Architect to the Stars : Museum Shows Woolf Work

Times Staff Writer

Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Mae West and Bob Hope are just a few of the Hollywood greats who had homes designed by the late John E. (Jack)Woolf, subject of an exhibit that opened last week at the University of California, Santa Barbara Art Museum.

A champagne reception last Monday kicked off the exhibit, which will run through Oct. 18.

The exhibit contains a sampling of the many architectural renderings and blueprints donated by Woolf’s sons, Robert K. and Gene O. Woolf, to the university, along with a couple of valuable paintings and $500,000 toward the art museum building fund.


Was Partner With Father

Robert Woolf was a partner in his father’s architectural firm, which closed its Sunset Strip office last year. John Woolf died in 1980. “My brother wasn’t involved in the business,” Robert Woolf explained. Both Robert and Gene were adopted.

Jack Woolf came to Southern California in the 1930s. Born in Atlanta in 1908, he got his degree in architecture from Georgia Tech before heading west and designing a small English Georgian-style guest house for singer Fanny Brice.

“She started my father in his business, really,” Robert Woolf said. “He was often her beau when she went to parties.”

Brice introduced him to her friends, and before long his clientele looked like a Who’s Who in entertainment, drawn to him by a style that was different, ironically, from the house he built for Brice.

Designed French Manor Houses

Jack Woolf is best known for the homes he designed that are reminiscent of an 18th-Century French manor house or chateau, with a French-style mansard roof or roof with two slopes on each side.

Among his first commissions was a remodel for composer Ira Gershwin. Twenty years later, Jack Woolf again remodeled that house.


“One of the naughty things my father did was to design a look-through window for Errol Flynn’s house off Mulholland Drive,” Robert Woolf recalled. The window enabled the actor to peek, unnoticed, through the guest room ceiling from the attic.

Jack Woolf also designed the house off Sunset Plaza where Judy Garland lived when she was married to Vincent Minnelli.

“My father built the nursery there for Liza,” Robert Woolf remembered. “I wasn’t involved in that one. I was too young. But we did the house together cater-cornered from the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Vincent Minnelli lived until he died.”

Robert joined his father’s firm in 1947 as an architectural designer, also doing interiors, and he helped design and build a big apartment building near the Sunset Towers on Sunset Boulevard for actress Loretta Young and her husband. The building is now owned by actor Craig Stevens and actress Alexis Smith, he said.

Famous Tenants

“Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and a lot of other famous people lived in those apartments over the years,” he continued. “And Loretta Young lived there herself for awhile. Now she lives in a house we designed on Benedict Canyon, behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. My father designed five houses for Loretta Young.”

He also designed the Beverly Hills home of Oscar-winning producer-director Mervyn LeRoy (“Little Caesar,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Quo Vadis”), who died there two weeks ago today.

And the Woolfs did a lot of work for actor Ricardo Montalban and his wife.

Other Clients

A few of their other clients: Lillian Gish, Maureen O’Sullivan, Ray Milland, Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, oil magnate Patrick Doheny.

Robert Woolf also finished work on a house for actress Agnes Moorehead just before she died in April, 1984. “She was one of my closest friends, and we designed it as a place where she could go to live the last of her life. As it was, she only got to spend a few weeks in it,” he said. Moorehead left the house and its 320-acre farm in Rix Mills, Ohio, to a local college, he added.

That house is not shown at the UCSB exhibit. “Most of the renderings there go back to the ‘40s when my father did most of his work.”

Most of the firm’s work was done in the Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and Sunset Strip areas, although the Woolfs also designed houses in Fresno, Honolulu, the island of Majorca, Palm Beach, Fla., and Santa Barbara, near their Montecito mansion (See related item in Hot Property column.)

‘Filled Immense Gap’

David Gebhard, UCSB art historian and curator of the museum’s architectural drawing collection (which he says is one of the top three in the nation, along with the one at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Avery Library of Columbia University), called the Woolf brothers’ donation of blueprints and renderings “extremely important” to the university “because it filled an immense gap in the Los Angeles architectural scene that we didn’t previously have.”

Before getting the Woolf items, the collection included works of R. M. Schindler, Irving Gill and others who represented modernism, he explained, “but the Woolfs held a stringent approach to the traditional environment, and that reflected the tastes of many in Los Angeles from the late ‘30s to the ‘80s.”

While he termed the UCSB exhibit “very handsome,” it contains “only a teensy weensy selection of the Woolfs’ work,” he said. “Theirs was a very prolific architectural firm.”

And the University Art Museum, which was created 25 years ago as a 7,000-square-foot gallery for changing exhibitions, hardly has enough space for it or the other collections. Hence, plans for a 30,000-square-foot expansion, which will have a room named for John and Robert Woolf.

J. David Farmer, the museum’s director, estimated that the new building will cost $5.5 million. With the Woolfs’ $500,000 donation, the building fund now has about $1 million.

“But I’m feeling very confident that in the next few months, someone will make a major gift, allowing us to name the building for them,” he said. “Then we could break ground in one to two years.”