Royal undertaking

Times Staff Writer

Like the phoenix, Castle Kashan will rise from the ashes of the Oct. 21 blaze in Malibu, pledges its owner, Lilly Lawrence, a philanthropist and international socialite.

Lawrence, a fixture in this seaside enclave for decades, has temporarily leased a Santa Monica beachfront house while she oversees the rebuilding of her castle on the hilltop. The castle was a local landmark, and Princess Lilly -- as she is known -- has no intention of leaving Malibu on a permanent basis.

She not only will rebuild, she said, but will build another castle. She is leaning toward modeling her next home after the style, if not the size, of the Chambord Castle in France. Chambord is the largest of the Loire castles -- 440 rooms -- and was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.

Although she hasn’t settled on an architect yet, one candidate for the job is Taylor Louden, a historical preservationist who worked on the restoration of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif., and the Will Rogers estate in Pacific Palisades.

“First we will rescue what we can,” she said, while surveying the castle ruins on a recent visit, pointing to two towering urns from a villa in Italy and a 4-foot-tall antique porcelain Chinese vase covered in soot. Next, the debris will be removed and the ground leveled. “And then,” she said, “we will move forward with a new castle.”


The Castle Kashan had been on the market for $17 million at the time of the fire. It had fallen out of escrow a few weeks earlier, Lawrence said. The property was featured in The Times’ Real Estate section as a Home of the Week in February.

When the castle burned to the ground, Lawrence, the daughter of an exiled Iranian oil minister, lost centuries-old chandeliers and Persian rugs that had been in her family for generations. She managed to rescue her late husband’s ashes and a handful of jewels -- but not her mother’s jewelry, a collection believed to have been second only to Queen Elizabeth II’s. She also saved Elvis’ Army fatigues -- Lawrence is a die-hard fan -- and her two cats.

Other items lost to the fire were priceless antiques, irreplaceable artworks and family photos as well as memorabilia from her world travels. Lawrence was in residence that morning and recalled being awakened twice in the pre-dawn hours by the smell of smoke. Both times she peeked in the courtyard and saw nothing amiss -- a houseguest’s car was still parked there and all was quiet -- so she returned to sleep. An hour later, the fire department banged on the gilded entry gates, waking up the household and evacuating the castle.

Although the multistory castle was leveled by the blaze, the adjacent guesthouse and garages remain standing for now; they sustained substantial damage and will be torn down during the rebuilding.

The castle ruins are protected around the clock by security guards and are enclosed by a locked chain-link fence to discourage trespassers and thieves.

The public response to the destruction of the landmark castle came with as much speed and intensity as the fire that claimed it. It was nothing short of “overwhelming,” Lawrence said. She received “thousands and thousands of letters and cards from people around the country . . . around the world,” she said.

One Minnesota family even offered to return the princess’ childhood doll, a gift she had given their daughter at a church event years earlier.

Lawrence said this was the second home she has lost. Her family was forced to flee its ancestral home in Iran, Fallah Palace.

But life must move forward, the princess said. “How can I cry about my things when boys are coming home in body bags from Iraq?” she asked.

She responded to her loss by doing what she has always done: support her causes. Less than two weeks after losing Castle Kashan and almost everything in it, she appeared at a benefit dinner to raise money for the Good News Foundation to feed and clothe homeless children.

As a longtime supporter of striking workers, she has been quietly sending lunch every day to the Writers Guild of America picket lines. Few knew that she is the anonymous sponsor of the daily Whole Foods run.

Even as she gingerly picked her way through the rubble of her former home, careful to avoid protruding nails, bent steel rods, shattered glass and fallen stones, she remembered the many charitable functions held within the castle walls.

The last official event before the fire, she said, was a Victorian high tea in September for the Children’s Lifesaving Foundation, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth. Lawrence dressed in a white Victorian dress and carried a parasol, and children were offered rides in a “Cinderella” carriage drawn by four white horses. There was a trademark “Princess Lilly” element to the event: Guests could buy cupcakes for $10 each -- in hopes of getting a pair of diamond earrings baked inside one. Lawrence is known for giving dinner guests blue Tiffany boxes containing diamond earrings as party favors.

At the Children’s Lifesaving Foundation event, Lawrence also auctioned off two castle dinners that she had agreed to host with Michael Chiklis, star of FX’s “The Shield.” The dinners fetched $16,000 for the charity but haven’t yet taken place.

“And now there is no castle to hold the dinners in,” Lawrence said. “Perhaps they’ll wait until I rebuild?”