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Mi Casa, Su Casa 

An experiment in public/private living

Friday, Jan 13 2006
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The e-mail was very specific: Bring $100 cash in an envelope. Be on time; you will not be admitted if you arrive more than 15 minutes late. Additional guests are strictly forbidden.

I show up early, but from the outside, the converted car showroom, off a desolate stretch of Broadway at the base of Elysian Park, looks abandoned — unless you count the two characters nearby taking inventory of their shopping carts. I double-check the directions. This is the place — green building with black-and-white graffiti art. Then the metal garage door lifts and I duck in. Large glass windows surround the Mercedes parked inside, like a jewel in a display case. The door immediately closes behind me. I feel like I’ve just entered a Bond movie.

Another door opens and I’m greeted by an attractive woman in a slinky black dress with a plunging neckline. This must be Sherry Walsh, tonight’s host.

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“Welcome to Secret Restaurant,” she says as she ushers me inside. The shabbiness of the exterior melts away like an ice cube in bourbon. Beyond the entrance, ceilings soar 20 feet and the exposed brick walls give the place a castle-like quality. A wooden sign hangs on a wall; its cracked paint reads, “Marvimon House.” Walsh looks back at me from her post at the door and says, “Go ahead, feel free to look around.”

The main room stretches nearly 50 feet, with a table almost as long in the middle and 25 chairs lining each side. At one end a U-shaped velvet couch that could hold 20 close friends faces a theater-size screen flickering with Fellini images. The sommelier, a wine merchant from Silverlake Wine, thrusts a glass of Prosecco in my hand. I sip the bubbly and walk past the kitchen, lit from above by exotic swag lamps and busy with chefs on loan for the evening from La Terza, moving at a frenetic pace, dicing, sautéing and stirring. The smell of truffles spikes the air.

Secret Restaurant happens every other month by strict invitation only, sort of like a secret society with Walsh and her husband, Miguel Nelson, as the Lord and Lady of the manor. Soon, 50 strangers with cash-filled envelopes will arrive — reality television stars of yesterday, bankers, florists, wine merchants and Australian models on holiday — and poke around Walsh and Nelson’s home, touch their things, scuff their floors, and undoubtedly look in their medicine cabinet (okay, that’s me).

The back yard is aglow under large-bulb string lights, the kind you’d see at an old-time carnival. Slowly guests congregate on the outdoor, L-shaped velour sofa, or mingle on the lush green grass. Hidden at one end, and covered by prehistoric-looking ferns, is an outdoor claw-foot bathtub. Just as I’m getting comfortable, Nelson calls guests to the dinner table, where a six-course feast is served ­— truffled eggs, risotto with mushrooms, short ribs, loin of beef. Dish after dish is devoured, then whisked away to make room for the next.

Secret Restaurant is just one reason total strangers invade Walsh and Nelson’s home. They also rent out the house for movie shoots, TV shows and music videos.

“A lot of people think it’s a Hollywood set; they don’t realize it’s our home,” Walsh says. “People put their feet on the walls, on the kitchen counter, gum on the floor, stuff like that. I’m learning to be a little less bitchy. When there’s a crew here, we lock ourselves in our bedroom, seal off our private bath, and lounge in there for a few days. It becomes our hotel suite.”

They put up with the headaches because it’s how they’re able to maintain Marvimon House, which came into existence due to a series of love affairs, beginning with theirs. They met online at Nerve.com. Walsh, a born-and-raised L.A. girl, figured Nelson’s thick Magnum PI mustache and long ’70s haircut was a costume. “I thought, ‘This guy has the same sense of humor as me.’ I had to write him,” she says, laughing.

“And I do,” Nelson says with a smirk as he grabs her hand, “but I’m living it.”

They soon discovered they had a mutual love of shopping, were eBay-aholics and antiques freaks. Meanwhile, Nelson, who was living in San Francisco, fell in love with both Walsh and L.A., so he decided to stay and buy a building that he could do “something interesting with.” But where? He hardly knew the city. “You can learn a lot about real estate by going out at night. I saw this,” says Nelson surveying his domain, “and knew it had potential. I could tell it was in an odd area, but it was the right price.”

The building was a 1920s car showroom and warehouse, owned by the Italian race-car driver Dominic Basso back when this part of Elysian Park was considered Little Italy. Nelson bought the space, and another love affair began. Despite his lack of architecture and building experience, Nelson “geeked out,” as he puts it, spending hours on the computer creating models and renderings. The space was his virtual sculpture. He came up with the money to buy a few hours of help from a couple of architects, enough for a walk-through. One suggested creating parking on the ramp used years ago to bring cars from the alley into the showroom in the original structure.

But other ideas were all Nelson’s. He added the large windows in the front as a nod to the original showroom and created the back yard by ripping the roof off the back half of the building, which was warehouse space. The yard’s impenetrable brick “fence” is nothing more than the former walls of the warehouse. The outdoor shower and bathtub was a dream he first had growing up in Arizona. “I’m a desert rat. I just love tropical indoor-outdoor environments. This whole environment,” he says, pointing to the hidden garden tub, “really is just a fantasy thing.”

When the time came for interior decoration, Walsh and Nelson’s love of shopping kicked into high gear. The large sectional couches were eBay finds, as were the vintage swag lamps, barstools and even their bed. When they weren’t bidding on items, they were shopping at their favorite thrift shops. “St. Vincent de Paul has a shit-ton of crap in there, but you can find some gems,” Nelson says. “I don’t like new stuff, because I cringe when I see that people have what I have. I see it advertised in a magazine, mass-produced, and it makes me feel dirty. I think of vintage shopping more as curating.” Even their home’s name is vintage — it came from a sign the two found in the building’s rafters and eventually traced back to a 1918 Russian almshouse.

Originally, Nelson thought he’d use the space he’d created for six months and then sell it. “I had no idea what it was going to be. It became something different every month, maybe condos, maybe two separate spaces.” Problem was, Nelson soon realized he couldn’t live without Marvimon House — or Sherry. He got her to marry him and they moved in. “I didn’t even think we could afford to live here,” he says. At this point he’d paid $500,000 for the building and had put another $500,000 into it. But like many consumed with love and passion, he found a way. He and Walsh crunched some numbers and discovered that if they rented their space while they lived there, they could make their home work for them. The experiment became a lesson in what is private space and what is public.

They still toy with renting the lofted guest bedroom as an atelier for a designer or artist. “But we’re space pigs,” says Nelson. Walsh is starting a clothing line and already has plans for sample sales and fashion shows. Nelson has started making short films, so naturally movie screenings on his hi-def, surround-sound screen are in the works. They hope all of this will help them keep their beloved Marvimon.

Back at Secret Restaurant, I find a glass door that leads into a bedroom and try the knob. It’s locked, so I peek inside and am disappointed: There’s not an errant undergarment or sock in sight. It’s spotless, suspiciously like a movie set.?

Reach the writer at limmediato@laweekly.com

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