It started as a rumor, hardly louder than the rustle of palm fronds from the octet of 90-foot trees that sway above the southern end of one green, quiet block. Frank Gehry, for most people's money the most famous architect in the world, had bought the large vacant lot at the northern end of the block. He was planning to build his dream house there.
Perhaps the very first thought — you could see it in people's dawning reaction, even from those who haven't yet rattled their jewelry at the much-debated Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown — was that the house had every chance of looking as wrong as Shaquille O'Neal in a Miami Heat uniform. But that thought was almost immediately shooed away by a second: They were about to be Gehry-adjacent.
History tells us that Gehry was still a relatively obscure name the last time he moved. That was in 1978, when he bought himself a pink bungalow in his previous neighborhood, at the corner of 22nd Street and Washington Avenue in Santa Monica, and set about a then-shocking redesign that seemed to inflate the original house, with glass skylights framed in slats of wood, a corrugated steel frame and, on the second story, intended to contain his 2-year-old son Alejandro, a now legendary span of chain-link fencing.
"So," says Gehry, "Alejandro climbed over it the first day." His son was unharmed, but thanks to his design, "the neighbors all came out and killed me."
This time Gehry is tiptoeing into town. He accepted an invitation from Sister Ada Geraghty, director of the Women in Recovery center for St. Mark Church, whose newest building overlooks Gehry's property, to speak with some immediate neighbors and show a model of his plan.
The plans and models Gehry showed the gathering at Sister Ada's facility were "not at all monolithic," according to Frank Glenn, an assistant director who lives two lots east of the Gehry site and who typifies the attitude of the many film and television professionals living nearby. "It's a nice little testament to how to underbuild in a spot like this."
Not that veterans of this enclave of southeastern Venice are starstruck, or even aware of the newcomer's potential for impact. Darleen Tripp was a longtime occupant of the house directly east of Gehry's property. She moved not long ago, but she doubts that any newcomer could unify the neighborhood as it once was. "We were all a family," she says of the neighbors. She asks who's moving in. "Frank Gehry?" she repeats. "I'm sorry, I don't know who that is."
Gehry's land sits at the intersection of Harding and Grand View avenues, currently protected by chain link and dominated by a regal pair of thick-trunked palms and a stately pine. Along the block are the homes of a Venice that veers between old school — a retired group including a former sheriff, a house painter, a newspaperman and a British navy vet — and new — a computer graphics whiz, a set designer, university genetics and child development professors.
"I think the neighborhood isn't as hostile this time," says Gehry. "I don't think we're threatening anybody; in fact, when we showed it to them, they said, 'Gee, this is modest.' I said, 'Well, what do you think, I'm some rich guy? If I was a really rich guy I'd be living somewhere else.' "
Gehry the home builder is quick to bemoan his lack of financial resources, even as you find him sitting in the colossal Marina del Rey office complex where about 100 architects beaver away on projects under his banner — or, more precisely, under the scattered hockey jerseys that colorfully adorn the high white walls. He occupies a glassed-in office that's probably not much larger than the one his father, Irwin Goldberg, who named him Ephraim at his birth in 1929, had in the Canadian furniture factory he owned.
Arrayed in a sweeping arc from his office vantage point are Gehry's current huge projects — a 70-story high-rise in downtown Manhattan, a new arena and mall in Brooklyn, a billowing glass enclosure that will be an art museum in Lisbon. They are soon to be joined by his design for a museum at the former World Trade Center site. But not 10 feet away, and framed in a large window, is Gehry's current obsession — his house, as represented by a scale model on a plywood platform the size of a pool table.
"We'd like to be in within two years," says Gehry, who's amiable but circumspect in describing what Venice artist Chuck Arnoldi, his friend of four decades, says is a structure still at a tender stage of artistic development. Gehry hopes to break ground in a year, but grouses about the pending city planning commission approval of an 8-foot wall he wants along part of the perimeter.
The architect hovers about his scale model, uneasy at having a stranger see it and not certain that he should be showing it at all — he refused to release any images for this story, and a Gehry spokesman said the firm is "months and months" away from allowing the model to be photographed or any plans to be released.
But Gehry outlined it thus far. There's a garage near the rear lot line with additional living space above; an elegant box near the front that will house a dining room and guest rooms ("So if my kids come stay over at the guesthouse and they want to have their friends over, they can use it without bothering me"), and a main structure that will stack a living room (overlooking a pool that wriggles around the building and trees) and kitchen, a second level for the master bedroom and closets, and a crow's-nest top that will house offices for Berta and him.
So he'd work from there? "I don't work at home . The early part of my life, I only worked at home. I'd stay up all night drawing and designing. I quit that. I sketch, I read and they're teaching me how to use the computer." (A good thing, since Frank O. Gehry and Associates now has a thriving subsidiary that markets the highly specialized software he adapted from a French company's aircraft-design template to better render the lavish curves of his work.)
Reminded of his reputation for shiny, swooping surfaces, he says with a wry grin, "There's no curves in this house. My wife didn't want anything resembling anything I'd done before." He pauses. "But I can't quite escape that." He admits to obsessively reworking his plan. "The second floor is up in the trees [most of the trees and plants forming his garden will be hauled to the site from nurseries]. The master bedroom is a treehouse, with the sun controlled so you can darken it, but not completely."
The overall look, he adds, pointing out long spines of wood that faintly resemble the organ pipes at Disney Hall, "is a kind of wooden trellis structure, like a garden trellis." He's got spots marked near the main house for large sculptures, likely a Claes Oldenburg and an Anish Kapoor — though his son has subbed in the Ozymandias-scale head of an action figure on a stick.
The property's surrounding wall won't be sheer masonry, he adds: "Some of it will be not transparent but translucent, so it'll be backlit. It'll be nice, a nice thing for the neighborhood." Add in some geothermal wells to cool the house, and solar power to heat it, and Gehry is planning an Earth- and Venice-friendly feel: "Because it's walled-in gardens with lots of plants coming over, yeah, we'll look like a part of Venice." His fondness for the project is palpable as he twists in his vintage self-designed cardboard chair to scrutinize the model.
Arnoldi, who conspired with local real-estate agent Jack Hoffman to entice the architect west, describes Gehry's new neighborhood this way: "It's kind of off the radar; you don't really think of it when you think of Venice, but it's a nice, quiet, hidden little spot where, even though it's close to Lincoln Boulevard, it has a buffer around it — there's a calm and a peacefulness.
"And there's the Lennon sisters," he adds.
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.
"Chuck's always looking for real estate of some kind," says Gehry, who has a way of sparring fondly with Arnoldi. "I keep telling him to go back and paint."
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.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times