We have a special relationship with Topanga Canyon. It may be close to LA, but it feels a million miles from the big city, a tucked-away community of quirky creatives that’s full of the unexpected. It’s where BoutiqueHomes is based, and we are blessed with great neighbors – artists, architects, rebels and rock stars. Among them is artist, historic preservationist, homeowner and house rehabilitator, Bill Buerge.
Bill is best known in these parts as the owner of the Mermaid, a Topanga icon that’s seen many incarnations. Built in 1930 as a country club, the property went on to become a boarding school for Jewish boys, then a gambling house, a gay nightclub and a tavern. When Bill bought it 29 years ago, it had clearly lived a little. The foundation was cracked and buckling, and the walls were leaning precariously in all directions. Restoring it, he says, has been an adventure. But one he clearly relished. “I love to take a seemingly irretrievable disaster and transform it into a thing of beauty and utility,” he tells us.
Today, the magical world he’s created (a central building and numerous cool outcrops) is a great property for weddings, shoots, retreats and memorials. Or a quiet escape for two. Whatever you’re looking for, ask Bill – he’s one of the most accommodating guys you’ll ever meet.
At first glance, the Mermaid is straight-up Spanish Colonial-Mission Revival architecture – numerous archways, a main hall with vaulted ceiling and large fireplace front and center. But it doesn’t take long to locate the quirks. For starters, almost all the furniture is on wheels. Because Bill likes wheels. And it makes things easy to move around. And by furniture we’re talking candelabras from mortuaries, cabinets from psychiatric hospitals, converted hydraulic hospital stretchers, and old industrial laundry carts. There are portholes where windows used to be, there’s a lamp made from a bovine inseminator, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) there are mermaids everywhere. Bill’s a collector, a lover of found objects, and he combs swap meets and eBay for unusual pieces. “It’s hard to find good mermaids,” he says. “A lot of them have squinchy lips.”
Take a tour of the garden, and the local peacocks screech as they wander nonchalantly by. There are areas devoted to dozens of native butterfly species each planted with the butterfly’s particular host plant – milkweed for Monarchs, fennel for the Anise Swallowtails, and tomatoes for the White-lined Sphinx Moths. Caterpillars, apparently, are really picky about what they eat. There are also 20 water features dotted around the premises – mostly antique fountains that Bill has positioned inside galvanized livestock watering tanks. But the best finds of all are the cabins and houses tucked away behind the trees – a little bungalow all in blue, a rainbow studio with a life-sized milk cow guarding its doorway, and an impossibly Instagrammable vintage trailer, located in its own pastel perfect outdoor living space.
The Mermaid and its adjacent properties are a whimsical playground that’s invited in a multitude of guests over the years. Imagine Rihanna lounging by the exquisite pool, Madonna doing yoga in the hall, and you get the picture. After an hour exploring the grounds with Bill, we sat down to ask him about this intriguing place he calls home.
For those who don’t know it, how would you describe Topanga?
Bill Buerge: “I am a native Angeleno and Topanga is the best that LA has to offer. It is lush and gorgeous with a great sense of community, and an artsy, creative vibe. My neighborhood is an eclectic assortment of salt-of-the-earth old-timers, hip and crisp newcomers, yoga teachers, artists, writers, a priest, and a famous musician or two. I wasn’t born here, but I feel like I should have been!”
Restoring the Mermaid was clearly a labor of love. How long did it take you?
BB: “What you’re looking at took me nearly 30 years. The moment I first laid my eyes on the Mermaid, I gasped audibly at its decaying magnificence. It was waterlogged and structurally unsound. But it had such great bones, as they say. I was hopelessly in love. The first five years were the hardest, getting the permits and the money together and bringing it up to current code with a new foundation and structurally retrofitting everything, while carefully saving as much of the historic fabric as possible. I doubt if I will ever be finished really. I suspect the Mermaid will always be a work in progress for me. I have a great love for houses. I seem to be willing to spend embarrassing amounts of time and energy saving structures and things other people would tear down or throw away.”
Your style is very unique. How would you describe it?
BB: “I have fun and strive to make whatever I create compelling. I love symmetry, preciseness, rich surface patina, and often employ the full color spectrum. My properties are largely an amalgamation of previously owned objects, an orphanage if you will, for thousands of unwanted, sold off and discarded architectural antiques, pieces of reclaimed lumber, light fixtures, furniture, and assorted junk, with new stuff folded in.”
What’s the story behind the Casita Trailer?
BB: “I happened upon the tiny vintage travel trailer at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. I had no idea I would buy a trailer that day. But everybody who saw it just started squealing. The cuteness factor was through the roof. I impulsively grabbed it, and I’m really glad I did. We parked it under a tree and put a fence around it, and it kept evolving from there. I created a series of outdoor rooms around it, using colors appropriate for the 1950s. I love the concept of outdoor rooms.”
When you travel, what do you look for?
BB: “I’m instinctively drawn to historic districts with their great old architecture and antiques. There’s so much life and creativity there. I find older buildings and older things to be more soulful, more beautiful, and more masterfully constructed. I care less about whether something is authentic or from a particular time period, and more about its inherent spirit and artfulness. Does it possess qualities that are exquisite, enthralling, interesting, mysterious, calming, or just plain fun? Is it enduring?”
How do you define “enduring”?
BB: “The best visual art and the best found objects to me are imbued with inordinately pleasing sensual qualities, and are layered and rich. Somehow, you can’t take your eyes off them. They are things you can experience again and again, and can live with. Possibly, even for a lifetime. I look for things like that. People will often comment about the ‘good energy’ and ‘warmth’ of my places. They seem to love being inside of them or relaxing outside in the gardens surrounded by water-sound and wildlife. That pleases me tremendously.”