Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April Enchantment - L.A. Style

In "Enchanted April," a film based on a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, four lonely English ladies vacation in a seaside Italian villa on impulse, and it changes their lives.
All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. At the top was a wrought-iron door.....
Who wouldn't like to travel, in springtime, to an elegant seaside villa on the Mediterranean, drink in the beautiful colors and breathe the scented blossoms of the countryside? Relax and live graciously with the arts and antiquities of an ancient culture?

During the early years of the 20th century, many Americans discovered the joys of the Mediterranean - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sara and Gerald Murphy began the tradition of summering in the South of France, and later in the century, author Gore Vidal owned a villa on the shore of Amalfi. Americans who traveled there and enjoyed it came back to the U.S. and tried to recreate the gracious living they found there. California's Mediterranean climate inspired travelers nostalgic for Europe to recreate their experiences here.

Looming over Pacific Coast Highway, on the shore between Topanga Canyon Boulevard and the terminus of Sunset Boulevard, is a huge golden stone mansion with a red Spanish tile roof. Because beneath it is a driveway and a sign marking the Getty Villa museum, most people think the mansion is part of the Getty property - and so did I, for many years, until I learned otherwise.

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Even Googlemaps designates it as the Getty Villa - but it's not (silly Google - pan north a few blocks to see the real Getty Villa - which dwarfs this house.)

The large stone mansion is a private home, built in 1926 by industrial magnate Leon Kauffman, who owned a company that dealt in wool. The neighborhood, known as Castellemmare, is along the coast of the Pacific Ocean west of Sunset Boulevard, and was developed beginning in1925 by the Frank Meline Company. The developer wanted it to evoke an Italian seaside village, and required that all homes be constructed in the Italian Renaissance style. Mr. Kauffman and his wife Clemence bought six home-plots and decided to build one giant mansion, and named it the Villa de Leon.


The 12,000 square foot house was designed by architect Kenneth MacDonald, designer of the Arcade building in downtown Los Angeles, and the amazing Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine in Burbank. The house includes a marble-faced entry hall with an elegant circular stairway, frescoed ceilings, a ballroom panelled with exotic woods, and even a pipe organ. When it was built, the grounds featured formal gardens with topiary, a Chinese garden, and a funicular that descended from the hill-top house to the beach below.

In addition to the elegant decor, the house also featured modern conveniences, including one of the first central vacuum systems, an elevator, and a seven-car garage beneath the house, with an in-garage car wash system.

1939 Photo of the Villa de Leon from the Los Angeles Public Library

The house took five years to complete. The Kauffmans lived in the house for five years before Clemence died, and Leon lived only another two years. Their grown son chose not to live in the house, which was overseen by caretakers until 1952, when the estate was settled. In the '70s it was owned by a group of investors. It went on the market in 2005, and it's not clear who owns it now. As recently as April of 2009, it has been used as a special event venue.

If you are driving north on Pacific Coast Highway out of Santa Monica, you will come to Porto Marina Way, where a footbridge arches over the highway to the beach just before the elegant building that used to be Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe. If you take a right turn at Porto Marina, you will wind up the steep hillside, climbing horizontally with switchbacks up the face of the bluff. You thread through narrow streets, then the road curves out with a pristine view of the sea, and you come to the gates of the Villa de Leon.

Golden sandstone pillars topped with classical statuary - or, at least, 1926's version of classic statuary - flank ornate wrought iron gates festooned with bougainvillea. Beyond, the columned facade of the mansion looks to the sea. A tiered patio climbs descends the slope.

Beneath the patio, the once-fabled gardens have crumbled, victims of earlier landslides. Beyond the retaining wall, and behind the chain link fences, you can see that renovation work is taking place. The house appears to be empty, though gardeners regularly care for the grounds.

Silhouetted against the misty Santa Monica Mountains of Topanga Canyon, and the late 1960's housing development of Parker Mesa, this elegant statue is the closest you're going to get to Maxfield Parrish paintings in Southern California today.

I've been driving back and forth beneath this pile of sandstone for over twelve years, and this is the first time I ever thought of taking that turn, winding up the narrow streets, and seeing what it really was. I'm starting to do that more and more, these days. And everytime I take that turn-off, follow that curious impulse, question the hidden things behind familiar sights, I find something strange and wonderful. Like a replica Italian villa - who would have thought it? Now that I know it's there, maybe I'll learn something else about it.

Los Angeles seems particularly rich in fascinating stories, which is why I love it. But other places have hidden secrets, too. Explore those near you, wherever you are. You never know what you might find.

4 comments:

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

Los Angeles is rich in stories all right, and I love how you share them.

I'm a little bit, no, a lot a bit, afraid of those cliffhanger houses on PCH.

Lovely photos and post.

mo.stoneskin said...

Gorgeous, fascinating and to my untrained eye it looks great. Of course my wife, an art historian and with a pair of well-trained eyes might have some more critical things to say, but I think the arch. is great!

Femin Susan said...

you blog is a lovely one. very well maintained too.
Cheers!

phd in yogurtry said...

Thanks for continually sharing so many fascinating stories and pics of L.A. (It's weird to read this, a couple weeks ago friends were telling us about the Getty Villa (the real one, apparently).