The Lonely Mansion


It is not the fanciest house on the block, nor is it on the fanciest block in the city. A three-story, two-bedroom mock English Tudor situated just above Wilshire in Windsor Square, the official residence of the mayor of Los Angeles has no outstanding characteristics--no flags flying, no impressive security fence. It differs from its neighbors in only two noticeable ways: There is a blue-painted handicap zone on the curb in front of the driveway, and no one lives there. And for at least four more years, no one will.

Declining the 605 S. Irving address, once fashionable enough for the likes of John Barrymore and Lee Strasberg, has become a new mayoral tradition. Citing the needs of their young children, Mayor Jim Hahn and his wife, Ramona, have decided to remain residents of San Pedro. And, presumably, the Harbor Freeway.

Not that they don't intend to use Getty House. Their own house, ensconced on a semi-Spielbergian street within walking distance of their elementary school and a very nice park, is lovely in a suburban kind of way, but it's hard to imagine the mayoral staff, much less visiting dignitaries, schlepping down the 110 while Mrs. Hahn hurriedly sweeps the Legos and the Razor scooters into the nearest closet.

So just last week, Hahn held his first staff meeting at the mayoral mansion. In the way of such things, housekeeper Mercedes Demonteverde hadn't been at the house 10 minutes before she discovered a flooded basement. A typical pre-fete disaster, with a less-than-typical solution--city workers were there in less than 20 minutes.

By 9:30, Demonteverde was dividing her time between the supervision of table linens and a small cadre of city workers tromping up and down the basement stairs. But if the back and bottom of the house were roiling with activity, the rest of house lay in a well-polished silence. A faint smell of lemon and wax hung expectantly above the Italian painted console in the vestibule, the striking secretary bookcase and the pillows perfectly arranged on the velveteen sofa in the living room. There is no sign of actual life, of course--no half-read newspapers, no coffee cups, no--heaven forbid--overflowing ashtrays. Nothing, not a book, not a figurine, not a vase was out of place; even the morning sunlight shone through the multi-paned windows in an orderly way.

Los Angeles is one of a handful of cities with such houses--New York has Gracie Mansion and Detroit Manoogian Mansion, Denver's mayor will soon occupy the to-be-renamed Cableland Estate and in the nation's capitol, a move is afoot to build Casey Mansion on the recently razed Brady Estate.

But Los Angeles stands alone in having an official residence in which no official resides.

Considering the "Love, American Style"-type antics that have been rustling down the halls and slamming the bedroom doors in Gracie Mansion, this may not be such a bad thing. Still, in a city where a house is not just a cigar but both personal status symbol and economic bellwether, there is something poignant about any uninhabited mock Tudor, even one that is possibly a bit too close to Wilshire.

Issues of Desirability Rather Than Politics

Historically, officials have occasionally declined to live in government-appointed residences--California Gov. Jerry Brown pointedly passed on inhabiting the lavish gubernatorial mansion vacated by Ronald Reagan, and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams is notably unenthusiastic about the possibility of a new address--but Getty House seems to have issues of desirability rather than politics.

Donated to the city by Getty Oil in 1975, Getty House, as such, has had only had one resident. Mayor Tom Bradley and his wife, Ethel, lived there from 1977 until 1993. But when Mayor-elect Richard Riordan announced he would stay in his own home, no one was very surprised. Brentwood to Windsor Square is not exactly ZIP Code inflation, and free rent is not a huge draw for a millionaire. Getty House was neither large nor luxurious, and it needed a lot of work. Mrs. Bradley had begun packing long before Riordan took office--although she felt she had done wonders with the garden, she had never liked the house. She could not wait, she said at the time, to get out.

Still, it wouldn't do to let the mayoral mansion turn into 1313 Mockingbird Lane. So Riordan quickly created the Getty House Restoration Foundation and appointed Nancy Daly, who would later become Nancy Daly Riordan, to oversee the remodeling.

"Soon Gracie Mansion will be known as Getty House East," Riordan joked a year and a half later during the housewarming festivities. A few folks made snarky Sun King-type remarks, questioning the need for a lavish mayoral residence in a town with a notable homelessness problem--the $25,000 French chandelier in the dining room seemed to stick in more than a few craws.

Such criticism is not particular to L.A.--in Detroit, any money set aside for even the smallest repair is raked over in the letters to the editor, and neighbors regularly complain that the mayor receives better trash and snow removal services.

But it was, and is, a bit hard to take such criticism too seriously. The $2-million-and-change cost of the new, improved Getty House was paid for by private donations of cash, items and services to the foundation; during his eight-year term, Riordan personally paid the housekeeper's salary and the water and electric bills. And it would be difficult for anyone not formerly a citizen of the Soviet Union to describe Getty House as lavish. Even in a smaller city, its formal decor and green, cream and claret color scheme could at most be described as mildly grand; here in Los Angeles, it's positively subdued. Sure, there's an Ed Ruscha in the dining room, but that's as over-the-top as it gets. Apres-moi, le scattered showers. Upon its debut, Getty House was officially opened to the public. As enthusiastic as they were about the renovation, the Riordans never really considered living there, in part, says Nancy Riordan, because they had raised money to fix it up--it's one thing for a foundation to pay for those fancy new drapes, it's another if you happen to run the foundation. But mostly because it is not quite big enough to live in and open to the public.

Unlike Gracie Mansion, there is no ballroom, no room at all big enough to hold more than, say, 50 people. Fortunately, Angelenos can consider their backyards part of their homes year-round--many of the larger functions are held on the large lawn behind Getty House, or even on its tennis court.

At first, there was talk of inviting visiting dignitaries to stay there on extended visits, but really, the house is too small (it has 14 rooms in about 6,000 square feet), and has neither the staff--Demonteverde is it--nor the security for such things. The mayor dubbed it "The People's House" and used it for formal functions, news conferences, staff meetings, fund-raising events and, occasionally, a quick shower and a change. It's also a setting for school field trips and other educational programs.

And, according to the current mayor's office, these are the roles Getty House will continue to fill.

Getty House Foundation Director Occupies a Room

"In a way, it's easier not to have a family actually living here," says Susan Caputo, executive director of Getty House Foundation. "Not," she adds quickly, "that we wouldn't have been delighted if the Hahns had chosen to live here."

Caputo is as close to a resident as the Getty House has--the foundation's office is on the second floor, off the sitting room that is connected to the guest bedroom suite. With its stacks of papers and fax machine, it is the only room in the house that looks at all lived in, and then only by a very neat sort of person.

Having been with the foundation since the beginning, Caputo moves through the house with the easy commentary of a White House tour guide. It is an odd sort of tour; the house does not brim with history--a few of the pieces date all the way back to the Bradley administration, but most are new and, though lovely, unremarkable, and the number of truly famous people who have visited the house is limited--the Japanese prime minister was here a year or so ago, and Mr. Blackwell lives down the street.

There are some interesting tchotchkes--keys and vases, ivory figures and other gifts from foreign governments in the living room breakfront, and some nice art on loan from various local museums on the walls, but in the end, the house is neither museum nor historical landmark. Fittingly, perhaps, it feels like a tastefully decorated television set.

And it's easy to see why it remains uninhabited. Homey it's not. Plaques acknowledging generous support glint from many walls and all the major pieces of furniture; the graceful stems of orchids, ivy and other arrangements are all fake, and every surface, from the dark wood floors to the tops of the bureaus, are spotless to the point of admonishment. In the library, the gold-embossed leather binding of the books (donated by the Franklin Mint) glow promisingly, and the titles seem at first startlingly eclectic--Yeats and Chandler, Plutarch and Alice Hoffman, but closer inspection reveals a Gatsby-like flaw. What family, mayoral or not, would require seven copies of the "Decameron," six of "The Iliad" and at least eight of Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain"?

According to the foundation's agreement with the city, the first floor of the house must remain untouched, which doesn't bode well for future occupancy. Those books alone could be a sticking point, and rearing kids in this house does not seem even remotely possible, although the wide lawn, marvelous sunken garden and tennis court in the backyard would go far in making up for the don't-touch rule.

The kitchen is huge, and the two bedroom suites upstairs are a bit more comfortable, and, according to Caputo, there is a bit of wiggle room in terms of decorating should a future mayor decide to move in. "We'd want to work with them in making changes," she says, "but obviously, they'd want some of their own things in the bedrooms."

The third floor, once a playroom, is now a small gym. Here schoolchildren encounter the civics lesson portion of their tour, and the fact that they are writing to members of the council in the shadow of a Nordic Track seems fitting somehow. Burn while you learn.

Not Large Enough for Public and Private Life

With all its charms, says Nancy Riordan, Getty House will never be the most convenient of domiciles. Even if one overlooked the constant roar of traffic down 6th Street, there is no undoing the public nature of the place. A mansion it may be, but it certainly isn't large enough to keep a private life separated from a public tour.

"I met with Mrs. [Donna Hanover] Giuliani a year ago," Riordan says, pausing for a moment before correcting herself tactfully. "Well, I suppose it was a couple of years ago, and I asked her what it was like living in Gracie Mansion, and she said it wasn't easy, especially with children. You simply do not have privacy."

And Gracie Mansion, she adds, is a whole different ballgame. It is larger, with a much bigger budget, a much higher profile, it even has its own chef. Still, the mansion was criticized just last week in the New York Times for its shabby appearance, a fate that even in New York is far worse than scandal.

"On the one hand, people want the mayor to have a nice place to hold events, to greet visitors," says Riordan. "But it's always hard to raise the money. Gracie Mansion is worn down because Mrs. Giuliani has had," again comes a tactful pause, "other things to focus on."

Those who occupy official residences often find themselves reluctant to make major improvements. Bradley, says Riordan, was too embarrassed to ask the city for any funds for the upkeep of Getty House. The foundation, she says, relieves the mayor of that burden. The Hahns will not, as the Riordans did, assume any of the maintenance of the house. The city recently allocated $118,000 to the foundation to pay for, among other things, Demonteverde's salary and insurance. The water and electricity bills, too, will return to the city's purview through the office of city assets; the garden has been tended to by the Department of Parks and Recreation since 1977.

"I think there has grown a pride and even a sense of ownership among people," says Riordan. "It really is an asset to the city. I think this shows that Angelenos do have a respect for historical buildings. We expect the mayor to greet people from an appropriate place, a nice place," she adds, "and we can't expect him to do it from his own home."

Although a photo op with the Japanese prime minister in San Pedro would be absolutely worth the drive.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday August 2, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction Wrong name--A story on the mayor's mansion in Monday's Southern California Living misstated the name of Mayor James K. Hahn's wife. It is Monica, not Ramona, which is his mother's name.
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