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Only a Manse Will Do for Luxury Seekers : The Trend in Homes: Build ‘to the Max’

Times Staff Writer

There was every reason to believe that TV producer Aaron Spelling would own the biggest house in Los Angeles.

After all, the nearly completed structure dominates an entire ridge in Holmby Hills. It has more floor space--a whopping 56,500 square feet--than Hearst Castle, with its own gym, bowling alley and an entire mezzanine floor of closets.

“It looks like Versailles,” nearby homeowner Betsy Laties said, gazing up from the street far below. “You’d have to have roller skates to go from one end to the other.”

But all of a sudden, Spelling is being upstaged. Former talk-show host Merv Griffin announced last month that his new hilltop home, the one with the helipad and the 360-degree view, the one that initially was going to be 25,000 or 30,000 square feet, is instead going to sprawl over 58,000 square feet.

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And now, in real estate circles, the spotlight is on a knoll in Beverly Hills where a representative of the sultan of Brunei recently plunked down $10 million for three adjoining lots. The homes there--including a 40-room mansion--will be razed, and insiders say the resulting structure might, just might, shove even Spelling and Griffin out of prime time.

“People do not want to live in tight spaces,” concluded developer Brian Adler, who has watched a boom of colossal proportions hit the luxury-home market in Los Angeles, especially on coveted hillside lots. “There’s a real trend right now: ‘Give me room.’ ”

With land values skyrocketing, interest rates relatively low and foreign wealth pouring in to join old-time California affluence, the market for oversized luxury homes--from monstrous super-estates to build-your-own $5-million mansions--has taken off like a chateau afire.

Throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, whole ridges are being graded and spectacular villas wedged into ravines where development was once considered impossible. In monied communities such as Brentwood, Bel-Air, Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades, it no longer suffices to own a $1-million or $2-million home; on most every block, older models are being torn down and replaced by homes of 5,000 square feet, 10,000 square feet, 15,000 square feet and more . . . sometimes much more.

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“Any piece of property that’s buildable is being built to the max,” Brentwood resident Maren Henderson said.

In Palos Verdes Estates last month, a street lined with 9,000-square-foot homes became a focus of controversy when it appeared one home was simply not going to fit in. It wasn’t that the place was dilapidated, with battered cars sitting on an overgrown lawn. The proposed structure was too big, with 16,000 square feet, threatening to overwhelm the spectacular houses already there.

Residents ultimately got the City Council to reject the proposed 10-bedroom house under a new ordinance, adopted in July, requiring “compatibility” among homes in a neighborhood. Any plan to add a second floor to a house, or build beyond 12,000 square feet, is automatically reviewed.

In two months, 50 proposals have come up for review. “We have a tremendous amount of significant remodeling,” explained City Manager Gordon Siebert.

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In the Palisades, attorney Bill Highberger is creating a home that in some neighborhoods would be a tourist attraction: a wood design with four levels, shaped in a half-circle, with 100 view windows, a spiral stairway down to the hot tub, a game room, library and study, plus a panoramic view of the coast. But in his neighborhood, the 4,000-square-foot structure is nothing extraordinary, simply “larger than some and smaller than others,” he said matter-of-factly.

Small Fraction of Homes

Housing officials say it is difficult to gauge the scope of the trend. Homes costing $1 million or more make up a small fraction--perhaps 2%--of the roughly 17,000 new homes built in the county each year, according to Ben Bartoloto, director of the Burbank-based Construction Industry Research Board.

But clearly the shift has been toward larger, costlier abodes. Three years ago, the county’s average new single-family residence ran 1,665 square feet and sold for $150,500; last year, the figures were up to 2,015 square feet and $215,900.

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The high end of the market has been a magnet for celebrity watchers. In this month’s New Yorker magazine, Joan Didion writes about the rumors surrounding Aaron Spelling’s house--including one, denied by Spelling and doubted by real-estate insiders, that his wife Candy ordered the foundation lowered part way through construction because she didn’t want to see the Robinson’s department store sign from her bedroom.

Likewise, Griffin’s house is now the target of gossip. Designer Waldo Fernandez, who has laid out floor plans for Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis and Burt Bacharach, conceded that ego is sometimes a catalyst for a monstrous home.

But Fernandez insisted that it was not Griffin’s plan to outdo Spelling; it just happened that way.

Griffin started out with a Beverly Hills mountaintop site of 157 acres, larger than the L.A. County Arboretum, and last fall talked of building a home of up to 30,000 square feet. But then the grading and design work began, and before anyone could say Robin Leach, Griffin and the designer found themselves trying to create something worthy of the setting, according to Fernandez.

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“It got to be bigger and bigger and bigger, and there was no way to stop it,” the designer said.

The grading has required the movement of enough dirt to fill the Rose Bowl twice and bury the Greek Theatre along with it. But there is no place quite like home the way Griffin envisions it: elevators, party rooms, a solarium-style courtyard larger than the average new home in the county, a gym and screening room, the perfunctory pool and Jacuzzi, three lakes, swans. . . .

The design will feature 80 classical columns--more than the Parthenon--plus 200 doors, 80 windows and 40,000 square feet of marble, Fernandez said. Hearst Castle, which today occupies 135 acres, has only 49,000 square feet of living space in the main house, although the guest homes there would bring the total square footage to 70,000, a spokesman said.

Another creation of William Randolph Hearst, the “San Simeon by the Sea” beach house he built for mistress Marion Davies in 1929, actually was larger, containing 60,000 square feet (plus or minus a few bathrooms) in a four-story structure on 3 1/2 acres in Santa Monica, said Doug Badt, former manager of the Sand and Sea Club, which now occupies the site.

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But the beach house--torn down as a “white elephant” in 1956--did not cover nearly the grounds that Spelling’s home will have, much less Griffin’s.

“I doubt that there is another single residence in the city of Los Angeles that occupies its own mountaintop,” said Griffin’s independent planning consultant, Gary Morris. Spelling’s six acres, Morris noted, “would fit very nicely” in Merv’s front lawn.

Historians point out that such ostentation has a long, rich tradition in Los Angeles. All during the glory years of Hollywood, entertainers built big. The 48,000-square-foot Greystone Mansion, now owned by the city of Beverly Hills, is just one example, constructed by the oil-rich Doheny family at the height of 1920s building boom.

After its 1929 house-warming party lasted four days, comedian Harold Lloyd’s 36,000-square-foot Greenacres mansion in Benedict Canyon became a social gathering place of the era.

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Pickfair, the one-time hunting lodge renovated by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919, was visited by the likes of Albert Einstein, Babe Ruth and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. It still stands in Beverly Hills, covering about 15,000 square feet.

But what was once big enough for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks is not sufficient for Pia Zadora, who bought Pickfair last year from Laker owner Jerry Buss. The entertainer and her husband, businessman tycoon Meshulam Riklis, are planning to “add a little more house” and do some interior remodeling that will take 18 months, partly because of their two young children, said Zadora’s manager, Tino Barzie.

“As the kids are growing up, you need more space,” Barzie said. “They also have a housekeeper, a maid and someone to come and take care of the children. All of these people have to be put somewhere--tents won’t work.”

These days, tennis courts are sunken to keep them out of sight and out of the wind. Bathrooms have gone his-and-hers, with dual marble showers. Closets are no longer closets--they are whole rooms. “People just aren’t happy without them,” builder Brian Adler said.

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Holmby Hills Mansion

In one of his projects--a 10,800-square-foot, $7.4-million mansion in Holmby Hills--the woman’s closet measures 21-by-16 feet, with a window of its own.

“Here’s the elevator,” Adler said, striding through 6-foot-wide hallways. “People come back from a trip and instead of dragging their suitcases up the stairs, they just throw them in here.”

Such places often are built on speculation and sold before they are finished.

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Adler is creating the gated community of Beverly Park, above Beverly Hills, where about 80 large, mostly two-acre estates are blossoming with 10,000- to 14,000-square-foot homes. Priced at $5 million and up, they are places where every bedroom has a vista, where every man’s home is practically a castle, with room for a limo in the garage.

Hundreds of other custom homes are being built on each side of Mulholland Drive, the ridge-top route that separates Los Angeles’ Westside from the San Fernando Valley.

At the edge of Bel-Air’s Hoag Canyon, 284 houses are now planned after a decade of negotiations between homeowner groups and Culver City-based Goldrich & Kest Industries. About 50 of the vacant lots recently went on the market at $750,000 to $800,000 each, and about 900 buyers have lined up to get them, said one hopeful, Paul Zahler, himself a developer.

“You had to send in a $50,000 non-refundable deposit . . . non-interest bearing . . . not knowing which lot you’re going to get,” Zahler said.

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Such projects have prompted debates over traffic, the loss of wildlife and open space, and landslides.

Environmental Concern

At one development below Mulholland Drive in Sherman Oaks, environmentalists won protection for “Fossil Ridge,” a 100-acre area reported to contain 10-million-year-old fish fossils. Developers have agreed to build their 93 homes, expected to sell for about $1.5 million each, without grading the ridge.

Outcry in other areas prompted the Los Angeles City Council last year to adopt a long-awaited hillside-development ordinance affecting 16 areas of the city where slopes exceed a 15% grade, including portions of the Hollywood Hills, Mt. Washington and Highland Park.

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Already, it has been a powerful tool in rugged Mandeville Canyon, where Hilton Hotels is developing 239 acres, said Cindy Miscikowski, an aide to City Councilman Marvin Braude. Once, Hilton might have been able to build more than 200 luxury homes, Miscikowski said. But now, she said, under a formula that gets stricter as the slopes steepen, the company can build only 13.

Proposed Height Limit

The replacement of existing homes with structures twice or even three times as large--a common practice in areas such as the Palisades and Brentwood--has caused Los Angeles planners to begin writing a proposed 30-foot height limit.

In a move to prevent new homes from extending almost from one edge of a property to the other, Beverly Hills adopted an interim ordinance two years ago limiting development to 55% of the lot. That still allows a 5,500-square-foot home of on a 100-by-100 lot.

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Although it has helped in some areas, the law is now considered overly tough on small lots while having little effect on huge estates, Vice Mayor Max Salter said. The city is revising the guidelines.

Debate over such measures has sent fissures through communities. Developer Zahler, the pre-eminent luxury-home builder in the Palisades, bemoaned detractors “who get their noses bent out of shape because they can’t afford to do it.”

‘It’s Incredible’

The critics, meanwhile, wonder why their pleasant neighborhoods must change. Palisades resident Ron Dean drove to the top of a ridge, looked out at the huge new homes throughout Santa Ynez Canyon and shook his head.

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“It’s incredible,” Dean said. “How can so many people afford this stuff? Where do they get the money?”

They are doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, entertainers, Japanese businessmen, producers and film writers, speculators and developers, according to real estate sales people.

Fashion designer Eletra Casadei, 35, is building a luxury hilltop home thanks to her successful lines of sports and evening wear. The tropical landscaping, fountains, sweeping view and Art Nouveau decor (including a white oak door hand-carved with falling orchids) are all aids to her fashion work, Casadei said.

Huge Equities

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“If I’m not in environment that’s very soothing to me, it disturbs my creative flow,” she explained.

Irene Dazzan, an agent for Fred Sands Estates in the Palisades, said many buyers are simply longtime homeowners cashing in on huge equities. Last year alone, land prices in the Palisades went up 42%, Dazzan said. And in the area near the Riviera Country Club, where director Steven Spielberg is building a 40,000-square-foot home, a typical 3,500-square-foot “fixer-upper” goes for $1 million.

A home selling there for $800,000, she added, is going to be nothing more than a “tear-down,” valuable only for the land it is sitting on.

Wariness of the stock market and federal tax reforms, which have placed a premium on home mortgages as write-offs, also are fueling construction. On top of that, foreign businessmen view New York and Los Angeles as the best places to invest, “and of course, we have an edge in terms of climate,” said Joyce Rey, who handles only $1-million-plus homes for Rodeo Realty in Beverly Hills.

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‘Crown of Beverly Hills’

After selling just one $5-million estate in all of 1985 and 1986, Rodeo Realty has moved three such properties this year and has two others in escrow, Rey said. The company now lists 37 estates at more than $3 million and 150 at more than $1 million, many of them newly built.

One of those is the “Crown of Beverly Hills,” a French-style chateau on a cliff above Coldwater Canyon Park, listed for $30 million.

Of course, not all such properties bring near the list price; the Kirkeby mansion--the TV home of “The Beverly Hillbillies"--was offered at $27 million and sold for $13.5 million. But Rey expressed hope that the chateau will set a price record for Los Angeles, exceeding the $20.5 million paid by millionaire Marvin Davis for singer Kenny Rogers’ estate.

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Chateau’s Features

Now nearing completion but already on the market nearly a year, the chateau boasts 37,000 square feet on three levels, with a tennis court jutting from the side of the cliff. Inside, among the marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows, one can find 11 bedrooms, 19 bathrooms and nine fireplaces. There is a barber shop, a sunken bar, a wine cellar, a billiard room and a two-lane bowling alley. Also, a gymnasium, a 5,000-square-foot master suite, a 3,600-square-foot ballroom and an eight-car garage.

But the most irresistible feature--at least for the water lover--is the etched-glass dining-room floor overlooking the indoor pool.

“It’s just baronial,” Rey said, smiling. “The whole house is just baronial.”

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Staff writer Ruth Ryon contributed to this story.


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