Pickfair, Relic of Golden Age of Hollywood, Razed
Pickfair, the legendary, 42-room estate of early film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and one of the last relics of Hollywood’s golden age, has been razed to make way for a small palace.
In a striking example of the Westside phenomenon of tearing down residences to make way for more opulent homes, entertainer Pia Zadora and her multimillionaire husband, Meshulam Riklis, have virtually demolished Pickfair for construction of a Renaissance-style Venetian palazzo.
All that remains of the Beverly Hills estate is a guest wing built in the 1930s and the remnants of Pickfair’s living room, which once housed distinguished guests from the world over: Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, the king of Spain and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Pickfair, which grew from a $3,000 stable in 1911 to become a rambling, green-gabled melange of American Colonial styles, was said at one time to be the nation’s second-most famous residence--after the White House.
Its loss was deemed unavoidable by contractors who said that, in essence, time had eaten away at the timbers of Pickfair.
But the realities of termites and dry rot did little to soothe the wave of nostalgia some said they felt upon hearing of the structure’s demise.
One frequent visitor was Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the actor’s son from a previous marriage, who remembers moonlight swims in the much-photographed kidney-shaped pool.
“I regret it very much,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday from New York. “I wonder, if they were going to demolish it, why they bought it in the first place.”
Phyllis Lerner, president of the Beverly Hills Historical Society, said: “I’ve got a funny feeling about it, because it’s no longer Pickfair to me. It really wasn’t a pretty house, but my God, the guest list!”
Zadora and her husband bought the estate from L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss for $6.675 million in 1988. The couple reportedly plan to spend as much as another $5 million to build their tile-roofed palazzo, adding 2,754 square feet to the 13,421 square feet in the original floor plan.
Remnants of the original Pickfair living room are to be incorporated into the new mansion as a tribute to the glories of the past, said Rob Myers, the couple’s general contractor.
“Once we got into it, it was like cancer,” Myers said of the termites and rot that permeated the original woodwork. Workmen tied new lumber to the crumbling beams of the old living room earlier this week.
“We kept cutting away at the bad stuff, trying to get at the good stuff until we got down to the foundation,” Myers said. “And the foundation didn’t have any steel in it, so we couldn’t build on that and we had to keep going.”
Pickford, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” was loved for her roles in “Pollyanna,” “Tess of the Storm Country” and “Little Annie Rooney.” Fairbanks was the swashbuckling hero of “Zorro,” “The Thief of Bagdad” and “Robin Hood.”
They were “highly paid sex symbols, and the more publicity written about it, the better it was for selling that product,” said Winston Millet, former president of the Beverly Hills Historical Society.
The society raised no objections when the city granted permits for a new structure to be built at the site on Pickfair Way. Millet is one who feels no regret at Pickfair’s razing, noting that even the name was thought up by a studio public relations department.
The cousin of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Letitia Smoot, lived at Pickfair for several months in 1927, one of the golden years when a small fleet of Rolls-Royces would shuttle visitors up to the estate overlooking Summit Drive.
“It was a very pleasant, homey place,” she said. “It was not all that big, but it was exquisitely decorated, and they received so many gifts from abroad.”
She remembers an occasion during the 1932 Olympics when her uncle, Douglas Sr., “a teetotaler and a health nut,” invited 36 decathletes up for dinner on two hours’ notice.
And she recalls how Mary Pickford would open the grounds to the public. Once she hosted a postwar party for disabled veterans and their families.
“She said the public had made her a star and so she owed everything to her public,” said Smoot, of Salt Lake City. “I guess she was the most gracious person I had ever known.”
The parties continued after Pickford and Fairbanks divorced in 1934, and after Pickford’s retirement from the public eye, when Buddy Rogers, her third husband, opened the estate for charity fund-raisers. Pickford died at age 76 in 1979.
The years since have been cruel to Pickfair, which Rogers sold to Buss for $5.4 million in 1980, and which stood empty for more than a year before the Riklises bought it. Rogers now lives in a smaller house next door to the estate, but was unavailable for comment Thursday.
“Our feeling is that we’re so delighted there was one owner who would buy it and restore it to a style they preferred, rather than have someone buy it and subdivide it into a lot of little lots,” said Rose Norton, chairwoman of the Beverly Hills Planning Commission.
“It may not be exactly as it was, but certainly it will be a big asset to the city,” she said of the Riklises’ plans.
“Maybe it was time,” agreed Wallace Neff Jr., whose father, Wallace Sr., helped Pickford and Fairbanks convert the old stable--it had since become a hunting lodge--into a stately home.
“My father would say, ‘Tear it down,’ ” Neff said. In fact, his father wanted to tear it down in 1920, but his clients refused.
“But I really am sorry to see it gone,” said Neff Jr. “I think it was maybe one of the most important homes of all the movie stars.”