The Tree Was There First, So It Deserved to Stay
- The New York Times, 03/26/2009

The 1,300-square-foot, modern cedar house in the Hollywood hills was starting to feel cramped, so James MacKinnon, 38, decided to build an additional bedroom. But his wife at the time delivered an ultimatum: the 65-foot sycamore tree in the middle of the sloping backyard would have to stay.

“It was her deal breaker,” he said.

Designing around the tree would prove difficult. The trunk grew at a 45-degree angle and a tangle of roots was six feet below grade, according to his architects, Mike Jacobs and Aaron Neubert, who are based in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Plus, it would add an extra $14,000 to the proposed budget of $218,000.

But Mr. MacKinnon, an Emmy-winning makeup artist for actors and television shows like “Nip/Tuck,” happily agreed. He originally bought the post-and-beam home for $940,000 in 2003, a cozy two-bedroom that sits on a steep slope on Runyon Canyon. The tree, which predates the 1957 house, “has more right to be here than me,” he said.

So during dinner one night at a neighborhood sushi restaurant, the couple sketched the addition on a napkin: an 800-square-foot, glass-and-cedar tree house that would function as the master bedroom, screened by the hillside forest with the sycamore bursting through the floor and ceiling.

Before long, Mr. MacKinnon was translating his doodles into blueprints. But three months before the builders broke ground, his wife left him and moved to New York. The divorce that followed is still a painful topic for Mr. MacKinnon.

Instead of scrapping the project, Mr. MacKinnon threw himself into it, even in the face of setbacks. Builders did not hit bedrock until they dug down 35 feet, twice as deep as anticipated. Then they accidentally drilled through a gas line and old septic tank, setting off a flurry of inspections, a new round of permits and a yearlong delay.

And then the money started running out. “I was over budget before I even started framing,” said Mr. MacKinnon, adding that he only had $35,000 left at that stage.

To save money, he acted as the general contractor, his woodworking skills gleaned from his father, a cabinetmaker. Friends from the set of the television show “CSI: NY,” where he worked as the makeup artist for Melina Kanakaredes, helped frame the windows and doors, and fabricate the metal support beam for the tree trunk.

Mr. MacKinnon took pains to blend the new structure with the old. He used the same red cedar siding and matched the blue-gray glass tiles in the new bathroom and pool with those on the kitchen backsplash. The new protruding steel supports, painted a tawny brown, echo the wooden roof beams that jut over the original house.

An open layout was particularly important to Mr. MacKinnon. “I hate, hate, hate walls,” he explained.

Tempered glass panels turn the master bedroom into a leafy hideaway, camouflaged by the sycamore’s gnarled branches. A hole in the ceiling and floor encase the tree, with a miniature Japanese-style rock garden at the base.

There were plenty of rookie mistakes: the roof leaks in one corner, a floating fireplace obscures the wall that is used as a projection screen and the toilet was installed seven inches too high.

Moreover, the project went $105,000 over budget, but Mr. MacKinnon couldn’t be happier with the result. Valentine, his English bulldog, was the present he gave himself to celebrate.

“Structurally I have no idea what I’m doing,” he said. “But in terms of finish work, it’s perfect, it’s exactly the way I envisioned it.”

With one exception: Mr. MacKinnon and Valentine now live in the new addition alone — that is, except for the sycamore tree.