Sonoma couple revamps home featured in 'American Graffiti'
In the movie classic American Graffiti, cool dude John Milner played by Paul Le Mat finally sheds the annoying kid Carol (McKenzie Phillips), who has been riding shotgun in his hot rod all evening, crimping his style.
She pops out of the iconic yellow ’32 Ford coupe and heads up the walkway to her house, a classic bungalow, then disappears behind the front door.
When the film not long ago played at Sonoma’s old Sebastiani Theatre, the crowd cheered when that house appeared on the screen. To longtime Sonomans it’s a familiar address, a fixture on Second Street East since 1909.
When Cherie and Keith Hughes bought what some people call “The American Graffiti House,” they didn’t know of its movie past. And if you watched the movie now you can still recognize it. It doesn’t appear to have changed much since then-fledgling director George Lucas filmed the movie 45 years old.
But not unlike a house on a film studio back lot, that classic Craftsman face is a facade. Behind the door — the same front door McKenzie Phillips entered in the movie — is an elegantly modern home with open floor plan designed for entertaining.
Pulling it off was no easy feat. The house sits within the historic overlay district, where strict guidelines apply to protect the character of the old neighborhood.
That didn’t discourage the Hughes’ from taking on the challenge not only of navigating Sonoma’s strict design review process, but of restoring a home that structurally needed a lot of work.
For one thing, it didn’t have a real foundation. And once some of the walls were open it became clear that earlier remodels had left some timbers in precarious shape.
The Hughes in 2000 bought a property with vineyards in the foothills above Glen Ellen. They dove happily into the life of grapegrowers and winemakers, learning from others and establishing Hughes Family Vineyards. But in recent years they yearned to move into town.
“We were very, very happy to find this home. We lived up in Bennett Valley but we were really involved with Sonoma. We were constantly driving up and down the hill. And when we had the opportunity to buy this house, because of the location, we were thrilled to do so,” said Cherie, a retired child psychologist who now is co-president of the board of directors of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.
The house sits on Second Street East, which is, like D Street in Petaluma and McDonald Avenue in Santa Rosa, Sonoma’s grand old residential street, lined with charming vintage homes and only a short walk to the Sonoma Plaza.
The property had another great selling point. It sits on half an acre, with a barn in back and room for a pool and guest house in a converted chicken coop.
The couple assembled a crack team of architects and designers and engineers to restore what was salvageable from the original house — including its welcoming face with big porch and Craftsman pillars — while also modernizing it for the comforts of 21st century living.
The house is a featured attraction on the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art’s Great Places, Great Spaces program. Designed as a fundraiser for the museum, the program is what organizers describe as a “series of journeys to local destinations filled with art, architecture, design and epicurean excellence.”