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ARCHITECTURE : Beverly Hills’ Greystone Mansion Is Hulking Monument to the Past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture and urban design

Greystone Mansion is a familiar place. You’ve seen it in hundreds of movies and television shows: It’s that hulking Norman castle whose grand rooms are the backdrop to the troubled lives of the rich and famous.

If you live in Beverly Hills, you drink water stored in its reservoir. You may even spend a quiet Sunday afternoon sunbathing on its lawns. Whether you know it or not, you’ve seen the house imitated in hundreds of smaller mansions from Palos Verdes to San Marino, its gabled turrets and limestone walls reduced to stucco domesticity.

This beautiful pile of stone facing sums up a whole side of Los Angeles: It is a prime example of our ability to convert wealth almost instantly into a coherent, impressive image.

Greystone Mansion was built by oil. Edward Doheny was the first local person to find black gold, not in the home of the hillbillies but in Los Angeles itself. The newly minted tycoon wanted his son, Ned, to live in a baronial, authority-giving style, so in 1927 he built him a 55-room mansion on 428 acres of the still-wild hillsides of Beverly Hills.

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The most versatile and elegant designer of classical buildings in the area, Gordon B. Kaufmann, translated the chaparral of the site and the steel construction of the house into a seamless image of a baronial mansion. Riding a ridge with a confidence held up by massive terraces, it confronts the world below with sheer stone walls, a steep slate roof and strong cross gables that pin it to the ground.

As you sweep around the grand facade, you pull up underneath a porte-cochere and then enter into a stairway hall covered with wood carved on the site. A succession of huge formal rooms spread out to either side of you, while above you the bedrooms of the Dohenys and their five children stretch around to the back, where a screening room, bowling alley and servants’ wing tie the mansion back into the hillside. There, formal gardens and a pool convert the rough landscape into an image that hovers somewhere between Elizabethan England and the France of Versailles.

Kaufmann’s genius was to blend quite disparate styles into an architectural composition that enfolds you with a succession of spaces and forms. This is what American eclectic architecture has always done best: convince you of its timeworn reality by cladding its modern construction with a sensuous choreography of images.

Far less sensitive is what has happened to Greystone since it came into the hands of the city of Beverly Hills in 1965.

The city bought the property as the site for a municipal reservoir and almost tore the house down to make room for all that water. Instead, they covered a cistern containing 19 million gallons of water with a sea of asphalt and made it into a parking lot.

The house itself remains much the way it was, as inaccessible to the public now as it was in its glory days, but by now the interiors have been largely denuded. Every time a movie is shot there, some quasi-appropriate touch is added by whatever set decorator is on duty, so that Greystone is experiencing a kind of renovation by default.

Many things are lost and repressed at Greystone. Ned Doheny had only been living there for a few months before he was killed by his secretary, a gory scandal that the Beverly Hills Parks Department would just as soon you forgot. The sources of the wealth of the place are invisible, as is the reason for its continued existence--which range from hidden water to ephemeral Hollywood transformations.

Any attempt to make Greystone into a cultural attraction and the subject of a thorough restoration has been stymied by rich and powerful neighbors worried about a few more visitors in their exclusive area. Greystone remains a hulking, enigmatic monument, an empty and inaccessible home to a hidden past that keeps alive the images we continually re-create.

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