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Rolling Hills mansion has five stories underground, other surprises

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Behind the gates of bucolic Rolling Hills, where multimillion-dollar homes stretch out on roomy spreads, sits a house that is unusual even by mansion standards.

In keeping with rules that homes in the equestrian enclave be single-story, the early California Spanish-inspired residence is one level — at least, above ground. Unseen are five subterranean stories formed when the owner excavated down to bedrock, uncovering fossil fragments of whales and dolphins along the way.

The nearly 50,000-square-foot behemoth is rivaled by the best Westside compounds in size if not perhaps in imagination. Now, the 8-acre ranch estate has come on the market at $53 million.

Called Hacienda de la Paz, it's the brainchild of homeowner John Z. Blazevich, chief executive of shrimp importer Viva Food Group. Created over 17 years, the surprise-filled home atop the Palos Verdes Peninsula combines the owner's love of history, architecture and art.

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An elaborate trompe l'oeil fools the eye. There are secret passageways and a labyrinthine hamman, or Moroccan-style Turkish bath. Oh, and an underground tennis court.

Blazevich approached the lengthy construction process as a gigantic puzzle, researching and problem-solving along the way.

"I like to get to the bottom of why things are the way they are," he said with a shrug.

Overseeing the project was Rafael Manzano Martos, a curator for King Juan Carlos of Spain. Noted for his commercial and residential work in Spain and the Middle East, this is the only home he has designed in the Americas.

"While 'one of kind' may be a tired and overused real estate cliche," said listing agent Marcie Hartley of Hilton & Hyland/Christie's International Real Estate, "in this case it is simply the absolute truth."

Attention to detail is evident everywhere. The hacienda's driveway, lined with 70-year-old carob trees, opens to a limestone motor court hand-set by artisans from Portugal. On one side are the guesthouse and a grove of olive trees, which are harvested for oil making. Straight ahead are "the stables" — an apartment and garage wing — and to the other side are the main living quarters.

The plaster-covered adobe walls are 2 to 3 feet thick. The roof tiles, like those of the California missions, have the authentic taper of having been molded on a man's thigh.

Whether any home on the Peninsula can command $53 million remains to be seen. Nothing else on the market approaches that price, said broker Raju Chhabria of Shorewood Realtors, who started selling real estate in the 1980s and has carved out a niche selling top-tier properties.

The highest-priced sale he has seen on "the hill," as locals call the area, was for $12.9 million.

But Chhabria said the market is ripe for record breaking. Wealthy Chinese buyers, in particular, are interested in the area, as are entertainment industry executives who have become more familiar with the community from vacationing at nearby Terranea Resort.

"Palos Verdes is way below market compared to Beverly Hills and Newport Beach," Chhabria said. "We have big views, big lots."

Holding true to history, Blazevich took his exterior design cues from the first Spaniards in California. "It looks like my grandfather built it."

There seems to be something else to discover around each corner: a reflecting pool, a boccie court, a swimming pool with 180-degree views of the Los Angeles basin and the Santa Monica Bay coastline.

The guest house, which served as the owner's home for two years, was proving grounds while he pursued the arduous process of getting building approvals. The floors, as in the main house, are made mostly from pine trees felled 300 years ago along rivers in southern Georgia. Divers salvaged the trunks, which were then milled on the property. Workers cut through a musket ball in one of the boards.

Beyond the sturdy wooden entry door to the main house studded with clavos — decorative nails — treasures slowly unfold.

In the living room, one of two interlocking wood ceilings built in Spain is fitted together rather than nailed.

Moroccan "carpets," sections of hand-cut tiles in deep colors, adorn the floors in many of the 25 bathrooms.

Among them is a women's powder room with double sinks and two stalls. A confessional window between the two can be opened, he said, "to keep the conversation going."

An artist spent 10 years in residence doing gold-leaf work, painting the religious figures in the chapel and adorning the English library with realistic-looking shelves that conceal a powder room.

Patios spill off the nine bedrooms. Blazevich's intent: "To give you a place to quiet your mind."

Blazevich selected the Rolling Hills site because of its character.

"Of the two most dramatic spots on the California coast, the Monterey Peninsula and here, this is grander," Blazevich said. The Palos Verdes Peninsula "has life," he added, and unlike the Westside it's not congested.

Assembling the acreage for a sizable estate is easier and cheaper on the Peninsula than on the Westside. Financier Gary Winnick spent $94 million a dozen years ago in a deal involving a parcel trade for his 8.4-acre estate in Bel-Air. This year, the scuttlebutt was that he would consider selling it for $225 million.

Perhaps hardest to come by on the Westside is the area's sense of isolation and privacy. The Peninsula has remained under the radar.

So has much of Hacienda de la Paz, which is accessible by stairs or two elevators. Below grade is a wine cellar, stocked with some of Blazevich's family label: Sacred Grounds.

The 10,000-square-foot hamman is large enough to hold nearly five typical new U.S. homes, which average nearly 2,200 square feet, U.S. census figures show.

The bath, graced with custom marble floors and sandstone carvings, is laid out to acclimate the bather to the experience: One starts in the meeting and refreshment rooms, and moves on to tubs, a steam room, a massage shower in which water drops 14 feet from the ceiling above and an indoor swimming pool lined with tile matched to the blue of the Adriatic Sea.

But the showpiece of the subterranean levels is the five-story indoor tennis court.

The thing is so big, it has doubled as a ballroom for New Year's Eve parties and philanthropic fundraisers complete with a 30-piece orchestra and as many as 350 guests. An overhead balcony, floor-to-ceiling murals and broad columns create a neoclassical Spanish ambience.

Designed to U.S. Open specifications, the court has been used by notables such as Pete Sampras. Blazevich has an outdoor court too, but the city prohibits night lighting.

Having poured millions of dollars into the home, scoured the Mediterranean and the U.S. for materials and workmen and spent countless hours on the project, Blazevich is at peace with the result. The son he raised there is practically out of the house, so for the most part it is just Blazevich and his fiancee in residence.

The businessman, who was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and would not give his age, is selling because he has decided to move to Croatia, where he plans to enter the family wine-making business.

"I'm proud," he said, "of what I was able to build."

lauren.beale@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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