Breaking Down Walls

When Ilene Bernik and her late husband, Gale, set out to design their Oxnard home, the goal was to avoid closed spaces. The result—a sanctuary by the sea—evokes the fluidity of water and the empty calm of infinity.

By Mark Storer—Photos by Gaszton Gal


f there are ghosts in Ilene Bernik’s life, she is comfortable with them. They seem comfortable with her as well. It would be impossible to be uncomfortable in the home she and her late husband, Gale, built in Oxnard near Channel Islands Harbor.

Married just five years before Gale’s death, the couple traveled widely and spent time in New York, where Gale loved to be, but home was the house they built together overlooking the canals near Hemlock Street that lead to the harbor.

The three-story home is less building than framing. “We wanted to build a house that had as few walls in it and as few closed spaces as we could and still have it stand up,” said Bernik.

In essence, that’s what they built, too. The home is contoured and flowing with a constant feeling of gentle motion from the moment one enters. Corners have been eliminated as walls flow in rounded swirls all heading toward the south wall, which is all windows looking out to the canals leading to the harbor. Even the master bedroom on the second floor is framed in a glass wall that looks out to the south. The only closed in spaces are the elevator and the stairwell.

On the main level, wall spaces are punctuated and highlighted by works of art including a series of Argentine paintings Ilene and her husband bought while traveling there, as well as a series of porcelain sculptures and furniture that Bernik designed herself.

The setting is, as Bernik describes it, “completely peaceful.” Indeed, she credits the house with her own healing processes—and not just from the grief of losing her husband.

“It started with a relative of mine who was terminal,” Bernik said, her eyes welling with tears. “He said he felt peaceful here. He felt like everything was going to be O.K. He would just sit and watch the light change and come across the water through the windows,” she said. “It relaxed him.”

Her sister died at age 28 and Bernik learned early that death was a part of life. She had her own diagnosis to contend with as well. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer before my husband died,” she said. Bernik’s struggle with the disease led her to City of Hope Hospital in Duarte and she has been in remission for some time now.

“I had a lot of complications but I never had the sense that I wasn’t coming home,” she said. “This house has been an anchor in all of that storm.”

Now sharing the home with her mother, who lives on the third floor, Bernik’s memories are a mix of deep loss and reverence for what she has. “We built the house to be elevating spiritually, though not necessarily religiously,” she said. “I have a historic sense of my own Jewishness and I definitely believe there is something greater than me out there. There has to be.”

Others recognize the unique and tranquil qualities of Bernik’s home as well. Ventura’s Rubicon Theater Company, in a nod to its patrons, holds gatherings there, bringing directors, actors, and theater personnel together to talk about performances and discuss what the theater is doing. “They come here and I’ll serve some refreshments and such, and we just have a nice evening,” she said. The setting is, of course, glorious.

One of her physicians, Dr. Joy Fridey, now at Children’s Hospital, approached Bernik about her unique home. “They wanted to use it to shoot a video for the blood donor program,” she explained. “I’m painfully camera shy and I wasn’t sure.” But Bernik summoned her courage and, “for the greater good,” allowed a crew to film her and her dog, Baylor, a purebred bearded collie who has become her best friend, for the video.

“We use that video, along with the other ones we have developed, as a recruitment tool,” said Dr. Fridey via email. “It does a very good job of showing the need for blood and platelet donation from the patient’s perspective as well as the donor’s.”

The ghosts don’t seem to bother Bernik, or even her dog, Baylor. In fact, it may well be that she enjoys sharing the space with them as much as they enjoy being there.


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