Tear Down and Build Out in Beverly Hills

Why can't an industry crazy for all kinds of causes save its famous homes? [This article first appeared in V Life's December '05 issue.]

Roxbury Drive was once the quaint lane where Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart and Rosemary Clooney lived side by side. It was here that Nick Clooney (Rosemary’s brother and George’s father) recalls, “Singer Nat Cole and his wife, Maria, had dinner there during one of my visits, as did actor Edward G. Robinson and his wife, Grace. I once sat on the floor leaning against the back of a chair where Bing Crosby was sitting as he sang ‘White Christmas’ for an audience of seven.”

Now, Roxbury is more likely to be the place where construction crews and bulldozers are razing structures to make way for new palaces. Gone is the Clooney home, the Stewart estate and much of Ball’s house. As land values escalate, so do the chances that some of the most famous residences throughout L.A.’s west side will meet the wrecking ball. Few estates — from the Playboy Mansion to Owlwood, where Marilyn Monroe once lived — are designated as landmarks. Ironically, even though some of the biggest boosters of historic preservation are industry insiders and many of them live in homes with Hollywood legacies, few permanently protect their homes from demolition.

“We don’t seem to care about the aesthetic values or history. Those places are important to our heritage,” says ICM co-president and vice chairman Ed Limato, who sits on the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which advocates for the preservation of historic structures. “Yet, only recently have we sought to protect them. In Beverly Hills they are going quick, and in their place, (people) are putting up monstrosities.”

Limato, who lives in a John Woolf-designed Regency residence that was home to Dick Powell and Joan Blondell (and later George Raft and Betty Grable), counts ardent preservationist Diane Keaton as a fellow conservancy board member. She has restored several historic properties, including a Wallace Neff owned by Madonna and a Lloyd Wright-designed home once owned by Ramon Navarro.

“We in the industry love to use these locations for filming, but we refuse to take any responsibility for saving them,” Keaton says. “I think we all realize that it is vital for our city to retain its historic buildings, but there is nobody with any power who is doing anything.”

Resistance comes from homeowners who fear the impact of preservation laws. “Some people see landmark status as devaluing their property because you limit their development rights,” says writer-director Chis Iovenko, another conservancy board member.

Los Angeles, like most American cities, does at least have a preservation ordinance, which makes it more difficult to tear down historic structures. But it’s not used much: Over 30 years, fewer than 900 structures have been declared landmarks. Santa Monica passed a controversial historic-preservation ordinance that declared entire neighborhoods as historic, and then had to beat back opponents — many residing in industry pockets north of Montana Avenue — who tried (and failed) to overturn the law at the polls. But that’s nothing compared to Beverly Hills, which not only doesn’t have a historic-preservation ordinance in place, it also has no demolition ordinance. That means a landowner proposing a construction project that meets all the city’s design guidelines can knock down any existing structures in the blink of an eye.

That’s what happened to the Clooney house. Despite last-minute attempts to save the renowned manse, the owner had the place torn down, even though it was an icon of pop culture. While the new owner doesn’t have an industry background, there are ample examples of industryites simply tearing down what was on their land. Among them is Paul Allen, who razed the Wallace Neff estate atop Angelo Drive, which once was the home of screenwriter Frances Marion and actor Fred Thomson. Perhaps most famous is the fate of Pickfair, which Pia Zadora and husband Meshulam Riklis altered beyond recognition in 1989. The latter incident created a huge outcry among historians and residents — but it didn’t spur Beverly Hills to action.

In surrounding communities like Bel-Air and Brentwood, which fall within Los Angeles city limits, the only historically designated residence with a show-business connection is Greenacres, the former Harold Lloyd estate now owned by Ron Burkle. Of course, owners of fabled homes could make sure that they are selling to careful buyers. But as values have skyrocketed in the go-go market of the past few years, houses have transferred from owner to owner very quickly.

“Property owners will sell their homes to anyone with money,” Limato says. “And people with money often just don’t care.”

Beverly Hills is in the process of updating a 1985 survey of residences — an inventory of what should be declared historic — but even this survey does not consider the “cultural” significance of any house.

That is where the problem lies, say preservationists. While the city does have its share of Neff and Paul Williams homes, it is also chock-full of places other communities might deem historic simply because of the lineage of the ownership. Critics have sniped that if Hollywood celebrity is a criteria for landmark designation, then every 10th home in Beverly Hills would have to be preserved. The Clooney home, while no design landmark, housed not only the famous singer but, before her, George and Ira Gershwin, who were said to have composed some of their famous standards in the residence. By contrast, Clooney’s home in Ohio is being turned into a museum and the Gershwins’ New York home is a cultural landmark. With the latter designation, no demolitions or changes to its historic fabric can be made without extensive review.

“A structure has to have some interest, architecturally or aesthetically,” says Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the New York City Landmarks Commission. “But we (also) designate for cultural significance, its importance because of who lived there, and what went on there.”

In L.A., much depends on the owner. Rupert Murdoch restored a six-acre hilltop Spanish estate in Benedict Canyon that was designed by Neff in 1927 for silent-film director Fred Niblo. Steve Tisch redid his 1933 Paul Williams brick colonial, which had been home to numerous industryites, including Bernie Brillstein, Michael Landon and Bill Cosby.

But none of these historically preserved mansions is protected by local or federal landmark designations — not even ones within Los Angeles boundaries. Any could be torn down tomorrow.

“At the end of the day, historic preservation relies on individuals who restore properties, give them new economic life and sell them to like-minded people,” says Beverly Hills principal planner Audrey Arlington. “People who tear down houses tear them down because they want a different house, and often as much house as possible.”


L.A. Hater Alvy Singer Buys Up L.A.

Plus: Will the industry save a wronged Wright? Escalation in the condotel craze

WOODY OR WOULDN’T HE? Alvy Singer is a character memorable for, among other things, hating Los Angeles. Lately, however, he’s been buying and selling a lot of tony Southern California real estate.

The Alvy Singer Trust has recently purchased a $3.2-million, two-bedroom unit in the Sunset-adjacent industry nesting spot Sierra Towers, where neighbors will include Kate Moss, Lindsay Lohan and Matthew Perry. That was the same month that the trust paid about $6.5 million for a six-bedroom, 3,677-square-foot Malibu spread on just more than two acres on the land side of Pacific Coast Highway. What’s more, it has recently listed a celebrity aerie in Beverly Hills’ Trousdale Estates for $6.9 million, a place that Realtor Ron DeSalvo characterizes as “perfect for the child in all of us.”

Of course, Singer was Woody Allen’s character in “Annie Hall,” and whoever the owner is, he has engaged in a common celebrity practice of shielding their investments through cagily named trusts, often for reasons of protection and privacy. Over the years, celebs like Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc have covered their tracks with trust names like Skyline, Wonder, Enterprise and Summer.

Often the trust names hold clues to their owner’s identities. Drew Barrymore established a trust in her dog Flossie’s name. Other handles are more perplexing. Geena Davis stored her assets on the shelves of the Sav-On and Thrifty trusts. Angelina Jolie’s secret trust shows a fondness for barbed wire. Courtney Love’s Happy Feet trust bought her a Los Angeles-area home.

Some do a better job of hiding their names than others. Did Madonna really think naming a current trust after her former home, Castillo del Lago, would keep people from locating her?

So who is behind the Alvy Singer trust? Could it be Allen? Doubtful. Could you even imagine him visiting Beverly Hills, much less living in it?

PRESERVATION POLITICS The industry is being tapped to bail out the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House in Los Feliz, distinctive for its square, textile-pattern concrete blocks and seen in movies ranging from “Blade Runner” to “The House on Haunted Hill.”

After a previous nonprofit squandered a Getty grant of $100,000, and other funds were spent battling a battery of lawsuits, preservation groups, including the Los Angeles Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have established a new foundation to oversee fundraising and reconstruction efforts. Damaged in the Northridge earthquake and further corroded by last winter’s rains, the property was red-tagged in March and declared off-limits to visitors. Estimates for fix-up ranges from $15 million to $20 million, including at least $5 million for stabilization alone.

Diane Keaton, one of the foundation’s board members, says, “The Ennis House is just waiting for a benefactor. We really need someone to swoop down and save it, somebody with a big heart. It’s always a challenge to raise money, but we will go to people like Joel Silver, who has single-handedly saved two serious Frank Lloyd Wright homes. I admire him enormously.”

CONDOTEL CALIFORNIA The latest city to succumb to the “condotel” craze is San Diego, with dueling projects from industry-inspired nightclub restaurants House of Blues and Hard Rock Cafe.

A partnership that includes the House of Blues is building a 186-unit, 21-story condominium hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter. The steel-and-glass Diegan Hotel by Tanner-Hecht Architects will be anchored by a House of Blues club that already opened in an adjacent, former Woolworth’s building. The hotel units will run from $500,000 to $1.2 million, with an “urban beach” interior designed by David Rockwell.

Meanwhile, Hard Rock Hotel Group is erecting a 12-story, 417-room condotel, also in the Gaslamp Quarter but near the convention center and the Padres’ baseball stadium.

The whole concept of condotels — now hot in major cities like Miami, Las Vegas and Chicago — is not particularly new. They first appeared in Florida in the 1980s, but many went bust. But the condo-building craze overall has helped drive the latest building boom, along with the notion that, for lodging companies and developers, “the income stream is higher than for traditional hotels,” says Trevor Horwell, vice president of Hard Rock Hotels.

In contrast to timeshares, those who buy into a condotel really do own a piece of the real estate, and they get a fully furnished hotel room with maid and room service. The owner might live in the unit some, all or none of the year. When vacant, the unit goes into a hotel-room pool to be rented by guests. The owner then shares in the hotel’s revenue flow.

The House of Blues and Hard Rock projects are a twist on the concept in that they bank on buyers attracted to their brands. Not to be outdone, even the once-high-flying eatery Planet Hollywood is in a joint venture with Starwood Hotels and Resorts to redevelop at least part of Las Vegas’ Aladdin property.

Says La Jolla Realtor Boyd Smith, “These condo hotels allow someone to either live like a celebrity or rock star, or to be their landlord.”