Jay Leno said it best when he was kidding around recently with “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks. “I can’t believe how much money you have, Kevin,” he joked. “Even your guest house has a guest house.”
In Los Angeles, guest houses are about privacy, interesting design and increasingly luxury. Whether large or small, most provide an intimate personal space set well apart from the main dwelling. They have come a long way from the early small structures, dubbed “granny houses,” that wealthy homeowners built in the 1930s behind their main residences to house visiting friends and family, who, because of the great weather here, made Los Angeles a regular vacation destination.
Today, some L.A. guest houses are bigger and more ostentatious than many family-sized dwellings in other cities. Some are just plain wacky. A few architects now are redefining the traditional guest house configuration. Lee Behzabi’s current residential project in Culver City, for example, leads passersby to believe they are viewing one large two-story structure. But in reality, a guest house fronts the street, and across an interior courtyard sits the main house. The two are connected by only the two high cement block walls, creating the illusion of one residence.
Unfortunately, the urge to put an additional small structure on one’s property without adhering to local code requirements seems to be irresistible to homeowners in hidden canyons in Los Angeles. Would-be Buckminster Fuller types often build their own fantasy structures on their property. These illegal dwellings are usually well hidden from the street and can range from odd geodesic shapes to spare, clean Japanese wood huts with no windows.
Charlie Pullman, a broker at Coldwell Banker/Fred Sands Realty, claims it’s impossible to tell how many guest houses currently exist in L.A. because so many of them are illegal.
“Right now there are 440 properties in L.A. with guest houses on the market at prices ranging from $99,000 to $45 million,” says Pullman. “There must be disclosure during the sale if there are no permits for the guest house. The city doesn’t get involved with the sale and only sends inspectors out when there is a complaint about a guest house or some kind of problem with the deal.”
He says properties with guest houses are really sought after because “people like to pay their mortgages with guest house rental fees.”
In Los Angeles, most properties are zoned “R-1" for a single-use residence, which does not allow for additional structures. In order to build a dwelling on the land, a property must be zoned R-2.
Potential guest house renters are well advised to check with local authorities about the legality of the house, lest they lose their living quarters to code inspectors.
The styles may differ, but the concept of the guest house is age-old. Even Marie Antoinette kept a small (well, small for French royalty) residence from which to escape the intrigues and conspiracies at the huge palace.
Guest houses range from the conventional as the quaint Tudor-style one at the Getty House, the official residence of the L.A. mayor, to an adaptation of the yurt, shelters used by tribes in Mongolia and Afghanistan.
Breathtaking View of the Pacific Ocean
Happy is the tenant who lives in the guest house of the Meier residence. Designed and completed between 1995 and 1997 by architect Edward Niles, the stunning modern glass and steel residence high in the Malibu hills was built for the late Cal State Northridge professor Dorothy Meier. Niles is known for his geometric iconoclastic residences built for well-heeled clients in hidden canyons. Like most of Niles’ clients, professor Meier worked closely with the architect throughout the entire construction phase.
The guest house, which mimics the cylindrical shape of the main house’s bedroom, occupies the upper level of a two-story drum that flanks the entry to the main house and also serves as the garage. The small round space is barely big enough for the guest house tenant’s huge bed and huge dog, but the grand ocean view makes the living area seem bigger than it is. A tiny kitchen and bathroom are wedged into the sides of the cylinder. On the ground is a two-car garage, which houses all the systems for the guest house, including a separate furnace, a water heater and a washer and dryer laundry station. The guest house has its own sense of privacy as the main house is totally hidden from view.
When Meier passed away several years ago, she left the property to the UCLA Foundation. Recently, the foundation sold the Malibu property in only 14 days for $1.5 million, according to Tidemark Properties sale broker Joseph Rohn.
A 400-Square-Foot Yurt With French Doors
A producer-writer-director in Topanga Canyon was searching for an inexpensive living space to house the 15-year-old daughter of his girlfriend. The teen needed privacy, and the structure--which could be converted into a guest house when the teen moved out--would be set well behind the main residence. A yurt filled the bill perfectly. A yurt is a circular structure traditionally covered in animal hides that have been used for centuries by tribes in Mongolia and Afghanistan.
The owner bought a basic yurt kit from Pacific Yurts of Portland, Ore., which updated the classic structure using canvas and Velcro instead of hides, thereby eliminating protests from canyon animal-rights activists. Pummeled with rain recently, the yurt stayed warm and dry. Inside the 400-square-foot yurt is a wood divider that hides the small bathroom.
The basic kit was customized by the owner with French doors and large windows that provide an extraordinary canyon view. “I was attracted to the yurt because of the low cost,” laughs the owner, who prefers to remain anonymous. “But when we started adding all the extras, the price shot up. What started out as a $13,000 investment ended up costing around $35,000--not including the time to erect it.”
Still, considering the average cost of construction in Southern California, the owner doesn’t protest too much. And it is a way cool teen hangout. The canvas walls absorb sound remarkably well, and this is a good thing for the adults on the property.
Guest House--Without a Main House
Local architects of note have traditionally found the space limitations of guest houses to be a challenge. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a guest house for a Runyan Canyon Road property above the Hollywood Hills. A&P; heir Huntington Hartford acquired the property in 1942 and began subdividing the 160-acres estate and parceling it out to friends and advisors. One advisor hired Wright to design the rustic two-story guest house to live in while his main residence was being constructed.
But the big house was never built on the 4.75-acre parcel, and for more than three decades, director Alan Handley lived in the guest house and remodeled the 2,000-square-foot dwelling. In 1984, the city of Los Angeles purchased the bulk of the Hartford estate to create Runyan Canyon Park. Today, hikers and dog walkers enjoy the same sweeping views formerly enjoyed only by millionaire playboys.
The guest house and the surrounding land are currently on the market for $3.9 million. Because the guest house was never intended as a main residence, the price includes new plans for a 8,500-square-foot contemporary residence. Or, for someone for whom money is no object, the guest house alone could provide a neat little hideaway for script reading or secret liaisons. Here’s a place where you can see all of L.A. but all of L.A. can’t see you. Because the property is surrounded by park land, the view is unobstructed and won’t be marred by future development, but its inhabitants will have to deal with curious hikers who flock to the popular hiking trail every day.
The Official Residence of the L.A. Mayor
The guest house at the Getty House in Hancock Park, the official residence of the mayor of Los Angeles, is a quaint Tudor-style structure built as a carriage house in the early 1920s by Leta and Paul Paulson. Architects Gabriel Meyer and Phillip Holler, who later designed the Chinese and Egyptian theaters in Hollywood, were told to spare no expense when designing the stately main residence and carriage house. The property has passed through the hands of a series of tenants and owners. Getty Oil acquired the property in the late ‘50s and eventually offered it to the city in memory of George S. Getty--hence, the name Getty House.
In 1993, Mayor Richard Riordan created the Getty House Foundation, chaired by his wife, Nancy Daly, to raise funds to rehabilitate and refurbish the residence. Riordan, who prefers to live in his Brentwood condo, moved the foundation offices into the main house. The carriage-guest house has remained empty, used only for storage. This is about to change, though.
“We fully expect that the next mayor will be living in the Getty House,” says Susan Caputo, executive director of the Getty House Foundation. “That means we’ll be moving back out to the guest house,” she says.
This guest house is not such a bad place for an office, however. Situated next to a lovely one-acre garden, the one-bedroom structure sits above a garage/storage area with views of the main house, lush vegetation and comedian Shecky Greene’s backyard. A narrow wooden staircase leads to a large upstairs room and kitchen.
Some Tenants Get 15 Minutes of Fame
Sure, we love our friends and family, but a guest house keeps visitors from interfering with our daily routines. When they leave, it can be an office, meditation room, library or a hide-out from the rest of the world.
Celebrity estate owners who decide to offer their quest house to renters need to check their own bad behavior, though, as testimony from a guest house tenant can send a landlord to another “big house.” Or not. Remember . . . uh . . . what was his name? Oh, yeah. Kato Kaelin.