House Fit for Framing : Collector's Home Reflects His Interests

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a guy with a $50-million art collection, Joe Price sure has some bare walls in his home. Of course, with a crib like this, who needs art?

Filled with secret staircases and hidden doors and walls of voluptuously swirling wood, his oceanfront masterpiece contains what might be called the fur room, a child's bedroom with a slide to the playroom and a kitchen to rival the Jetsons'.

Designed by the same architect who helped create the Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it must be the most novel house on the Orange County coast.

And it's got a homeowner to match.

To slip behind the security gates and undetectable front door is to experience visual overload--a disorienting but dazzling jigsaw of space that would defy description by even Robin Leach-- if they'd let him in. Two tea rooms were built by a crew Price wooed away from Japan's royal palace and lodged several months in a nearby oceanfront home. Here, three smooth black stones magically make music when water is dripped over them. No nails in sight. Free to build the sanctity of any Japanese home as they deemed best, the construction team followed centuries-old craftsmanship that reveres nature: Beams in the walls face the same direction they did in their original stand of trees, and at exactly the same distance from each other.

Showcased in Architectural Digest and international design publications, the home the neighborhood kids call The Mushroom House for its roof has never been featured in the mainstream press. This is the fiercely private Price's first in-depth interview since he moved here in 1986.

Alas, the only thing the public glimpses of this fortress is the madcap roof, which looks like what might happen if you cooked the house like Jiffy Pop.

"You don't think it blends into the neighborhood?" Price asks, half-incredulous, and a burst of giggles is his answer. "Huh! And I was going for normal here."

Like his casa , Joe Price is, at the very least, a complete original. And he might just be the kind of fellow you'd want to be if you won the lottery tomorrow. Unpretentious, humble, warm--well, a regular Joe.

"If you met him at the supermarket, you'd have no idea" he is one of the biggest art collectors in America, said Bart Prince, the young Albuquerque, N.M., architect who designed Price's home. "He's got that side of him that's very down-to-earth, not an Armand Hammer-type making demands. . . . But he won't roll over when it comes to the art and what's best for the art."

For over a decade, Price, 63, has been placed among the country's top art collectors, a list peopled by old money and new rich and only one other county resident--billionaire developer Donald Bren. As patrons buy and sell art, the list changes, of course, but he vaguely recalls Connoisseur magazine once reporting his as the sixth largest privately owned art collection in the nation.

But you'll see few of the intricately painted scrolls and screens in his home. "It's not the type that you hang in your house," Prince says. "You don't live with it. And, hopefully, the house itself is a work of art."

Before we start the tour, you need to know something about Price to appreciate his house.

Co-heir to an Oklahoma family fortune, Price grew up in what then was a small Midwestern town called Bartlesville. Out on the prairie some 70 miles from Tulsa, the town sprouted around Jake Bartles' gristmill, but its bonanza came with oil--specifically Phillips Petroleum. Way back when, before he discovered the crude, Frank Phillips was a barber and Harold Price a high school dropout who ran a one-man welding shop.

By the 1950s, the elder Price had founded H.C. Price Co., which welded pipelines, and was extremely rich, his youngest son, Joe, recalled.

One day, Joe's mother was leafing through a financial magazine and read a story about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. She convinced her husband to have Wright design Price Towers, and Joe Price acted as liaison between the two men. So began, in his college days, his appreciation for art and architecture.

Elder brother Harold Price always intended to work for the family business, but Joe could not stand it. "I had a number of titles, but they never could find a job for me," he says. "Finally, I bought an old big ship with no engine and radio and set sail for Tahiti."

In 1962, his wayward and carousing days in full throttle, Price traveled to Japan, where he was introduced to Etsuko Yoshimochi. She was 23, had rejected the marriage her family arranged for her and lived and worked in Kyoto as a dental assistant and volunteer art guide at a temple.

She spoke no English, he spoke no Japanese. He presented her with a card that said, "Tahiti Joe, son of the beach, no parents, no money, no morals."

"She went out that day," Price recalls with a wide grin, "and emptied her bank account, because she thought she was going to have to pay for everything on our first date."

Etsuko, a gifted storyteller with a romantic nature, remembers that "he took me to this temple to see this one scroll, and he burst into tears. We must have sat there for not just a while but maybe two hours! And I think, there must be something to a man who can cry at the sight of something beautiful. Joe, he is very special like that."

Price may be the most down-to-earth millionaire you'll ever meet, a doting husband and father with an Elmer Fudd-like giggle who rarely wades into society waters and then only if they are connected with Japanese art or theater.

Before he married Etsuko, he had already fallen in love with the art that has become his lifelong passion. After the couple returned to Bartlesville, they spent the next 30 years amassing the collection and traveling abroad with it for exhibits.

They now own what is widely considered the greatest collection in the Western World, perhaps anywhere outside the emperor's palace in Japan.

Unlike other rich collectors who often use art brokers to amass their investments, Price began acquiring Edo-period screens and silk scrolls on his own, with very little rational thought beyond a passion to possess it. Initially, he did not know much about the art, but rapidly became consumed with it. He would pay $100 for works that are believed today to be worth several hundred thousand dollars each.

After 30 years in Bartlesville, Etsuko was growing tired of being treated as an immigrant, and Price wanted to take the Shin'enkan collection to a wider and appreciating audience.

After searching the nation's museums and universities, he decided Southern Californians and the large Asian population here would more readily embrace the Japanese art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had the space to build a suitable home for his collection and the willingness to create a study center where students and scholars could immerse themselves in the work.

"It was the whole reason I moved everything out here," Price says. "It was why we built this house: to be near the art."

In 1983, he moved his collection of 300 pieces from Bartlesville to the Los Angeles museum, which will get half of the works when the Prices die.

The relationship since has often been stormy, with Price complaining about the display and lighting of the art, and the museum claiming it has tried to resolve the problems. Volumes could be written about Price's grievances, but the end result has been this: The study center is now run by Price in a condo near his house.

Much of what he calls his Shin'enkan collection--in Japanese it means house where one loses their heart-- was loaned to the museum in 1986. The rest is mostly stored in museum vaults, although he keeps certain pieces for visiting students to see in an office vault near home.

He likes to think of himself as a simple country boy, who had the good fortune to meet three of what he calls the most brilliant men in the world: architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff and Prince.

Their aesthetics clearly influenced him. Wright designed a Price family home, Price Towers and shared with Joe Price his love of nature. Goff designed Joe's truly eccentric Bartlesville home and art museum, and the L.A. museum's Japanese Pavilion before he died in 1982. Wright collected Japanese woodblock prints, and Goff was also a fan of several Edo period artists.

It's understandable how Price could view his present home as normal compared to his first. It was seriously funky--with entire rooms carpeted, brilliant stained-glass windows and a plastic waterfall--for starters.

There are no waterfalls, anyway, at the Mushroom House.

Privacy, Prince says, was the driving concern in designing the 4,000-square-foot home.

"The house unfolds in layers of privacy; it's a Japanese quality tied to a type of privacy and sanctity of the home, where there might be a person who enters the front, but they only get so far in the house," Prince explains.

Price, about to lead me from his office through a hidden door into the fur room, puts the privacy thing this way: "In Japan, you don't bring your friends home to throw up on your wife's carpet. They can come in here and nobody knows they're here."

So begins the tour, an hours-long, meandering visit that often is disorienting. In nearly every room but the kitchen-family room it is impossible to see any other part of the house, adding to a sense of privacy.

From the street you wind back into a darkened path, and Price punches a second security code before we enter a door that looks like a wall. Up a spiral of stairs we go to his office, where closed-circuit television monitors the perimeter. From here we slide through a camouflaged wall into the "soft" room, where his youngest daughter, Sachi, 11, likes to watch television. (His other daughter, Shinobu, is 17). It is lined with sheepskin and carpet. Rotating stained-glass windows shield any view of one daughter's private balcony.

Toward the spectacular wall-to-wall windows with a vista of crashing waves is a bar where Price--who bought a $60,000 lifetime flight ticket--has collected scads of airline liquor bottles. This is the second layer of privacy.

From this room, a hidden staircase leads down into the family's private quarters. There is a lovely winding pool deep enough to dive into from stacked boulders, and on the other side is the kitchen-family room overlooking the ocean.

Both cozy and modern, the kitchen was designed for Etsuko. It's high-tech with black counters and a crescent-shaped sushi bar, but they hold every spice imaginable and a pair of goofy salt and pepper shakers.

"We are like anybody else," Etsuko Price says. "Yes, we live in a fancy house, but we don't live fancy. Breakfast, lunch and dinner like anybody else."

Standing in her kitchen, Etsuko looks around her and explains what their money has afforded them: They can share their passion for the Edo art with graduate students in Japanese art history from all over the country and abroad.

About 4 years old now, Price's Edo study center is funded entirely by a foundation he created. After they're gone, his wife says, their home will belong to the foundation.

Price's study program bankrolls air fare and other travel expenses of graduate students and their professors. The visitors stay for a week or so at a fully stocked and furnished Corona del Mar condominium Price owns. Here they can study from a library brimming with Edo literature and 100-year-old Japanese art journals. And it's just a walk down the road for the rare opportunity to examine the art outside a museum.

"Scholars never have conditions as good as this," Price says. "Usually, they are looking at the work through the glare on the glass or from a distance in a museum."

He is mostly cheery and never seems to tire of sharing knowledge about the art and his indefatigable zeal to share it with the world. He works each day now on a computer program that is still being designed by a Cal State Long Beach art professor and computer whiz, and believes it will revolutionize the study of Edo art.

Every piece of the collection from the period (1615-1868)--considered the most innovative for Japanese painting--will be included, as well as fakes, so students can view the difference.

In typical deprecating manner, Price sits out on his breathtaking landing one day and tells the story of first meeting the computer programmer who is still devising the system, which for now totally preoccupies Joe Price.

"He's talking to this guy, and I turned to Etsuko and asked her to translate what they were saying. And she said: 'They're not speaking Japanese, Joe, they're speaking English!" He bursts into laughter. "I had no idea what they were talking about. No idea!"

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