It's Amazing What a Pricey Face Lift Gets You


Gone is the thick coat of avocado green on the entry walls. Gone, too, is the satellite dish that sat in the garden. Gone is the creaky kitchen.

The Getty House, the official residence of the mayor, a place that once seemed more suited to the Addams Family than to the city's first family, has gone glamorous. Think crystal chandeliers, burnished antiques, draperies made of $100-a-yard French fabric.

An age-defying face lift was all the committee had in mind when it undertook restoration of the 74-year-old Hancock Park house two years ago. But it soon became obvious, says Polly Williams Kroeger, executive director of the restoration, that "major reconstructive surgery" was in order.

The house, at 605 S. Irving Blvd., may have been long on history--it was once leased to John Barrymore and Dolores Costello, and those who have crossed its portals include Prince Charles and the prime minister of Japan--but it was woefully short on amenities.

A gift to the city from the Getty Foundation in 1976, it has been occupied by only one mayor, Tom Bradley, and his wife, Ethel. Preparing to move out in 1993, after 16 years in the house, Ethel Bradley told The Times: "The sooner the better."

To her, the house was not a home--not with its cavernous living room, the gloomy on-loan portraits on the walls, the rusty pipes, and the soot that shot out of floor heating vents and smudged the carpet.

When Richard Riordan became mayor in 1993, he said thanks, but no thanks, and stayed put in his large Westside home. But he envisioned a spiffed-up Getty House as a place to entertain foreign dignitaries and those who make commerce flow along the Pacific Rim. So he created the private Getty House Restoration Foundation and named as its chairwoman Nancy Daly, an activist and civic volunteer who also happens to be Riordan's significant other.

Just as things were about to get nicely under way, the Northridge earthquake hit, toppling the chimney, damaging the carriage house and putting the project on hold for a month. The committee began to rethink things. Perhaps it was time for a major overhaul of the 6,300-square-foot, 19-room, three-story English Tudor mansion, which was quite a showplace when it was built in 1921 for $83,000.

This promised to be a daunting task. Inappropriate modernization over the decades had compromised architectural integrity. The furnishings were largely a collection of mismatched donations. The vintage of the baths was once removed from the ark.

"As we started to look at the wiring and the basement floor [which was badly warped from flooding], we realized we'd bitten off more than we'd intended," Daly says. But she preferred to see the obstacles as "challenges."

"There was no point where we said, 'My God, we should burn it to the ground.' "

The big challenge was raising money. A series of fund-raisers, including an auction, a preview party at the house and two Mayor's Cup celebrity golf tournaments, not only brought out the big spenders but served to spread the word: Offers of free goods and services began coming in.

All told, the committee raised about $1.2 million, and, Daly estimates, at least as much came in donated goods and services. One donor gave a $25,000 French chandelier for the dining room. Others gave a pillow or two. Labor unions donated more than 2,000 hours.

The volunteer committee, which swelled to 300, sought out interior designers who were not only willing to work pro bono, but would agree to bring in--free--the furnishings required to make their designs become reality. There was a competition, with 19 designers chosen on the basis of their proposals and assigned specific rooms.

Each understood two things: They were to work within the color palette chosen by the committee--primarily green, claret and cream--and there were to be no battles of competing egos and nothing that was, well, too much of a statement.

"It's a traditional house," says Adele Yellin, chairwoman of the designer liaison committee. "We wanted a comfortable home, and we wanted this house to withstand a great deal of use." At the same time, it had to have a certain sophistication.

The Getty House, Daly emphasizes, is not one of those designer showcases where, when the last ticket-holder leaves, "somebody pulls it all away." It is the city's official guest house and may be home to future mayors. (Phase 2 of the restoration will be to work out protocol for the house's use and how it could, or should be, staffed.)

"They wanted to make sure things didn't get too theatrical," says designer Suzanne Rheinstein, who did the guest bedroom suite. To give its sitting room that lived-in look, she scattered dominoes on a desktop where she strategically placed two glasses with plastic ice cubes. A sniff reveals that the dark stuff in those glasses is indeed rum, but Rheinstein plans either to substitute fake rum or to anchor the glasses with quake wax before Getty House is opened for public tours Oct. 26.

Off the upstairs hallway, a bathroom and a little area with a safe and a kitchenette were ripped out to create a cozy home office for the mayor. Designers Donna Duperon and Ellen Cantor chose draperies with a grapevine motif in burgundy, beige and olive and beige wallpaper in a mini-palm design. As for the books in the custom wall unit, "They were all in the house," Duperon says. "We retrieved them from storage." Among the titles: "Manhole Covers of Los Angeles" and Tom Bradley's "The Impossible Dream."

Designer Linda Merrifield Kinninger had "a very restrained elegance, luxurious but livable" in mind in planning the living room. The walls, once yellowish beige, are now cream. A needlepoint rug from Portugal has replaced the sea-foam carpeting. The gold draperies are top of the line: Brunswig and Fils.

Designer Rhett Judice can think of only one word to describe the two-story entry before restoration: "Horrible." The avocado green walls have been painted pale cream. The dim lights have been replaced by ceiling spots. A handsome brass fixture hangs over an English Regency walnut table.

Throughout the Getty House, there will be art acquired on semi-permanent loan from local museums. Contemporary lithographs for the dining room. Landscapes by California artists for the entry.

The new kitchen is no mere prop. "A real working kitchen," says Yellin, with a six-burner Viking stove, multiple dishwashers, four ovens and a walk-in freezer and meat locker. Designer Kathryne Dahlman added a whimsical touch with trompe l'oeil pots and pans.

The Getty House sits on an acre, and time had not been kind to its garden, originally the work of noted landscape architect A.E. Hansen. Landscape designers Sandy Kennedy and Helen Stulberg replaced the dated brick walkway with flagstones. There was talk of filling in the sunken garden, but, Stulberg says, "I had a fit. Otherwise, it's just a big back yard." Her solution: to plant low plants there so "when they put platforms over it [for parties], they won't kill them."

Even the powder rooms are picture-perfect. One, originally dark and somber, was brought to life by Kerry Joyce with shiny white beveled tiles--the same type used in the Paris Metro.

Joyce also did the wine cellar, which is hidden behind a vault door with a secret back panel. "The perfect Prohibition hideaway," he observes. It's said that the upper level children's playroom, now converted to a gym, was once a speak-easy.

Public tours of the restored Getty House will be offered Oct. 26 through Nov. 22. Tickets are required and are available free at Ticketmaster outlets.

As of this writing, Riordan, who started the ball rolling, hasn't seen the restored house. "We decided we'd rather have him be surprised," Daly explains. He'll get his first peek Monday, "light-up night," when the designers will be on hand.

Three nights later, he'll host a $650-a-head black-tie dinner celebration at the house, with Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger as special guests and Mel Torme to entertain.

Maybe His Honor will decide he might like to live here, after all? Daly laughs. "That's right. There's a good chance."

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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