Inside the Master’s Retreat

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Robert Lipsett, a master teacher at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, gave 15 to 20 of his violin students a one-day crash course in Jascha Heifetz earlier this month.

He played a rare 33-rpm record on which the legendary violinist talked about being an artist. He invited colleagues of the musician to reminisce about the man. And he showed a video of Heifetz practicing in his Lloyd Wright-designed studio--the very room in which the group was sitting. For after the violinist’s death in 1987, his beloved redwood retreat had been dismantled from his Beverly Hills home, stored in a crate for six years and recently reconstructed at the Colburn School.

For Lipsett, the studio is a piece of musical real estate with great inspirational potential.


“Last century, there was Paganini, who reinvented the violin,” the teacher says. “This century, there was Heifetz. He had absolute command of the instrument, which is the hardest one to play. He not only raised the standard but maintained that level for decades. Though I’m not drawn to spiritual stuff, I do feel his aura in this room.”

Heifetz, no doubt, would feel right at home in the space, which the school is dedicating on April 18. Walking through the original “lobby,” he’d find his blue-green daybed, his brick-and-stone fireplace and the black leather desk chair--on which, out of deference, Lipsett refuses to sit. He’d also be surrounded by his bust of Beethoven and his Rachmaninoff poster, as well by as the cartoons he taped onto his built-in file cabinets. In one, an unhappy customer is questioning a bill--complaining to the owner of a car repair shop: “$120.34 for a tune-up,” he says. “Who tuned it? Jascha Heifetz?”

Students find the studio both awe-inspiring and intimidating. “There’s a lot of history in this room,” says Wesley Precourt, 15, who travels from San Diego twice a week to study violin at the school. “People grow quiet walking in, wondering if they should be here. And the studio is designed so you can hear everything perfectly.”

Those words are music to the ears of Harold Zellman, a Venice-based architect who oversaw the project. The task had particular resonance, he says, because his father was first-chair violin in a Los Angeles youth orchestra and a great admirer of Heifetz. Form Design, the contractors, spent six weeks dismantling the 850-square-foot studio while Zellman’s team worked up a reconstruction manual. Each piece of natural wood had to be labeled, photographed, marked on the back with indelible ink and individually wrapped before being stored in a steel weather-tight container. A computer model of the studio was also created to document geometric relationships.

“Architecture school teaches people how to design something new rather than reassembling existing pieces,” Zellman says. “We had to devise a strategy--a method of working backwards. It was like putting together an enormous puzzle with just under 1,000 pieces--then making it conform to new earthquake and building codes because it was rebuilt in a school. In the end, it was worth it, though. L.A. is famous for allowing its architectural and cultural history to disappear.”

Lloyd Wright, architect son of Frank Lloyd Wright and a friend of Heifetz since the 1930s, built the studio in 1948, just after the musician moved to Southern California. Located at the family home in Coldwater Canyon, it was originally a free-standing building with three irregular hexagons (lobby, studio, office-bedroom) connected to the main house by a covered breezeway. After his retirement in 1972, the musician spent much of his time there--practicing, doing paperwork, gazing out of two giant picture windows at the cityscape below.


After Heifetz died at the age of 86, the property was bought by actor James Woods, who planned to tear down what was there and rebuild something more to his liking. Before decimating the studio, he offered it to anyone willing to assume the moving costs. The Los Angeles Conservancy sponsored the search but bowed out after prolonged negotiations.

“Jimmy felt that the space was so special both to Heifetz and Lloyd Wright--and that its destruction would be a real loss,” says Woods’ architect, Lise Claiborne Matthews, who designed a trellis, at the actor’s request, to commemorate the studio.

Others agreed. But money--as always--was tight. The Skirball Museum, dedicated to American Jewish history, wanted to rebuild the studio in one of its galleries. Friends of Runyon Canyon hoped to turn the structure into the park’s visitors center, and the Cate School in Carpinteria was another interested party. At one point, Dr. Michael Rabkin, a Brentwood ophthalmologist, hired Zellman to help move the studio next to his Lloyd Wright home. Things fell apart, however, in the face of neighborhood opposition.

Enter the late Hortense Singer, a Beverly Hills matron and music lover who put through a call to Colburn Executive Director Toby Mayman in late 1991. Heifetz’s studio might be demolished, she said. Would the school consider saving it? Mayman, in turn, called Richard D. Colburn, the institute’s namesake and benefactor. He agreed to fork out $40,000, half of the estimated cost of preserving it, if Mayman was able to match the sum. Tapping friends, family and a number of foundations, she raised the money in a couple of years. In the end, the project was incorporated into the school’s plan for a new building, budgeted at $150,000. The exact cost is still uncertain, Mayman says.

Last July, just after the Colburn School moved from the fringe of the USC campus to its downtown home near the Music Center, a group made its way to the Bellflower storage area where the studio pieces were stored. To everyone’s relief, the wood was in mint condition, with no moisture or heat damage.

While reconstruction proceeded, Mayman’s office became a repository of Heifetz memorabilia for inclusion in the studio. There’s an ornate Cellini accordion donated by Woods, CDs from BMG, and Heifetz’s aluminum violin sent by Herbert Axelrod, who wrote a biography of the musician. Other artifacts--ranging from the violinist’s monogrammed cocktail glasses to the mezuza on his door--will alsobe displayed in what the school hopes will be a mini-Heifetz insttute, accessible to the public.

“I feel like I’m grasping at wisps of Heifetz,” Mayman says. “It’s odd to get a sense of the man by the objects that surrounded him.”

Purists object to the fact that space constraints prevented rebuilding the exterior of the studio and its bedroom-office segment. Still, Eric Wright--architect son of Lloyd Wright--has no problems with this incarnation. He likes that the space is being used for master classes and looks out on the site of the proposed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“I’d hate for it to be a museum piece,” he says. “And Dad would be pleased. The space was designed for the playing and performance of live music--he was very much into function.”

Jay Heifetz, son of Jascha and a Colburn board member, is equally enthusiastic. “With an unlimited budget, the studio might have ended up on a discreet hilltop as part of an institute,” he concedes. “But, given the realities of the world--and the option that it could be kindling--this is a perfect fit. My father realized that the design of a space is important to the stimulation of creative energy. The studio is also a reminder of the great talent that found its way to Los Angeles--adding to the perception that it’s a major cultural center of the world.”

When it comes to speculating what his Dad would think, however, Heifetz is more circumspect. “Whatever I said, he would disagree with,” he says. “He was an opinionated man and hated being second-guessed. My father was also very private. Now we can share his memory more freely than if he were here to inhibit the process.”