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For Neff, an era of glamour came first
Innovative as they were, Wallace Neff's WW II-era low-cost housing designs such as the the Shell House in Pasadena never really caught on in America. No matter. Neff was already famous as the architect of the golden age of movie star mansions, building enormous houses in European period revival styles with vast motor courts, towering foyers, grand staircases and two-story beamed living rooms.
A meticulous planner, Neff selected premium building sites with magnificent views and designed houses with strong horizontal lines and peaked roofs with dramatic overhangs that kept them cool.
After his 1926-34 transformation of Pickfair, a Beverly Hills hunting lodge redone as an English Regency manor for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Neff amassed an A-list of film colony clients. He designed for clown princes (Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Jack Lemmon), Hollywood queens (Joan Bennett, Greta Garbo and Claudette Colbert) and two kings (director King Vidor and safety razor blade tycoon King Gillette). Liza Minnelli spent her early childhood at 10000 Sunset Blvd. in a Holmby Hills Neff originally built for Henry Haldeman, a Los Angeles car dealer.
The Neff pedigree, along with a visual grandeur that it is unobtainable with modern construction techniques, has caused prices on his properties to skyrocket, as house-proud Hollywood stars including Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, Madonna, Barbra Streisand and Diane Keaton spend millions buying Neffs.
Streisand was an early devotee who lived in a Neff designed to look like a ski lodge. So was the late Carroll O'Connor, who lived in one of the two homes Neff built for opera star Amelita Galli-Curci. O'Connor's wife still occupies the house and "Star Trek" creator Gene Rodenberry's widow continues to live in the Bel-Air mansion Neff built for Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton.
Pitt and Aniston purchased the 1934 Normandy that Neff built for Fredric March for $13.5 million and spent two years overseeing a meticulous restoration. Madonna sold her 1920s three-bedroom Neff Mediterranean in Los Feliz (which had neither air conditioning nor pool) to Jenna Elfman for around $4 million after persuading Diane Keaton to part with her Monterey colonial Neff on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills.
"People thought it was a teardown," Keaton told the Los Angeles Times. "But I redid it. We made it as authentic as we could." Madonna paid $6.5 million for the property in 2000; three years later, she put it on the market for $10.9 million.
Alas, not every millionaire who buys a Neff cares about its heritage. In 1980, Laker owner Jerry Buss bought Pickfair, later selling it to Meshulam Riklis, the businessman husband of actress Pia Zadora. They tore it down, leaving only the outside gate, with the initial P. Microsoft partner Paul Allen demolished the hilltop ranch Neff designed for cowboy star Fred Thompson, one of the architect's first commissions.
"As wonderful as these houses are, they were built for a different time," Loren Judd, a Realtor at the Westside Estate Agency observes sadly. "Kitchens were small working rooms, not the heart of the house. If you wanted something to eat, you'd call the cook to prepare it. Unfortunately, we've lost a lot of the great estates because people didn't have the vision to respect the architecture."
Actors, musicians and entertainment moguls accustomed to having their own way have become the caretakers of the Neff name, drawn to the Old World charm and Old Hollywood glamour of his houses, many of which were designed with screening rooms for the film industry elite. Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine lives in Joan Bennett's old home, built in 1938 for $100,000. Rupert Murdoch resides in "Misty Mountain," a groundbreaking house Neff designed on a curve that was once occupied by Katharine Hepburn. Producers Jon Peters and Stacey Sher live in Neffs, as does CAA agent Bryan Lourd, who occupies a sophisticated Bel-Air structure designed in the architect's later years.
"I think they're very smart," Wallace Neff Jr. says of the homeowners who carry the torch of the Neff tradition. "Most houses are sort of ugly. My father had a flair for beauty and proportion."