Mid-Century Marvelous | Guest Post by Steven Price

by Biglin Architectural Group on March 30, 2012

The Hershberger Residence | Trousdale Estates Beverly HillsSurprising Architectural Treasure in Trousdale Estates

Contributed by: Steven Price, Author of Over the Top, the architectural history of Trousdale Estates. Anticipated release: Spring 2013

Everyone has an opinion about Trousdale Estates.  Glamorous.  Vulgar.  Ultimate L.A. dream.  Nouveau riche nightmare.  It’s always been that way.

That said, a lot of people are surprised to hear the words “Trousdale” and “architecture” in the same sentence.  From the beginning, it was famous for its celebrity residents and the flamboyant quality of its houses.  What’s not widely understood, however — even to architectural scholars — is that Trousdale Estates comprises Los Angeles’ largest concentration of residential work by most of its A-List architects of the 1950’s and 60’s. From the great classicists at the twilight of their careers such as Wallace Neff, James Dolena and Paul Williams, to up-and-coming pioneers of modernism of the day like Cliff May, A. Quincy Jones, Richard Dorman, Harold Levitt, Lloyd Wright, Buff, Straub & Hensman and successive generations have left their mark on the hillside colony.

Former Doheny Ranch | Trousdale Estates Beverly HillsStarting in 1954, Paul Trousdale developed what had once been the ‘backyard’ of the Doheny oil family’s Greystone Mansion — the 410 acre Doheny Ranch — into 535 homesites as his crowning achievement. It was the last major development within the city limits of Beverly Hills.

Fame and glamour have always played an important role in the Trousdale mystique: Its first residents counted among them Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley…even Richard Nixon.  The area continues to be home to the famous: from Jennifer Aniston to Elton John and dozens of others.

Yet for all its supposed celebrity stardust, Trousdale has always housed an equally high concentration of entrepreneurs and tycoons across all industries, and was a haven for construction and home-building magnates: Montgomery Ross Fisher, Isadore Familian and Nathan Shapell (developer of Porter Ranch) who could have chosen to live ANYwhere, but who made their homes in Trousdale.

Part of that was the architecture.  The ability to build anew in the most desirable city in America was a powerful draw: The boldest-faced celebrities and society names in town angled to get the best lots, and competed with each other to hire the most talented architects and in-demand ‘interior decorators’ money could buy.

Groucho Marx Residence | Trousdale Estates Beverly Hills

Large flat pads with views were blank slates ready for dramatic stage sets for living. One of the first, Groucho Marx, commissioned Wallace Neff to build him a sleek modern home that was destined to become an instant Trousdale landmark: a long, blank front to the street broken only for a tall front door and an open carport to showcase the family’s three cars, with an expansive motor court that could accommodate a dozen more

The Rose House | Beverly Hills Trousdale Estates

Nearby, the Rose House was designed by architects Conrad Buff, Dennis Straub, and Don Hensman in 1963 for Helen Rose, the Oscar-winning MGM costume designer, also beloved in Hollywood for her design of Grace Kelly’s famous wedding dress.

In 1999, interior designer Carole Katleman acquired the home and selected the firm of Marmol-Radziner to undertake an updating. It’s a credit to her unfailing eye that this house been cited time and time again as the ultimate Trousdale icon, inspiring designers and artists alike.

The blank façade of the main entry only hints at the patrician pavilion to be found behind.  The view unfolds through transparent glass walls, giving onto the terrazzo-paved pool terrace.

At one point in the mid 60’s, sales were a little slow, as they finished up the grading on the western ridges.  So a new marketing campaign was launched: Ten model homes were planned, there were to be two each by architects Rex Lotery, Edward Fickett, William Stephenson, Richard Dorman, and Quincy Jones. In the end however, only five were built. One of the five, by Jones, undisputed master of relaxed California modernism, later became the home to 5-star general Omar Bradley, and later disco record producer Giorgio Moroder, who recently sold it to film director Harold Becker.  The ownership history of the house illustrates perfectly the roller-coaster of high-and-low culture that is Beverly Hills.

Today, much of the architectural drama lies in the updating of existing homes, handsome remodels (or “Mid-Cent reMods”) outpace all new construction and can be very rewarding, especially when seen in Before-and-After mode.

Before & After

The former Burt Reynolds residence on a cul-de-sac off upper Carla Ridge is a case in point.  To fully appreciate the effect of architectural designer Steve Hermann’s renovation, a look at how the designer found it is juxtaposed versus its dazzling finished result.  Its sexy sheen attracted a buyer no less discerning than fashionista Vera Wang, who reportedly paid close to the $10 million asking price.

After an incredibly glamorous start, Trousdale fell somewhat in decline and disrepute during the 1980s and 1990s. But the dawn of the 21st century found the area roaring back into favor, as critical and popular re-appreciation of the Mid Century era got underway alongside major new estates by Marmol-Radziner, Steven Shortridge and Howard Backen in recent years. In the intervening years, many of the original houses were taken down and replaced, or remodeled beyond recognition.  In the process, many architectural treasures have been lost; this trend of course is not limited to Trousdale but is rampant through-out Beverly Hills and the rest of Los Angeles as well.

Joseph Beber house by Richard DormanIn some cases, what was once salvageable is now sure to be lost. Case in point: the Joseph Beber house by Richard Dorman with its folded plate roof has always been an architectural highlight on lower Loma Vista.  In recent years, however, it’s had a bad run of luck — owners starting construction, then running out of money, one walked away from it. With no kitchen and bathrooms, it couldn’t find a buyer and has continued to degrade.  The home apparently was purchased recently, but restoral is a very unlikely long-shot at this point; its current state is unworthy of pictorial reference.

Such neglect and destruction has raised significant awareness of what’s being lost, however.
On that note, it’s great to be able to report that a Preservation Ordinance was adopted in 2012 by the Beverly Hills City Council.  There will be longer review periods, and a committee to make nominations for landmarking status. There are even Mills Act tax credits to be made available. A list of Master Architects is being compiled to assist the City in determining what properties will qualify.  Still, in some cases, the triumph is bittersweet; so many irreplaceable properties have fallen – and continue to face endangerment.


All this and more is detailed in the forthcoming large-format coffee table book “Over The Top”, the architectural history of Trousdale Estates (authored by yours truly), which is anticipating a Spring 2013 publication date.  Do visit the book’s webpage for a preview, or follow us on Facebook for news about the book and related architectural, historical and Mid-century real-estate news.

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