'Demolition Derby' Grips the Westside : Scarcity of Vacant Land Leads Buyers to Raze, Rebuild Homes

Special to The Times : Kanner is a Los Feliz-area free-lance writer

It wasn't the house that sold a 42-year-old Florida securities trader on purchasing the Alfred Hart estate in Bel-Air, it was the land.

Planted in the 1920s when the gated community was young, and subdivided from a botanical garden into 4.4 acres after World War II, it looks like park land.

Picnickers used to park their cars outside the open gates at Bellagio and Stone Canyon Roads and trudge uphill, past the tennis court, before seeing the house.

But it was too modest for the tastes of Stephan Lawrence, who bought it from the Hart estate for $7 million earlier this month.

Lawrence intends to tear down the house, the tennis court, and the swimming pool, and relocate a new two-story house and new amenities somewhere on the property. The fate of the 1920s-era guest house is up in the air.

Friends in Hollywood

Alfred Hart founded a liquor empire that bore his name and a bank that did not--City National Bank. He had friends in Hollywood, like Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra, and friends in Sacramento, like Gov. Edmund (Pat) Brown.

His house, built in 1950 in the California ranch style, was not a historic-cultural landmark, however, and so the demolition applications will not be subject to approval by the Cultural Heritage Commission or the City Council.

According to demolition permit records filed in Los Angeles City Hall since January, 1986, 29 residences have been demolished in Bel-Air and Holmby Hills. The City of Beverly Hills has granted 74 permits in the same time period.

From Santa Monica to Pacific Palisades, the demolition spree, known as the "teardown phenomenon" in real estate circles, has ushered in a building boom.

With property values high, and empty lots in the extinct category, developers and single-family home buyers seem prepared to pay any price to build monuments to wealth.

Buying for Demolition

Some, like Alan Khedari of Beverly Hills-based Columbia Savings, which reportedly has bought 20 Beverly Hills homes for demolition, are not interested in discussing the situation.

Others, like realtor Bruce Nelson of Asher Dann Realtors, are more outspoken.

"People look at these wonderful old homes as teardowns," he says. "Instead of remodeling the original kitchens and small bathrooms and servants' rooms, they would rather start over."

"The criteria of today's buyer are volume, size, space and light," says Stan Richman, who represented the sale of the Hart property for Douglas Properties. "The bigger the entry hall, the better."

Houses with "good bones" are being saved--in some cases.

Richman says that decorator Kathleen Spigelman is in demand because she knows how to restore homes like the one on Bel Air Road that he says has the "greatest living room in Bel-Air." She is restoring another Bel-Air home located on Sienna Way, to the 1920s splendor that its architect, Roland Coate, intended for it.

Spielberg Improvements

A costly example of renovation is the home in Pacific Palisades on Amalfi Drive known as "Westridge."

First Douglas Fairbanks Jr. updated it in 1939, using architect Wallace Neff's services. Now film director Steven Spielberg is spending anywhere from $6 million to $11 million, depending upon who is being cited, to improve it.

In other cases, neither architect nor previous occupants nor cultural significance can stave off the wrecking ball.

Television producer Aaron Spelling's razing of the Bing Crosby estate, designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann, who is best known for having designed Greystone, is a $10-million example.

Architect Caspar Ehmcke says the previous owner, Patrick Frawley, was about to subdivide his large lot in the Mapleton and Club View drives area of Bel-Air and add several houses, when Spelling made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Neff-Designed Homes

The "Joan Bennett house," owned for years by Martha and Hal Wallis is a possible second example. Designed in 1938 by Neff in the French Provincial style, the title may soon belong to an owner who intends to demolish, according to brokers. The Bennett house is on Mapleton Drive, south of Sunset Boulevard, across the street from Hugh Hefner's "Playboy Mansion."

Another Neff-designed home, with a Strada Vecchia address in Bel-Air, has been empty and untended for months. Like the Hart house, it was built in the spare, 1950s modern mode, and it is modest in comparison to the Kirkeby mansion across the way on Bel-Air Road.

Located on over four acres of botanical beauty, it is a "sitting duck" for demolition, realtors believe, for the lot has a view of the ocean that the architect and client ignored in favor of building around a courtyard. The house is for sale at $6.5 million.

In Beverly Hills, where the Cleveland Wrecking Co. tore down a half dozen homes in May, the City Council voted in June, 1986, to limit the amount of space on which owners can build to 55% of a lot's size.

The ordinance expires this month, and the local Historical Society is expected to be among those pressing for renewal.

Council Gets Complaints

Beverly Hills City Councilwoman Charlotte Spandaro has said that homes are being built in her community "for the pleasure of the homeowner, with no thought at all for the aesthetics of the community."

Complaints have reached council chambers that compare the new homes to "mausoleums," "tenements," and "country club boxes."

"The city was largely built as a piece in the 1920s and 1930s," Audrey Arlington of the Beverly Hills Planning Department says, "and the new houses naturally look different.

"We are analyzing single-family residential standards to see if something can be done. It is difficult, however, to zone for good taste."

Bob Sherwin, the Beverly Hills principal planner, believes architectural review by community boards will not be approved because, he says of the "a man's home is his castle idea."

Revival Styles Popular

There are "castles," being built, albeit with unheralded kings and queens. Revival styles employing turrets, towers and battlements, have not been as popular since the 1920s. Dozens of homes are being executed in the English Tudor revival style.

The most controversial homes, according to principal building inspector Bill Nach, have been two located on Shadow Hill Way. With cantilevered tennis courts and 20,000 square feet in each home, they have required several years to complete.

Forty-five housing starts are scheduled this year, Nach says.

"That is not many by Los Angeles standards," he feels, "but here, where vacant, unbuilt lots have not been seen for many years, that is a lot of construction."

Even Beverly Hills City Hall is not immune to the building boom. In a matter of weeks, many of the municipal departments will be moved to temporary quarters while the Spanish Colonial/Churrigueresque Revival building is refurbished according to the plans of architect Charles Moore and Urban Innovations Group.

Established Lot Values

One of the most rebuilt neighborhoods on the Westside is Gilette Regent Square in Santa Monica, located between 21st Place and 16th Street, and San Vicente Boulevard and Montana Avenue.

General contractor Paul Zahler tore down so many modest bungalows in the area, and rebuilt with $750,000 to $1 million homes, that lot values have now been established at $350,000 to $450,000.

"I was the first guy in that area," he says, "doing 80% of the demolition and construction. Now I'm only 2%. I can't compete with homeowners who want to do it for themselves. Land prices have gone up so dramatically in Santa Monica that I'm now working in Pacific Palisades, tearing down and renovating some of the cheaply constructed tract homes built 30 years ago."

Of the designers who have made names for themselves as "Beverly Hills architects," none seems to have fared better in the boom than Ted Grenszbach. On North Alpine Drive alone, he has designed two new homes, and remodeled another.

The latter was designed by Neff in 1926, when it had 6,000 square feet. Now it has 12,000, according to the owner, Michael L. Schwab, president of Zurich Investment Co. While the French Provencial facade was saved, much of the rest of the original square footage was replaced by new construction.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday August 16, 1987 Home Edition Real Estate Part 8 Page 2 Column 3 Real Estate Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction William Hirsch AIA Architects & Associates is the firm contracted for the rehabilitation and refurbishment of the Beverly Hills City Hall. Charles Moore and the Urban Innovations Group, mentioned in a June 21 article, were responsible for designing another project, the Beverly Hills Civic Center.
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