pattern of holes.
Bob Hale and Maxine Morris at their Cheviot Hills home. Photo by Trevor Tondro
“I said, ‘Just holes?’ ” Morris remembers. “Sounded not so interesting.”
Morris had been collecting images of objects she liked, and one day she came across a lamp in the graceful, turning shape of the Hebrew letter lamed.
“I was staring at it, and it just struck me: Hebrew letters are so beautiful,” she said. “So I said to him, ‘Can we do something with Hebrew letters?’ He said, ‘Sure, why not?’ And then it became, well, what letters?”
They quickly settled on an expression of their love. “And it was perfect,” Hale said. “It was concise, and it allowed us to make a pattern, and, as Max said, if you know the letters, you can make it out, and if you don’t, it just reads as a pattern.”
The house is set back enough from the street to allow for privacy, and the metal, while a prominent feature, encases only the top floor of the house. Throughout, large sliding windows open onto terraces that take advantage of the Southern California climate and allow for a fluid openness between inside and out. Upstairs, the metal-enclosed bedrooms and office spaces are lit both day and night by light flowing through the lettering, which marks the rooms with shadows of ahavah across every surface — walls, windows and ceilings.
“It’s really cool in the middle of the night,” Morris said.
“The streetlights and the moon create the light coming through,” Hale explained. “And in the morning, the eastern light comes this way,” he said, pointing to their bedroom window, “and rakes across here, and sometimes it seems like it’s on fire. I have to say, it exceeded my expectations of how nice it could be.
“I made it so we can actually open it up and have a completely open view,” Hale added. “But we almost never do.”
The home’s furnishings and décor are colorful, including shelves throughout displaying a host of menorahs, Shabbat candleholders and dreidels, as well as other toys and collectibles. On the walls are many vivid paintings by Hale’s late first wife, Anne Greenwald, an accomplished artist and children’s book author-illustrator. Hale said he converted to Judaism at the time of his first marriage, and the Jewish connection continues with Morris.
Together Morris and Hale traveled to Topolčany, to rediscover Morris’ lost paternal heritage, and today they proudly announce their own Jewish connection for all the world to see.
“This isn’t a very busy street, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people outside pointing and looking,” Hale said. “And sometimes I’ll go out there, and they’ll ask me, ‘What’s it say?’ ”
“People will ask, ‘Is it a word, or just letters?’ ” Morris added. “And some people know it’s Hebrew; some people know ahavah. It’s the whole spectrum.”
It’s not hard to notice that their joyous, public display of their Judaism is the absolute opposite of what young Meyer Wiesel would have experienced when he was carted off to Auschwitz at age 12.
“One of my Jewish architecture friends, Michael Lehrer, when he saw the house, he wrote me an email and called it, ‘The House of an Optimist,’ ” Hale said. “He’s right, I am an optimist. We’re open to the street, and we say who we are.”
Morris stressed that the never-ending commitment to Judaism her father passed on to her is essential to who she is, and to making this architecture possible.
“He kept his love of Judaism. And I hold onto that — it’s a part of him. It’s who he was.”