A unique housing solution in the tough L.A. market: Make her gym her home

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Bonnie McCarthy
·9 min read
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Kendra Smith gets ready to demonstrate an array of workouts during a visit to her home and studio. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The 6-foot-tall young woman who opened the door to the unmarked training studio on a bustling street in Highland Park had the graceful, lithe physique more readily associated with a ballet dancer than a Hollywood stuntwoman and kickboxing badass with the World Wrestling Entertainment on her resume.

She gets that reaction a lot.

But Kendra Smith is a fighter — she would say “warrior” — who a couple of years ago found herself facing a situation known too well to many Angelenos: Eviction. The loss of a workplace. And in one of the most bruising housing markets in the country. But like any good fighter, she figured out a way to play to her strengths and come out on top with an unconventional solution: moving into a commercial storefront a few steps from a fitness studio where she trains clients.

The first floor is the workplace: Kendra Smith's fitness studio, where she trains clients. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Smith said she moved to Los Angeles 16 years ago to pursue acting and the Hollywood dream after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. But things did not go according to plan. “I had that kind of dark L.A. start," she said. "I was living in my car for a while.”

Around the same time, back in her home state of Colorado, Smith’s father had a chance encounter with a Hollywood stuntman named “Buck” at the local Chili's. “He had worked in Hollywood for a thousand years,” said Smith, “and they got to chatting.” A few weeks later, her phone rang.

Serendipity, and dad, had found a different way for Smith to break into the famously difficult industry.

Inside the home and studio of Kendra Smith.
Inside the home and studio of Kendra Smith. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“This guy called and said, 'Hey, I need you to meet me at the gym tomorrow morning,' ” recalled Smith, who said Buck, a.k.a. Steve Buckingham, had called his friend Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, a seven-time world champion kickboxer and martial arts legend, to help introduce a Los Angeles newcomer to a new sport, a new community and possibly a new direction — as a stuntwoman. “I was in this place where I was just desperate, and someone was reaching out to me, so I went.”

“It was like a dirty old fight gym out of the movies,” said Smith, “with all these guys training for their next battle. I was not an athlete. I was not working out.” But she was a natural.

Kendra Smith
A most unusual front door, onto a commercial area. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

She was told to hop in the ring. where Cunningham wrapped her hands and put on the gloves. “I had never thrown a punch, nothing like it, but he treated me like the other guys, the fighters, and when I threw the first punch and that first kick, everything changed,” Smith said.

It was love at first jab.

Her dad wasn’t surprised. "She’s always been adventuresome," said John Smith on a recent phone call from Colorado."We’re originally from the Midwest, and the way we see it, anything can happen in Los Angeles.”

Smith said her fitness journey began with the desire to be able to punch stronger and build the endurance to last 10 rounds; she earned personal training certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine, CrossFit and TRX. “Kickboxing transformed and saved my life,” said Smith, who also found renewed confidence, empowerment and a sense of purpose.

Kendra Smith
Keeping watch over it all: Kendra Smith's furry BFF, Faye. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“I knew this wasn’t exclusive to me,” said Smith. “Other people would feel this too.” In addition to her stunt work and a brief career in the WWE, Smith began teaching and training others.

In January 2018, upon returning home to her Silver Lake apartment after a Christmas break in Thailand spent learning Muay Thai, the combat sport known for its combined usage of fists, elbows, knees and shins, Smith found a notice on her front door. The building had been sold; she had 60 days to get out.

Kendra Smith
Among the personal items: A black-and-white photo of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

For Smith, losing the apartment also meant losing her job: She used the outdoor areas around the home as a gym and personal training spot. After two months of searching, however, she still hadn’t found a place to call home, and moved in temporarily with a friend.

Working it out

“We all know the housing market is unbelievable here,” said Smith, who used multiple rental apps to search for a place in the midst of L.A.’s well-documented housing shortage. “It was a very painful, very tough process.”

Kendra Smith
A closer look at some of the items that decorate the home and studio of Kendra Smith. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

According to the Los Angeles Metro report for January published by Apartment List, a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles had a monthly median rent of $1,760 vs. the national average of $1,193.

Finally, Smith struck gold on Craigslist, snapping up a 1,640-square-foot commercial live/work storefront listing on the outskirts of her search area.

“Living in a storefront wouldn’t be everyone’s choice, but for me it was,” Smith said.

Brian Carberry, Atlanta-based managing editor at Apartment Guide and Rent.com said Smith's move is part of a trend among millennials.

“If they can find a way to mix affordability with location, they’re going to get creative, looking at live-work places, container homes, tiny homes, and even co-living spaces are becoming more attractive options for the new generation of renters,” Carberry said.

Kendra Smith
It's an unusual solution to a personal housing crisis, but it works for Kendra Smith. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

It took a year for Smith to transform the industrial, loft-style space with 14-foot ceilings and concrete floors into the gym and living space she imagined.

“For a long time I just had pictures stuck to the walls. It was ridiculous, but I stuck to the vision,” she said.

Forging ahead

The gym area that now houses Forge, Smith’s personal training studio, faces the street through large, frosted panes of glass that give the space a bright, airy aesthetic. “Normally, a gym is clunky metal, lots of black, and I didn’t want that feeling," she said. “I’ve been in all those gyms, and I wanted it to have a different feel.”

Kendra Smith
Kendra Smith decorated her studio with items that tell a story about her travels and personal journey. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Instead, crisp white walls, natural wood, polished concrete floors, plants and vintage accessories create a minimalist, Scandinavian-inspired vibe that Smith said is 100% her style.

“Everything has a reason, a story, a purpose,” said Smith. The horseshoe that sits on a shelf is a souvenir she picked up in the Australian outback while driving the "war rig," a tricked-out 18-wheeler, during pre-production filming of "Mad Max: Fury Road." She found an antique boxing ring bell on eBay, 1920s leather medicine balls from the Czech Republic (a nod to her family’s heritage), and vintage metal gym lockers from the Rose Bowl Flea Market. “All items hold power, history, and they add to that good feeling when you walk in the door,” Smith said.

Kendra Smith
Passersby probably have no idea that the space is more than a fitness training center. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The Swedish ladder, or stall bar, was custom-ordered from Maine, the 8-foot-long kickboxing bag in “yummy brown” caramel leather shipped from New Zealand, and Smith designed and installed a climbing wall made with natural wood holds. Everything down to the customized neutral color of the TRX strap and the rustic tone of the battle ropes was considered.

Los Angeles poet and astrologer, Heidi Rose Robbins has been a kickboxing client of Smith’s for nine years and finds the new digs both soothing and inspiring. “The minute you walk into the space there is light, there is space and there is beauty,” said Robbins. “Kendra is always striving for perfection in her work and I think she took that same eye and applied it to her aesthetic. It’s got the character of vintage and old, which I love, mixed with an urban spare feel that just captures the essence of her.”

Robbins believes the studio also lends new energy to the neighborhood. “It’s exciting because it’s an up-and-coming area,” she said of the Highland Park main drag,. “And for me it’s very accessible.”

Sanctuary style

Behind the sliding barn door separating the work/living space, Smith’s personal style continues. “With the intensity of what I do, and the work I do, I have to have a place to just rest,” said Smith, who gravitated to natural fibers, unfinished or reclaimed wood, calming colors and meaningful found objects.

Kendra Smith
The Swedish ladder was a true find, Smith said. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Greenery, cut flowers and houseplants are generously scattered throughout the space, and a bookshelf in the living room holds family photos, inspirational Magic Hour candles and a Wonder Woman figurine from her dad.

Crafts and textiles from Colorado to Guatemala, where Smith teaches kickboxing and self-defense to indigenous girls and women, provide color.

Kendra Smith
The view from the second-floor loft and living area. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s not only to honor who I am and where I came from,” said Smith. “It’s also a reminder that there is a huge world outside of L.A. that we should explore and connect with whenever possible.”

More trips are planned in the year ahead. “[Travel] is a huge factor in designing a space that allows for real, deep transformation, connection, expanding minds, strengthening hearts, igniting spirits," she said. "It’s why there is a ‘spiritual warrior’ aspect to the space that is so much bigger to me than just fitness, exercise, aesthetics.”

More traveling is ahead for Smith, when her work schedule allows. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

A simple built-in kitchen is tucked into a corner of the open floor plan, and a dining table acts as both kitchen island and serving area for her mostly paleo meals. Upstairs, a nook has been claimed as a meditative retreat, area rugs warm the spaces, and skylights flood the rooms with natural light.

Her favorite part? “I really took the risk to expand massively,” she said. “The place I had before was the backside of a duplex, and this is all upfront like, 'Here I am. This is who I am.'”

Kendra Smith relaxing after work -- which is just downstairs. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)