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End of an Episode

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The days are numbered for one of Laguna Beach’s celebrity houses, the former oceanfront home of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

Come October, if all goes according to plan, the three-bedroom, single-story house perched atop a bluff in the gated neighborhood of Lagunita will be razed.

Tony and Jane Ciabattoni, the new owners, will then begin building a two-story, Italian country house reminiscent of those on the southern coast of Italy.

Designed by Newport Beach architect Brion S. Jeannette, the 6,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home will feature an office, an exercise room, a hobby room, a game room, a wine cellar, a home theater, a small meditation chapel off a courtyard, and an elevator linking the two upper levels and basement.

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The preliminary architectural plans, which have received the blessing of the Lagunita Community Assn., go to the city’s design review board next month.

The Ciabattonis, who bought the Nelson house in May 1997 for $1.85 million, always intended to build a new home on the property. It was the setting--not the structure or its celebrity pedigree--that appealed to Ciabattoni, former owner of two office furniture companies; and his wife, a former teacher with the Capistrano Unified School District.

“It’s a beautiful setting, but you take the history associated with the house and it makes it just more special,” said Tony Ciabattoni, 53, who grew up watching “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

The Nelsons’ Cape Cod Colonial home in Hollywood--the big, white two-story house seen in the opening credits of their long-running TV series--was unquestionably the more recognizable Nelson home.

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But the smaller, low-profile house in Laguna Beach figured no less prominently in the lives of one of America’s best-known show business families.

Built in 1955 as a weekend retreat, the Nelsons’ Lagunita home is where the family came to relax during time off from filming the series.

It was Ozzie’s love of the ocean that drew them to Laguna, Harriet Nelson told The Times in 1989. “I didn’t care for it at first, but he loved it so,” she said. “I learned to put up with it, and then, gradually, I learned to love it too.”

A lifelong swimmer, Ozzie took a half-mile ocean swim twice a day and played volleyball on the secluded beach below the house.

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During the 1950s, David and Rick’s teenage buddies were frequent visitors, sleeping on the living room floor and prompting Harriet to later say, “I’d have to step over them to get to the kitchen in the morning.”

To provide more room for David and Rick--and their friends--in the original two-bedroom house Ozzie and Harriet had the garage converted into a guest house and built a new garage next to it.

By the late 1960s, Lagunita had become the focal point for Nelson family members and friends. Rick and his wife at the time, Kris, had a condominium at nearby Blue Lagoon and later a house at the end of Victoria Beach. Rick’s in-laws, Tom and Elyse Harmon, lived two doors from Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie’s brother, Don, a writer on the TV series, also owned a house in Lagunita. So did actor Kent McCord, whose acting career began on “Ozzie and Harriet,” and producer Joe Byrne, a high school friend of David and Rick’s who began his career as a gofer on the show.

David Nelson, now 61, has fond memories of the place.

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“My first family and my second family all grew up there on the beach, and that’s where I met [second wife] Yvonne,” said Nelson, a father of five. “The memories are really of the water and the beach and fishing and bodysurfing and snorkeling and stuff like that. It was a lot of fun.”

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There were also some bad times.

The Lagunita house is where a still-grieving Harriet moved full time after selling her longtime home in Hollywood a few years after Ozzie’s death to cancer in 1975. It’s also where Harriet learned over the evening news that Rick had died in an airplane crash in Texas on New Year’s Eve, 1985.

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And it’s where Harriet, with David and other family members by her side, died of congestive heart failure in 1994.

The house was inherited by David as well as by Rick’s children: actress Tracy Nelson and her three brothers--Sam and twins Matthew and Gunnar--who are carrying on the family’s musical tradition.

Now 30, the twins have a large store of memories of Lagunita, both as children and as young men.

“For us, that’s really the place we escaped to, and Grandma was the person we escaped to,” said Matthew Nelson.

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His strongest memory is of a conversation he had with his grandmother in her living room late one night about three years after his father died.

“The thing we discussed, really, was death, coming to terms with Dad being gone,” Matthew recalled. “I think I asked something like, ‘Grandma, what do you think? Are you afraid to go?’ She looked at me, and it was weird; it was almost as if she were channeling. In a very calm voice, she said, ‘I’m absolutely, 100% sure I’m going to be with your grandfather and your dad. I know I’m going to someplace better, and I know I’ll see you there when it’s your time.’

“From then on, I didn’t have an ounce of fear of dying. I think that was probably the heaviest moment I ever had in that house. But we had so much fun there, so many parties, so much laughter.”

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After Harriet died, the Nelson clan shared use of the house and leased it out part of the year.

The Ciabattonis began leasing the house in late 1996 while waiting to buy the old Harmon home, which they previously had leased for a year. The couple, who have two adult children, had lived in Mission Viejo and San Juan Capistrano for 25 years and decided to move to the beach after Ciabattoni sold his two businesses.

“During that time I got to know Dave a little bit and asked him if he had any interest in selling the house,” recalled Tony Ciabattoni. “David said there wasn’t much interest in selling it.”

That changed a few months later when Ciabattoni, nearing close of escrow on the other house, made a last-ditch offer on the Nelson property. This time, David Nelson said he’d talk it over with Rick’s children.

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“It was my preference to keep it, knowing how my dad felt about it,” Nelson said. “However, the kids financially needed to sell it.”

“It was a hard decision; it didn’t come easily,” said Gunnar Nelson. When his grandmother was alive, he said, “there was a certain lightness about the house,” but after she died, “It was really apparent she was not there. The energy had gone out of the house. It had ceased to be, really, the Nelson family house.”

Added Matthew Nelson: “The house and land has meant so much to our family for so many years, but I was OK with selling it, if there was a reason to do it. I think it’s almost Grandma’s way of saying, ‘My work’s finished. It’s time for you guys to do something.’ ”

Ciabattoni said he broke off escrow on the other house to buy the Nelson home. With its substantially wider lot and northern and southern views, he considers it the “premier” property in Lagunita.

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The house, however, is another matter.

“It’s functionally obsolete,” Ciabattoni said. The electrical wiring is outmoded and in need of repair, as is the plumbing. And, he said, “the ocean has just worn it out over 40-something years. It’s just time for it to go.”

Ciabattoni said architect Jeannette, Los Angeles interior architect Lauren Rottet, contractor Tony Valentine of Newport Beach, and Ivy Landscaping of Laguna Beach are collaborating to take the best advantage of the bluff-top site.

Jeannette, who is best known for designing a house built into a large rock formation in South Laguna, said that with any coastal property where views are prized, the biggest challenge is “to make sure the neighbors are comfortable with what we’re doing.”

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To minimize view obstruction, he said, the street-level part of the house will feature a 25-foot-wide open area flanked by the garage and a bedroom on one side and an office and a bedroom on the other.

“We put the bulk of the house in the middle [level], which is a full level below the street, and then we have additional space in the basement,” three-quarters of which will be underground, he said.

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Although the house sold in May, the Nelsons have maintained a tenuous link to it. The Ciabattonis, whose furniture is in storage, are using Harriet’s furniture, which will be divided between David and Rick’s children. The Ciabattonis also invited David and Yvonne Nelson to spend their wedding anniversary at the house last year while the Ciabattonis were away.

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“That invitation will always be there, even if it’s a new house,” Ciabattoni said.

Not every remnant of the former owners is slated to disappear. The Ciabattonis plan to keep a sense of the Nelson history alive in the new house.

They may hang Nelson movie posters in the foyer of their home theater, or display Nelson family pictures along the staircase. Or, the couple say, they may use rocks from the fireplace for outdoor seating or incorporate other parts of the old house into the new.

It’s not that they’re “celebrity followers,” Ciabattoni said. “What motivates us to want to do this is having gotten to know Dave and the things he’s communicated about his family in relation to the house.

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“I just want that family to know that just because the house comes down, that doesn’t mean the memory goes away. Not for us. We’ll do what we can to maintain it.”

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One way the memory of the original owners will linger in the new house comes courtesy of an unusual source.

Included in the sale of the house were the original, ‘50s-vintage stainless-steel-fronted oven and refrigerator that had been given to the Nelsons by Hotpoint, their show’s sponsor at the time.

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“The oven’s a little temperamental,” Ciabattoni said, “but the refrigerator is just unbelievable. It’s not only terrific to look at, but here we are in 1998 and it’s still running.”

Although they plan to use the refrigerator in the new home--possibly in a wet-bar area, Jeannette says--they may incorporate only the door of the oven.

“It’s got this great Hotpoint logo on it,” Ciabattoni said. “You don’t see logos like that anymore. It looks like a logo from a car in the ‘50s.”

David Nelson, a longtime Encino resident who heads a company that produces TV commercials, has bought a new house in the Castaways luxury home development in Newport Beach. It’s due to be completed in October, about the time the old house in Lagunita is scheduled to be demolished.

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Nelson doubts he’ll drive down to watch the house come down. But it’s a short drive, he said, and he definitely plans to visit the Ciabattonis--and perhaps rekindle some memories.

“They’re real nice people,” he said. “I’m very happy for them. Whether the house is there or not, it’s the location, really, that matters.”

Still, as Gunnar Nelson says of the pending demolition: “It’s going to definitely be an exclamation point, the end of an era. There is a certain finality to it you can’t back away from. But I’m sure Grandma wouldn’t have it any other way.”


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