When Tony Wells and Brittany Stevenson bought the apartment at 20 Westminster Ave. in Venice ten years ago, the place was a heroin den with a slumlord owner who never fixed things. The front was covered with decaying wood shingles, grimy linoleum hid the historic tile work in the foyer and low dropped ceilings made the rooms inside feel dark and claustrophobic. "We completely gutted the place, tore off all the finishes and started over again," Brittany says. "There was a rumor it used to be a bordello, so we went in that direction."
El Bordello Alexandra has a completely different scene now. Over the last decade, the seven-unit apartment has been home to artists, singers, happy kids, partying musicians, gentle hippies, beach bums and guardian spirits. Brittany gratefully refers to the residents of the Bordello as "clients" -- people she and Tony work for. "Four or five of them get together and go to Burning Man every year, they all go to Coachella together too, camping trips, whatever," she says.
The Bordello is like a throwback to an Armistead Maupin-ish Tales of the City house, where tenants energetically tolerate hook-ups, homeless people in the yard and the coming-and-going artisans and musicians of Venice. The tenants are contented too, most stay a while and a few have been there more than ten years.
Even though they don't live at the Bordello, Tony and Brittany understand their clients' intrinsic need for a comfy, cool and communal crash pad. "We've always tried to make a space for the community aspects of life," explains Brittany. "L.A.'s a hard city -- its nice to be able to get together with people and have a home life here."
Tony's experience in construction and Brittany's in producing make them a formidable pair of crafty, type-A creative managers, and they took to the bordello's daunting overhaul with gusto. They began with major structural repairs, then moved into the renovation of the colorful, airy interior corridors and individual units. The murals and gargoyles went up shortly after the slate columns and patina-colored iron work.
But the fun started when Tony found a metal shop outside Rosarito beach in Mexico, on the outskirts on an Indian reservation. "The Indians down there use these little ghoulish statues to ward off evil spirits," he says, "and the guy who sells the statues makes them out of salvaged metal, so we asked if he'd make a gigantic Poseidon for us and a centaur."
Even though Tony and Brittany ran with the Bordello concept in the beginning, the project grew in scope and style with each new vintage chandelier, exotic painting and sinister statue. Ten years later, the whole eclipses each of its fantastical parts and has achieved local landmark status. "We never started with an idea that the building would look like this," Brittney says. "It just happens over time. It comes together naturally."
"The next big thing here on the roof is going to be a statue of Athena -- powerful, huge -- right there in the middle, with her shield," Tony adds while looking at the roof, his arms stretched out wide to give us the scale. Brittany chimes in, "because we need a little more feminine energy." She rolls her eyes and nods to the hard-plated muscular steel of the other statuaries on the roof to make her point.
"Look at this guy," Tony says, motioning towards the ghoulish, bat-winged devil spreading his wings over the Venice Speedway. "He's just massive, right?" But Brittany says, "It's a little too much, all this stuff hanging off the side of the building." These are the gentle disagreements Tony and Brittany mull through. They have slight creative differences, but they always seem to resolve them magically, intuitively and with helpful creative friends and co-conspirators.
Alexandra, the building's namesake, was Brittany's best friend -- they worked together and she passed away before the project was completed. From the mural on the front -- made in Alexandra's likeness -- to the stained glass on the back wall of the building, Alexandra's presence watches over the residents of 20 Westminster. "She protects this place," says Brittany.
Down on the street, some dudes sheepishly approach the front yard and ask to take a few shots of the murals. "This would be awesome for our cover art, man," one says to the other. Tony asks what kind of band they're in. Dark metal, they finally admit. Tony says, "Bro. Artist Brian would be perfect to do your cover art. Here take down his number."
"Artist Brian" is Brian Mylius. Mylius was a street artist when he met Tony -- he was homeless and sold his work on the boardwalk to tourists. "Brian smokes four packs of cigarettes a day and only works at night," says Tony. In addition to the murals at the bordello, Mylius also does similar finishing work for Tony & Brittany's other apartment properties.
Tourists gawk, take cell phone photos, ask to come in, ask if the apartment is a haunted house, or a gimmicky hotel. In response, tenants and owners are all patient, and casually proud. "No, its just our apartment," they reply and go on chatting about each others' recent vacations, new babies, artwork, etc.
"People think this is Tim Burton's house because of the T&B on the front gate and there are rumors that a cult lives here, that we're satanic, people say lots of things about it," says Brittany. Tony adds, "I think when people meet me they think I'm going to be wearing a cape and a top hat."
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When two proselytizing Mormons come riding up with their backpacks, helmets and all, the residents get a little giddy. Tony asks them if they want a tour of the place, they agree and forty-five minutes later Tony returns to the stoop with the glazed-over young men -- still clutching their bike helmets. "Well the intervention worked...they're going to leave Mormonism and come party with us."
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