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HOMEOWNERS — Ellen Weiler Stiefler


LIVING SPACE — "9,700 square feet, but the space doesn't overwhelm or dwarf you. It feels very intimate. And every square inch is purposeful and useful."

PROPERTY — 3-1/3 hillside acres: "The land overlooks such beautiful vistas that the house virtually designed itself. I oriented every room so we could enjoy these breathtaking views. The whole house is cantilevered over the hillside. It looks like the Guggenheim!"

EXTERIOR — Stucco with a tile roof in the Southwest tradition (Ellen chose a blend of tile colors that reflect the alpenglow of the distant mountains at sunset)

FAVORITE ROOM — "The living room. Every time I walk in my front door and see the beauty and tranquility of this special place, I just feel good."

FAVORITE SPOT — The living room's pillowed window seat, a peaceful place to settle down with a cup of coffee — and to cuddle once again with her fiancé, Jay Kopelman, an officer in the U. S. Marine Corps, once he concludes his tour of duty in Iraq

AT-HOME PASTIMES — Spending time with her family, friends, and fiancĂ©, entertaining and hosting musical events, "also quiet things like reading with my kids and playing games"

HOUSEBUILDING TIP — "What made all the difference for me was having a great team of professionals who had integrity and were committed to working with me as partners in creating the home of my dreams. I also recommend taking your time with the design and bidding process. I had no change orders — that's what allowed me to stay on time and on budget."

Front of House

Dining Room

Outdoor Kitchen with Frontgate Grill


Vernon Swaback and John Bernard
Vernon Swaback and Partners
Scottsdale, AZ
Dan Martarano, on-site architect

Steigerwald, Dougherty
Donn Olsen, Project Manager
Solana Beach, CA

Interior Decorators
Kelly Frampton
Phoenix, AZ
Jonelle Davis
Chandler, AZ
(both formerly of Est Est, Scottsdale, AZ)

Lighting Designer
Creative Designs in Lighting
Phoenix, AZ

Landscape Architect
San Diego, CA

Audio Visual Designer
Sound Ideas
San Diego, CA

RANCHO SANTA FE, CALIFORNIA — Building a house is challenge enough. Building a house in California while living in Connecticut seems downright intimidating. Yet Ellen Stiefler, a model of grace under pressure, took on the project with characteristic vision, verve, and diligence, spanning the continent with apparent ease as she went about creating the home of her dreams.

"I did the whole thing long distance," she says. "What made all the difference was having a great team of professionals who had integrity and were committed to working with me as partners."

Every two or three weeks, Ellen would fly to the West Coast for a full day of meetings with key players: from Scottsdale, the architect, lighting designer, and an interior designer she'd worked with previously when building a vacation home in Arizona; from San Diego, her landscape architect, audio-visual consultant, and builder. Once she'd taken care of business, Ellen would catch the red-eye back to the East Coast, arriving in time to drive her three sons to school.


Ellen's homesite was a choice hillside lot in Rancho Santa Fe, California's oldest planned community. Way back in high school, friends had predicted she'd end up in California.

"It just resonates with my soul," she says. "The moment I set eyes on the property, I knew I was home. The land overlooks such beautiful vistas that the house virtually designed itself. I oriented every room so we could enjoy these breathtaking views."

"What made all the difference was having a great team of professionals..."

Drawing on a paper napkin, she sketched the layout she envisioned, concentrating on space allocation and room orientation, dividing the house into pods, and designing each area according to how she planned to use it. She made the kitchen airy and open and mountain-facing, then added a two-step drop into the family room so guests wouldn't see dirty dishes and then offer to help clean up.

Her legal office she hid away "like a cave" in the quietest part of the house. She carefully located storage areas where they wouldn't interfere with the views. She put the household office at the hub of the home overlooking the pool so she could keep an eye on the kids while they were swimming.

She even designed a guest house for her parents, making sure it was wheelchair-accessible and connecting it to the house via a stair-less ramp. (That original sketch is preserved in two photo albums Ellen created to document, step by step, the planning and building process.)

Once she'd acquired the land, Ellen spent a year refining the design of her home and another year putting the plans out to bid. "I took a lot of time in that stage of the planning," she says.

"Consequently there were no change orders — that's what allowed me to stay on time and on budget. I also hired a local architect to supervise construction," she adds. "He was my eyes and ears. He stopped by the site every day."

For the master bedroom, ceiling beams were weathered to make them look as though they'd been salvaged from an old farmhouse. Shop Bed & Bath.

Early on, when she was still looking around for a builder, the name Pat Dougherty kept popping up. "Everyone who had worked with him described him in Biblical terms. I thought, 'This guy I have to meet!'"

She did — and found him "almost too good to be true. He's a relentlessly positive problem solver. At the time, I didn't yet know that's the California way: let's be soft on the people, hard on the problem.

"We both had those same instincts, so we worked together very well. Before we literally got off the ground, we ran into some significant problems because of stringent engineering guidelines concerning earthquakes. Despite all that, everybody pulled together."

To this day, Ellen has high praise for the man who built her home. "Seven years later, and he still comes over within a half hour to fix any problem."


"I had so much joy creating this house," says Ellen. "It's the million little details that make it such a wonderful place to live." By noting the positive and negative attributes of all the other places she'd called home in her lifetime, she learned just what it was she wanted and needed in this new house of hers.

First and foremost, she wanted a home that was peaceful and safe — and smelled good. "I grew up in New York City with exhaust and garbage. Living here in Rancho Santa Fe, all my senses are delighted."

A babbling brook generates the sound of running water as it winds its way from the guest house to the pool. And Ellen landscaped with fragrance in mind, planting orange trees and roses and eucalyptus. "When I wake up every morning, I'm greeted by the scent of gardenias and orange blossoms."

Capitalizing on mountain vistas was equally essential in establishing a sense of beauty and tranquility. "There's something special about those mountains," Ellen muses. "The moment you open the front door and step inside, you can look out through the living-room windows to the mountains beyond."

Even the palette of colors she selected for the clay-tile roof was influenced by her love of those mountains.

"I'd stand here at sunset and wait for the alpenglow to happen, then choose the colors I saw," she explains. "There's a certain time of day you drive down to the house when the roof and the hills are the same color, rosy and glowing."

Sometimes, Ellen notes, it's the things you don't see that make a house special. In the kitchen office, for example, the television has a swivel feature so it can be seen from the kitchen table as well as the office desk.

From a resort in Indonesia, she borrowed the idea of installing doors that pocket back into the walls. In the hallway leading to the children's area, she provided a locker for each of her sons to stow his books and jackets.

And then there are the outdoor skylight heaters: "Hit a button, and they cast warmth over the patio. I put them there so we could have Thanksgiving outside in the middle of winter."


"This has been a wonderful house for living in with my children and dogs," says Ellen. "And for entertaining. We've had so many special occasions here — musical events, a rehearsal dinner and wedding reception, pool parties, 40th, 50th, and 60th birthday celebrations..."

The wraparound upper-level patio has provided the setting for a good number of those get-togethers. It's home to a fireside banquette and dining tables, a sports bar with pizza oven and TV — "great for watching the Super Bowl" — as well as full kitchen with gas grill, rangetop burners, dishwasher, and trash compactor.

The lower-level patio, equipped with air hockey and other games, doubles as an entertainment center for the boys and their friends.

Every now and then, Ellen transforms the dining room into a disco — "it has the most wonderful dance floor!" — and the living room into a cabaret.

"For a theater production, we tented the back patio just outside the living room, and it was the stage. This is a house that likes to be used like that." Which is just what Ellen had in mind all along: using and enjoying their home to the maximum.

"We're an industrial-strength family with surfboards and motorcycles and sports equipment and two golden retrievers," she says.

"I didn't ever want my kids to feel it was a hands-off house. There's a lot of distressed wood. If something gets nicked, it's just one more character mark."

"The moment you open the front door and step inside, you can look out through the living-room windows to the mountains beyond."

Beveled pecan floors, for example, were distressed with tire irons and chains, then waxed rather than polyurethaned so that, like fine wine, they'd improve with age. "I just add a little wax, buff them to a soft luster, and they're good to go. The boys can't hurt them."

There is, however, one restriction: an Invisible Fence that runs right through the house, letting the dogs know that the living room and the guests who congregate there are off-limits.


More than seven years have passed since Ellen moved her family to Rancho Santa Fe. "I'll never forget that day," she says. "September 1st, 1997. I'd kept the boys away for weeks. Meanwhile, I unpacked, put everything in place, and made up the beds. I wanted to surprise them. I even put on music for their arrival. It was a neat moment, seeing the look on their faces."

The virtually invisible, full-length living-room window offers panoramic views reminiscent of Italy's Tuscan countryside. Shop Furnishings & Décor.

Most astonishing of all: the secret rooms she'd created for each of them. "It was the fulfillment of a fantasy from my childhood," Ellen says.

For her oldest son, a voracious reader, she concealed a reading nook behind a moveable bookcase, a hideaway beyond the reach of his brothers. She even installed a motion-detector light to add to the atmosphere of mystery.

For her younger boys, Ellen built a passageway running back and forth between their two rooms (the entrances are disguised by a floor-to-ceiling corkboard) — and leading to a play fort. In part, her motive was to lessen sibling rivalry and provide a means for them to play together more harmoniously. Mostly, though, she just wanted them to have fun. What child could resist?

Over the years, Ellen and her boys have created many happy memories here. "Turning my dream home into a reality," she concludes, "a reality I could live in with my children, was one of the most fun, enjoyable, and satisfying experiences of my life."

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