For Neff, an era of glamour came first – Los Angeles Times

pickfair mary and douglas

March 18, 2004|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

For Neff, an era of glamour came first

He was the architect to the golden age stars, creating elaborate European-styled homes such as Pickfair. His houses are still on the A-list, sheltering Pitt, Aniston and Keaton.

Innovative as they were, Wallace Neff’s WW II-era low-cost housing designs such as the the Shell House in Pasadena never really caught on in America. No matter. Neff was already famous as the architect of the golden age of movie star mansions, building enormous houses in European period revival styles with vast motor courts, towering foyers, grand staircases and two-story beamed living rooms.

A meticulous planner, Neff selected premium building sites with magnificent views and designed houses with strong horizontal lines and peaked roofs with dramatic overhangs that kept them cool.

After his 1926-34 transformation of Pickfair, a Beverly Hills hunting lodge redone as an English Regency manor for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Neff amassed an A-list of film colony clients. He designed for clown princes (Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Jack Lemmon), Hollywood queens (Joan Bennett, Greta Garbo and Claudette Colbert) and two kings (director King Vidor and safety razor blade tycoon King Gillette). Liza Minnelli spent her early childhood at 10000 Sunset Blvd. in a Holmby Hills Neff originally built for Henry Haldeman, a Los Angeles car dealer.

The Neff pedigree, along with a visual grandeur that it is unobtainable with modern construction techniques, has caused prices on his properties to skyrocket, as house-proud Hollywood stars including Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, Madonna, Barbra Streisand and Diane Keaton spend millions buying Neffs.

Streisand was an early devotee who lived in a Neff designed to look like a ski lodge. So was the late Carroll O’Connor, who lived in one of the two homes Neff built for opera star Amelita Galli-Curci. O’Connor’s wife still occupies the house and “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry’s widow continues to live in the Bel-Air mansion Neff built for Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton.

frederic march home designed by wallace neff.

residence frederic march

Pitt and Aniston purchased the 1934 Normandy that Neff built for Fredric March for $13.5 million and spent two years overseeing a meticulous restoration. Madonna sold her 1920s three-bedroom Neff Mediterranean in Los Feliz (which had neither air conditioning nor pool) to Jenna Elfman for around $4 million after persuading Diane Keaton to part with her Monterey colonial Neff on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills.

“People thought it was a teardown,” Keaton told the Los Angeles Times. “But I redid it. We made it as authentic as we could.” Madonna paid $6.5 million for the property in 2000; three years later, she put it on the market for $10.9 million.

Alas, not every millionaire who buys a Neff cares about its heritage. In 1980, Laker owner Jerry Buss bought Pickfair, later selling it to Meshulam Riklis, the businessman husband of actress Pia Zadora. They tore it down, leaving only the outside gate, with the initial P. Microsoft partner Paul Allen demolished the hilltop ranch Neff designed for cowboy star Fred Thompson, one of the architect’s first commissions.

“As wonderful as these houses are, they were built for a different time,” Loren Judd, a Realtor at the Westside Estate Agency observes sadly. “Kitchens were small working rooms, not the heart of the house. If you wanted something to eat, you’d call the cook to prepare it. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of the great estates because people didn’t have the vision to respect the architecture.”

Actors, musicians and entertainment moguls accustomed to having their own way have become the caretakers of the Neff name, drawn to the Old World charm and Old Hollywood glamour of his houses, many of which were designed with screening rooms for the film industry elite. Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine lives in Joan Bennett’s old home, built in 1938 for $100,000. Rupert Murdoch resides in “Misty Mountain,” a groundbreaking house Neff designed on a curve that was once occupied by Katharine Hepburn. Producers Jon Peters and Stacey Sher live in Neffs, as does CAA agent Bryan Lourd, who occupies a sophisticated Bel-Air structure designed in the architect’s later years.

“I think they’re very smart,” Wallace Neff Jr. says of the homeowners who carry the torch of the Neff tradition. “Most houses are sort of ugly. My father had a flair for beauty and proportion.”

via For Neff, an era of glamour came first – Los Angeles Times.

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  1. April 13, 2013

    I adore these these homes. I’d love to have a tour of the interiors. The idea of the working kitchen as a smaller, out-of-the- way room will probably never come around again. We live in a much more casual and practical time. The beauty of these homes is that they appear unpretentious but have all the accoutrements of a by-gone glamour era. I’m glad that some have the good sense to preserve them.

    • April 13, 2013

      The Los Angeles Conservancy has been doing great work on public buildings… But private residences are much harder to protect–oh I could send you pictures of the weirdest things…
      I hear what you’re saying about the kitchen. Now that mine’s remodeled I sit on my built in bench and type on top of the counter and every week (even when they’re not in the living room) I have a bouquet of flowers. The Kid says I should set up a hammock in there 😉

  2. George Kaplan
    April 13, 2013

    Too fascinatin’. Mr Neff was truly a kind of genius; the following passage really jumped out at me :”(A)long with a visual grandeur unobtainable with modern construction techniques”, perhaps I’m wrong but that suggests the older techniques might sometimes have been (much) better!
    I understand that people want to put their own imprint on their homes but those who didn’t respect the architecture were so philistinistic, why buy the places at all? (well, apart for reasons of location, money, hubris etc, of course 😉 ) As for those who bought and destroyed Neff “properties” – fer shame, woodentops, fer shame.
    I’m grateful to read that their are those with both money *and* sense, who have bought Neff homes and may have added their own aspects without damaging the integrity! Fabulous.
    They don’t make them like that anymore. Hello, glamour.

    • April 13, 2013

      I can’t go into the people who tear down significantly architectural homes or I go berserk – but I will tell you Neff was also an innovator. He lived in a low coast bubble house in Pasadena which he designed and intended as a construction method for impoverished communities. The bubble was a tremendous industrial balloon that was covered in cement – the cement hardened the balloon was removed. Quick and inexpensive. Here’s a link to his house in Pasadena:

  3. George Kaplan
    April 13, 2013

    Oh, I like the bubble house concept, very inventive. Thanks for sharing that and the link; the Shell house is delightful.
    I would want to push your Berserk Button regarding architectural wreckers! I’m going a trifle berserk at the moment because altho’ I used my email earlier I’ve been trying to check in only to be told my password is incorrect and the security check has failed. What the…?!? George is getting very ANNOYED!! 😉

    • April 13, 2013

      Mr. George, I don’t know how things work over there on the Atlantic ocean — but can you set up a new account on Google’s Gmail? It works quite nicely here on the Pacific.

  4. George Kaplan
    April 13, 2013

    Thank you for the suggestion, Ms Vickie, Mr George may just do that!

  5. April 13, 2013

    Dearest V
    He certainly had a flair for creating these fantastical confections out of the basic European ingredients.
    I recognise all the nods that Mr Neff is making across The Pond, but to my eyes these houses are unmistakably American… and all the better for it.
    What a shame that egos with insufficient imagination to carve out space for a kitchen in these caverns have been left as their guardians.
    Here’s hoping that no more get razed to the ground.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • April 13, 2013

      The one that made me go screeching through the house was that twit from Microsoft who tore down not only an historically and architecturally significant home – he went on to BULLDOZE the hill, from when the name of the property had come… The Enchanted Hill is now a monument to bad taste. Steady, steady, okay, I think I’d better make myself a cup of tea…

  6. April 14, 2013

    I know I’m missing the point of your post, but that photo of the man & woman in the boat made me laugh. There is NO WAY I could ever go out on the water in a tippy boat while wearing a trim skirt-suit and hat. That smart, dry look would last about 10 minutes.

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