The Lennon clan, famous for the sisters who were featured on "The Lawrence Welk Show" from 1955 to 1967, remains only in part; the vocal quartet is now the centerpiece of a Welk revue in the middle-American Valhalla of Branson, Mo. But they formerly occupied the large Victorian house down the block at 944 Harding Ave. Though Arnoldi is from the Venice that harks back to the Doors, the skateboarding Z-Boys and the artists who began mingling in the '60s, he's proud of his foresight in latching onto a defunct potato chip plant, now his studio and home, in the early days.
In fact, Gehry's longest-lived friendships are with a coterie of '60s- and '70s-era Venice painters and sculptors. "They were my community. Architects rejected me. The artists embraced what I was doing — it was a no-brainer."
He found himself joining in real-estate deals in which he'd be part of the package as architect for the buyer. He and Arnoldi partnered early on, with artist Laddie John Dill, in building Dennis Hopper's Venice fortress on Indiana Avenue. Gehry and Arnoldi also renovated their own building on Brooks Avenue, near the boardwalk, where Arnoldi had his studio and Gehry kept office space.
Just steps away from those two projects, Gehry designed quarters for Jay Chiat's ad agency; it was later supplanted by the large structure, which he designed to showcase his friend Oldenburg's massive binoculars, at Main Street near Rose Avenue, also in Venice.
Gehry's move out of now comfortably bourgeois Santa Monica has been increasingly likely. A partial redesign in 1992 softened his house's edges — and edginess — in such a way that Gehry lost some of his earlier fondness for it.
Meanwhile, Arnoldi had been spurring Gehry for some time to abandon Santa Monica, if only to shorten the drive to his small sailboat in Marina del Rey (berthed one mile from his new site), his workouts at the ProCamp training program at Gold's Gym in Venice, and his offices off Jefferson Boulevard next to Playa Vista. (At one stage, Gehry was enmeshed in that controversial development project, with a planned office for his firm amid other buildings his shop would design. As the project scaled down under activists' pressure, Gehry walked away with the developer's assent.)
One day in midsummer 2002, Arnoldi accompanied Hoffman and a buyer who was getting cold feet to have a last look at the Harding Avenue site with Thomas Mallen, whose recently deceased father had bought it while working as one of the top engineers at the Douglas aircraft works. The Mallen offspring didn't exactly get rich off the deal — "$1.6 million split 15 ways, before taxes," says Mallen, who has 14 younger siblings. "Dad was a wheeler-dealer. He got $40,000 for the property in the early '60s."
At 40 times that price, 40 some years later, and as the previous buyer was backing out, Arnoldi was smitten. "I said, 'Frank, I got the property for you. Don't hesitate — you've got to buy this.' I described it to him, and he wanted to look at it the very next day."
"He had to go stand on it," says Hoffman, who serves as a kind of whiskey priest to the Venice arts community, putting them together with the moneyed classes.
"So," says Gehry, "I liked it, and Berta [his Panamanian-born wife of 28 years] was having her hair done somewhere, and I dragged her out of there. She came and looked at it and she said yes, and I bought it that day about 4 o'clock."
Gehry wants it known that any snobby comments made in the press about his near neighbors — one was convicted of running a chop shop for motorcycles; another has a formidable collection of weathered nautical gear and aging vehicles — are not fostered by him. "That's why I picked it, because it's not precious. We looked at sites around San Vicente and north, and from the economic point of view it would be better to go there, but my wife and I don't feel comfortable up there. It's just — we're middle class at heart, you can't get out of it."
Ever prudent, Gehry has preserved the lot's three parcels as distinct entities: "I'm gonna leave that split, so when I leave the Earth the kids can sell off a piece if they want."
Asked to contrast the home with his larger design projects in eye-shot all around him, he says, "There's less accountability — whatever you want to do, you do. The only accountability is to your pocketbook.
"But apart from that, it's a soul-searching thing, trying to decide how you want to live the last few years of your life." Gehry's sidelong gaze, which has an element of raptor in it, lets you know he's not joking. "And that was interesting, really interesting to go there. I probably would never have done that had I not started to build a house. I probably would have just ignored all that. But all of a sudden I was confronted with it. So this design represents my conclusions about how I want to live."
Fred Schruers is a senior editor at Premiere magazine who lives in a bungalow in Venice — Gehry-adjacent — with his wife and son.