No Rhapsody on Roxbury

Times Staff Writer

Property rights have once again prevailed in Beverly Hills -- a city that has thrived on its role as a cradle for popular culture but has tended to accommodate wealthy homeowners who would rather tear down than restore dwellings where the entertainment elite once lived.

The latest structure to be reduced to rubble is 1019 N. Roxbury Drive, the house where George and Ira Gershwin wrote "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Shall We Dance" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Singer Rosemary Clooney lived there for half a century.

Despite a letter-writing campaign by preservationists and Gershwin admirers, Beverly Hills issued a demolition permit for the property in July, and the place where the visiting Bing Crosby once crooned "White Christmas" is now all but gone, along with its lush landscaping.

"Obviously, this is a significant loss to the musical legacy of our nation and the history of Beverly Hills and its role in shaping American culture," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The demolition, he said, was "wholly avoidable" and occurred because Beverly Hills, unlike neighboring cities such as Los Angeles and West Hollywood, lacks a historic preservation ordinance.

"Despite repeated pleas from local residents, Beverly Hills still has no mechanism to protect its historic and cultural treasures," Bernstein said.

The city is conducting a survey of properties to determine which ones should be considered historic. When a similar survey was done 20 years ago, the Gershwin house did not make the list. Mention on the historic roster, however, doesn't necessarily protect a structure from demolition.

"This city has so many properties associated with celebrities," said Mahdi Aluzri, Beverly Hills' community development director. "We'd pretty much have to put a hold on a substantial amount of housing stock."

Given the rarefied prices of Beverly Hills real estate, there has long been a belief in the city that people should have wide latitude in deciding what to do with their property.

By any measure, the most striking example of Beverly Hills' failure to preserve famous homes was the razing in 1990 of Pickfair, the Wallace Neff-designed, 42-room estate of early film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Entertainer Pia Zadora and her multimillionaire husband, Meshulam Riklis, all but demolished Pickfair, one of the last relics of Hollywood's golden age, to build an enormous Venetian palazzo.

At one time, Pickfair, a green-gabled melange of American Colonial styles where the couple played hosts to the likes of Albert Einstein and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, was said by admirers to be the nation's second most famous residence, after the White House. Contractors hired by Zadora and Riklis said the house had been eaten away by termites and was beyond salvaging, but that did not soothe critics.

"We've been trying to get the city to come up with a preservation guideline and standards similar to what the Los Angeles Conservancy has done, but in Beverly Hills they just don't seem to have the wherewithal and interest to delve into this very seriously," said Jan Horn, founder and executive director of Coldwell Banker's architectural division.

The Spanish Colonial Revival house at 1019 N. Roxbury was no Pickfair, but it won notice as a wellspring of the American popular song, one Gershwin fan said. Over the decades, it had a string of owners or residents, many of them prominent entertainers of their day, said Judy Cameron, a former Beverly Hills resident who has tracked many of the property's owners and tenants.

Palatial and grand, with pool, tennis court and chauffeur's quarters, the house was built in 1928 for Monte Blue, a silent film star.

In 1934, it was rented by Russ Columbo, a popular singer who lived there for a short time, possibly with his girlfriend, Carole Lombard.

The next tenant was composer George Gershwin, who resided there with his brother Ira, a lyricist, and Ira's wife, Lee. The Gershwin brothers had migrated west from New York after failing to recoup production costs for their folk opera "Porgy and Bess."

Working on a grand piano in the corner of the sunken living room, they wrote a number of songs for musical films, including "Shall We Dance" with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. As legend has it, George came bounding down the stairs one day to the piano, saying: "Hey, Ira, it can't be 'A Foggy Day in London.' It's got to be 'A Foggy Day in London Town!' "

The Gershwins' goal was to amass enough cash that they could concentrate on creating serious works. But in 1937, while composing songs for the movie "The Goldwyn Follies," George fell ill. He died not long after, at 38, of a brain tumor. Ira and Lee moved next door to 1021 N. Roxbury.

In the early 1940s, Ginny Simms, a band singer, bought the house. She sold it in 1953 to newlyweds Jose Ferrer, an actor, director and musician, and Rosemary Clooney. The couple had five children by 1960 but later divorced. Clooney, famous for her rendition of "Come On-a My House," died at the house of lung cancer in 2002.

Over the years, a who's who of show business had paraded through her doors, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin. Celebrity neighbors who lived within a block or two on the street included Lucille Ball, James Stewart and Jack Benny.

"It's terrible," said Denny Hankla, who rolled by the property on a two-wheeled scooter one recent morning. "This place was a landmark. It had a really great vibe."

Hankla, a drummer who said he was a friend of Miguel Ferrer, the oldest son of Ferrer and Clooney, said he spent the night in the house one time when "Rosie was still alive."

The common denominator of those who lived at 1019 N. Roxbury, Cameron said, was that they were all self-made American successes.

"I think it was a happy house full of people coming and going and people who had it made," she said. "Roxbury is this street of having it made."

Indeed, "Roxbury is our dream street," said Ned Nik, who bought the property earlier this year from Fisch Properties. Although Nik said the sellers stipulated that the transaction price remain confidential, sources in the real estate community put it at $9 million.

Enamored of the street, Nik, a general contractor who emigrated from Iran in 1980, said he had attempted to buy four other properties on North Roxbury but that those deals had fallen through.

Nik said he at first considered keeping "as much as possible" of the original structure and remodeling. He changed his mind, however, after engineers found mold and termite damage. In addition, he said, the foundation did not conform with current seismic codes.

Nik's purchase was recorded on May 4. Soon after, bulldozers were spotted at the site, and the buildings had all been marked with large Ds (for demolition). After a reporter for The Times called Beverly Hills' Department of Community Development-Planning , the agency dispatched an inspector who issued a stop-work order because the new owner had not yet received the proper demolition permits.

"We continued to work with the applicant," said Aluzri, who heads the planning department.

In 2004, Beverly Hills adopted strict design codes that require anyone building a house to go through a design review process. That process was prompted in large part by the explosion in recent years of what were derisively called "Persian palaces."

Many of those imposing structures, which are adorned by concrete columns and popular among the Iranian-born families who make up about one-sixth of Beverly Hills' population, were the work of an Iranian-born builder named Hamid Omrani. At 1019 N. Roxbury, Omrani is listed as the permit holder.

Aluzri said Omrani submitted plans for a Beaux Arts-style house that "was determined to be consistent" with permitted designs.

Nik said he also was working with two other architects to complete the design.

The city's survey is coming too late to save what Nancy Gershwin, whose father was a first cousin of George and Ira, considers to have been a special house. In New York, she said, the building on West 110th Street where George Gershwin, at 25, composed "Rhapsody in Blue" is marked with a terra cotta plaque.

"History there is perceived as adding value," she said. "In New York, there's a reverence for the past."

As for the now-demolished Roxbury house, she said: "It represents a world that doesn't exist anymore."

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