Citing friction, controversy and eroding support for his plan to turn the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills into a museum for his art collection, Frederick R. Weisman on Wednesday announced that he would seek another home in greater Los Angeles for his multimillion-dollar cache of modern and contemporary art.
The surprise announcement was delivered to the Beverly Hills City Council in a letter withdrawing Weisman's conditional use permit application and effectively canceling the project. Weisman's decision caps 2 1/2 years of a frustrating struggle to convert the city-owned historic mansion and surrounding grounds into an elegant showcase for his constantly growing collection of Abstract Expressionist, Pop and up-to-the-minute contemporary artworks.
After nearly two years of wrangling and delays, the Beverly Hills City Council on Feb. 4 voted 4-1 to lease the Greystone facility to Weisman for 55 years.
Weisman, head of Mid-Atlantic Toyota, agreed to pay $1.5 million a year for operating costs and up to $8 million to restore and refurbish the building, most recently occupied by the American Film Institute. The city would put $2 million-$3 million into bringing the structure up to earthquake-safety standards and providing access for disabled visitors.
In his letter, Weisman said he proceeded in good faith, hiring Henry Hopkins, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as director; spending "several hundreds of thousands of dollars in preparing to convert Greystone into an art museum," and retaining architects, restoration experts and firms that prepare conditional-use permit applications and environmental-impact reports.
While a Greystone Foundation study determined that Weisman's proposal was the best available use of the 18.6-acre Trousdale estate and while Weisman agreed to control traffic by admitting visitors by reservation only, controversy over the plan has persisted. Opposition has centered on citizens' resistance to having a museum in their residential neighborhood and, to a lesser degree, on their dislike for contemporary art.
Prior to the approving vote, Beverly Hills Courier Editor March Schwartz wrote that "our preferences lean toward the Old Masters" and that the community would be better served "if it had pursued such entities as the Rockefellers, Norton Simon, the Getty interests or other such prominent art collectors."
In another editorial, Schwartz speculated that "the fantastic property must be worth at least $40 million" and, among other alternatives, suggested that proceeds from selling the property and establishing an endowment could "wipe out the school system's $3-million annual deficit." According to Weisman, this idea has now resurfaced.
In his letter to the council Weisman wrote, "I note that a recent report by Arthur Young & Co. to the Board of Education disclosed a permanent annual operating deficit of some $2 1/2 million and that the Board, late in October, set a special election for March of next year at which a parcel tax on all property in Beverly Hills is being proposed to finance the schools. . . I am aware of efforts that are taking place right now by some leaders of the community at neighborhood meetings to build up community pressure to rescind the Greystone transaction and sell Greystone to raise funds for permanent financing of the schools."
Referring to Robert Tanenbaum's recent election to the council, Weisman wrote, "What was once a 4 to 1 City Council vote in favor of the project is now a 3 to 2 vote." Tanenbaum has joined Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro in opposition to the Weisman plan.
Tanenbaum has called the Weisman plan for Greystone a "giveaway" of "a major asset." In a recent debate over funding city schools and a civic center expansion, Tanenbaum predicted that "parents will take their children to the Civic Center (and) to the Greystone Museum, and say, 'This is the reason there are no math or science teachers to teach you to read and write because we thought it was more important to have a Taj Mahal or this Tower of Babel."
In a telephone interview Thursday, Tanenbaum said that he applauded Weisman's withdrawal and advocated putting the use of Greystone to a public vote.
Meanwhile, a committee has formed to try to reconcile Weisman with Greystone and, if that fails, to at least prevent the sale of the mansion. "I'm very disappointed," said Rudy Cole, chairman of the week-old Community Relations Committee of Greystone Foundation. "The fact that two council members are against the Weisman museum doesn't acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of the community is in favor of it."
In a telephone interview, Councilwoman Donna Ellman concurred: "If we can get an aroused public, maybe we can get him back in. All he's hearing is the cage-rattlers. My feeling is if he hears other voices he may reconsider."
Cole said that the committee, including a coalition of five former mayors of Beverly Hills "who don't always agree," has met once and will meet again on Monday. The group plans to circulate a petition to preserve Greystone and to show support for Weisman. "If not Weisman, we still want a world-class museum at Greystone," Cole said. "A museum is the best use of the building and the city has no real cultural resource. We don't need another 20 houses selling for $3 million each."
To veteran Los Angeles art watchers, the Weisman-Greystone affair has a familiar ring. In 1964, after the City of Beverly Hills bought the estate for $1 million for public use, uranium magnate Joseph H. Hirshhorn proposed the mansion as a museum for his modern art collection. Frustrating delays caused Hirshhorn to give up on Beverly Hills a year later and take his collection to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden now has its own building and grounds on the Capitol Mall.