Compared to some of the newer luxury homes dotting exclusive Emerald Bay, the gray stucco house of the Smithcliffs estate could almost be described as modest.
But the house, perched atop an ocean-side bluff, has a magnificent panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and 10 acres of verdant gardens and orchards. And that's why it has changed hands for $15 million.
The sprawling, historic estate was purchased in March by Greg Brinderson, a secretive Emerald Bay resident who owns an Irvine engineering and commercial development firm, from a 92-year-old widow who has lived there since 1951.
Real estate sources said the price is one of the highest ever paid on an Orange County residential property. Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, the 24-acre former seaside estate of Richard Nixon, was purchased for several million dollars and subdivided; John Wayne's waterfront home in Newport Beach, situated on less than an acre of land, sold for $5 million.
A Private Man
Brinderson, who did not return a reporter's phone calls, is said to be an extremely private man who has shunned publicity about the purchase of the estate and has asked that others not discuss it publicly.
Sources in the Emerald Bay community, however, said that Brinderson intends to eventually live on the grounds with his family, and does not plan to develop the property.
"I think he plans to make it the family compound, like the Kennedys' (compound) at Hyannis Port," said one Laguna Beach Realtor who knows the Brinderson family but who asked not to be identified. 'They've got four children. The house is not what you'd call fancy--it's been remodeled several times over the years--but it's a special piece of property.'
The picturesque property was purchased in 1951 for an estimated $150,000 to $200,000, according to local real estate agents, by Lon V. Smith, who was at that time an executive with Houston-based Superior Oil Co., since acquired by Mobil Corp. Smith died in 1979 at the age of 87.
Sold by Widow
His widow, Marguerite, is the seller of the property, but under the sales agreement, she will live there for the rest of her life.
Sources said Marguerite Smith sold the 1930s-style home and acreage as a life estate, meaning it is effectively her home until she dies. Though the small woman frequently stays in the 11-room main house--neighbors said she drives around the grounds on a golf cart in a wide-brimmed sunbonnet--she also stays in the Los Angeles area.
Her Beverly Hills attorney said Marguerite Smith chose to keep the home sale private and declined to discuss her reasons for accepting Brinderson's offer after her husband had repeatedly refused to sell the property.
The expansive estate at 10010 N. Coast Highway--at the south edge of Emerald Bay, just north of the Laguna Beach line in unincorporated county territory --is hidden from the road behind wrought-iron gates, overgrown bougainvillea and dense shrubbery. Parts of the grounds are visible from the rocky shore below. A private stairway leads from the bottom of the cliffs to the two-story main house and three smaller dwellings.
A Stray Visitor
On occasion, a few stranded beachgoers and neighbors have glimpsed the place. Among them one day quite a few years ago was Bob Huggins, 77.
"We were renting over in Emerald Bay," recalled Huggins, who now lives on nearby Circle Way, "and I was swimming in these big waves, 10- to 12-footers--I was a lot younger then. I was getting thrown into the rocks and the only way out of the surf was to crawl up Lon Smith's stairs.
"I was halfway up his stairs and Lon said, 'You can't come up here. This is private property!' And I said, 'Do you want to see me washed away instead?' "
Smith, Huggins continued, "was plain as an old shoe--reminded me of Will Rogers and looked just like an old gardener. And he said, "I hate people who crawl up my property, but in light of the fact that you're probably going to get crashed to death down there, come on up.' "
Huggins said he met Smith again on friendlier terms years later at his son's Laguna Beach liquor store. "People had offered to buy the place for years," Huggins said, "and Lon said 'No way.' He thought he was going to live forever."
Other colorful characters have lived on the estate since the bluff-top area was originally developed in 1915 by Thaddeus Lowe Sr.
In her book "Emerald Bay," historian Elizabeth Quilter writes that Lowe spied for the Union Army from a balloon during the Civil War, and later became a railroad magnate and hotel builder. Among his projects was the construction of the railroad tracks leading to Mt. Lowe above Pasadena.
His granddaughter, Florence (Pancho) Barnes, a pioneer aviator known for her cigar smoking and wild parties that the Hollywood movie crowd attended, later inherited the estate. She lived there for a while with her grandmother, who eventually moved Pancho's house to another part of the grounds. But after a failed marriage to a minister, Quilter wrote, "Pancho's fortunes fell on bad times, and eventually she moved to Lancaster, where she . . . died."