By Brian Wiersema, Contributing Writer,
The San Diego Union:
also published in "WHO'S WHO in Construction in San Diego County"
in The Daily Transcript

[Second in a Series]

When Stew Leonard, Jr. of Westport, Connecticut, was "struggling" to share his concepts for his family's 8,000 square-foot Italian Villa-style home, he suggested to his architect:"Let's get on a plane to San Diego, and I'll show you what I'm talking about".

Leonard, president of Stew Leonard's Dairy Store Inc's 1989 U.S. "retail Entrepreneur of the Year" wanted a piece of the California dream he had seen as a graduate UCLA business student. He flew into San Diego, met his sister Jill Tavello, and toured the high-end enclaves like Fairbanks Ranch. After a visit of what he calls "ooh's and aahs", he began cold calling San Diego architects.

"I talked to some of the best", recalled Leonard, "and the typical tone of the conversation was, 'you want to build in Connecticut? I was treated like some king of a nut".

Leonard found his man here in Don Edson, an architect who exports "traditional" home design to places like Texas, New Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. What Leonard liked was Edson's reverse E.F. Hutton style: When clients talk, Edson listens. "Don Edson asked the right questions on how we lived and what we wanted, and he listened to my answers", said Leonard. "Plus, the relationship looked good. And in my business, relationships are everything".

Exporting custom home architecture and construction a field that Leonard says many San Diego architects wouldn't even return a phone call on is an Edson innovation. With a base of dozens of large, prestigious residences he has built in La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe, and Fairbanks Ranch, potential clients come for a first hand look.

Taking design to home-stylish and even posh Westport on the wasters of Long Island Sound may seem like taking coals to Newcastle, but Leonard said he could find his light, airy, open "California Look" only in California.

Elsewhere, in places like El Paso, Texas-a city in a desert on the Mexican border-local custom home architects are few and far between and those Texas residents also look to California for a translation of their custom dreams into residential reality, reports Hughes Butterworth.

Butterworth is president of the title company in El Paso. Like Leonard, he found Edson via the San Diego connection. But Leonard and Butterworth used similar selection criteria. "You look for three things", said Leonard: "FIRST, an architect's ability to articulate your desires into design. SECOND, you look for creativity. THIRD, you look for great staff support. It's not just the architect but his firm."

What Leonard got from several Edson trips east and seasons of busy phone, fax, and Federal Express communication was an indoor-outdoor waterfront villa with a huge family orientation, including a 1,500 square foot playroom. "My daughter Blake (age 5) can roller-skate through the whole house" said Leonard. "I like that." What Butterworth got was a traditional, yet open plan 6,000 square foot, 360 degree view mountain-top retreat complete with his and her ovens, ranges (one gas, one electric), and sinks. (Both Butterworth and his wife, Sharon, like to cook.) The couple also benefited from Edson's efforts at McKinney Wrecking in El Paso. Through the salvage yard, Edson acquired a complete raised building of used brick and every slab of Tennessee pink marble from the old William Beaumont Army Hospital in that city.

Edson is among a handful of local architects who have created an industry out of exporting high-end architecture, according to Andy Nelson, president of the Willis M. Allen Company in La Jolla. He has a talent which attracts a global clientele: "Exceptional special arrangement ability, a superb landscaping touch and the wherewithal to do out-of-town projects".

Edson is a University of Cincinnati architecture graduate and worked with Skidmore, Owings & Merril in Chicago as part of a six-year work study curriculum. As a U.S. Navy Lieutenant, he commanded a 150 man Seabees mobile construction unit in Vietnam. His private practice as Don Edson Architect A.I.A. & Associates has been based in San Diego since 1973. Like other high-end architects, he grew with the custom boom in the late 1970's and early 1980's here as custom demonstrated better value, quality, and appreciation. Clients were working professionals, executives and retirees who wanted special livability under the temperature Southern California sun.

"We were looking for a home that was graceful, full of light, pleasing to the eye, and very functional", said Dr. Sarita Eastman, a pediatrician, who moved into an Edson home with her surgeon husband, Brent, in 1983. The home is 5,000 square feet of single-story, California ranch style in Rancho Santa Fe. Mad of used brick and wood, it was a year on the drawing boards.

In planning, Edson and clients frequently begin with a blank slate of possibilities. "We started with no preconceived idea of a design" said Dr. Eastman. El Paso's Sharon Butterworth says she and her husband began with a tour of San Diego, telling Edson, "I like the outside of that one. I like the inside of this one." She calls it the "Heinz 57 varieties approach" to design. "Don't laugh", she said. "It worked for us."

To aid in generating design preferences, Edson offers his personal check-out library of hundreds of volumes. There are Historic Houses of the South, Mexican Interiors, French Country, Colonial, and styles in Santa Fe, Caribbean, English, Italian, and American. There are books on kitchens, gardens, fountains, fireplaces, trees, fanlights (half circle ornamentation over doorways), windows, solar energy, and wrought iron. Some volumes focus on one person, such as Julia Morga, John F. Straub, and Wallace Neff all California architects and early pioneers in the climate-and-view celebration of the "California Look."

La Jolla's Nelson, who lives in an Edson house in La Jolla and has played a business role in 10 other Edson homes, says Edson works from the inside out: "It's classic form following family function."

For the Butterworth brick split-level in El Paso, Edson focused on two priorities. One was creating an inviting and welcoming lower level home for visiting children and grandchildren. The second was a similarly embracing upper level "Great Room" to accommodate entertaining an extended family of over 40 relatives in and around El Paso on holidays.

As plans take shape, Edson constructs a working model. That model is taken to the site and studies for orientation. "The model helps put the house and the windows where the view is and where the sun isn't", said Edson.

Another touch of reality before the construction documents are drawn up, is a cross-check on progress. "We challenge all the decisions we have made before we put them in concrete", said Edson. In construction, Edson continues to follow the dictionary definition of custom-built: "built according to the specifications of the buyer." Sometimes there's a compromise. Sharon Butterworth wanted laminated cabinets with adjustable shelves. Edson said they wouldn't blend with the rest of the family's customized kitchen. Sharon insisted. Edson put in the laminated cabinets adding detailed wood trim, tile counters, and a hardwood floor to soften the cabinets' contemporary look.

Sometimes there are modifications. When Edson located the tons of inexpensive Tennessee pink marble in El Paso, the Butterworth's home received the bonus of marble window sills, countertops, floors,

Sometimes there are snags. Construction of an Edson designed 18,000 square foot Corniche residential complex for a sheik in Saudi Arabia was delayed because of the Gulf War. A similar fate befell an Edson designed 26,000 square foot Italian Mediterranean villa for another sheik in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Edson's services include selecting the building lot, the general contractor and interior and landscape designers. "Where some architects are done, we're just getting started", said Edson. Edson credits his success to putting custom on a strictly business-like basis. "We create dreams. But we sell reality", said Edson. "We'll take project budget worksheets and tell you exactly what the realistic totals are, including cost for land, grading, permits and fees, furnishings, financing-everything. We do not do projects that we feel are budgeted incorrectly."

He also admits to the success of being in the right place at the right time. "San Diego's custom boom began to take off with San Diego's diversified economy not long after we put out our shingle. In the 1980's, money poured in and gave areas like Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch, and La Jolla international name recognition. "Today, people like Stew Leonard and the Butterworth's fly in for a look at San Diego's emphasis on functional residential flow and spacious, lofty rooms. We have been fortunate to be a part of and benefit from the area's positive exposure."