William Stephenson, 95; designed homes for Reagan, other celebrities

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From a Times Staff Writer

William R. Stephenson, a Los Angeles architect best known for designing the homes of several celebrities from Hollywood’s Golden Age including the Pacific Palisades residence of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, has died. He was 95.

Stephenson died of kidney failure Oct. 9 at his home in Brentwood, said his daughter Cecilia S. Duncan.

In a career spanning five decades in Southern California, Stephenson designed homes for a number of Hollywood’s leading figures of the 1950s, including director King Vidor; actress Laraine Day; dancer Cyd Charisse and her singer husband, Tony Martin; and singer Jo Stafford and her arranger/composer husband, Paul Weston, according to Stephenson’s family.


But his most famous clients were the Reagans. He designed their home in 1956, when the future California governor was a television star. In 1957, Stephenson told The Times that the residence was “not classified in my mind as Modern ranch house, [but] the style does indicate informality and country living and radiates a friendliness that one also feels from the owners.”

Reagan, as host of “General Electric Theater,” took his TV audience on tours of the all-electric home, then an example of a new utility industry campaign.

Years after building the Reagans’ home in the Palisades, Stephenson drew preliminary architectural plans for a proposed governor’s mansion in 1968, two years after Reagan was elected. The governor and his wife had been living in what Reagan biographer Lou Cannon described as “a dilapidated heap of Victorian gingerbread” when a group of Reagan supporters conducted an unsuccessful fundraising drive to build a new home for the governor. The Reagans ended up living in a 12-room Tudor house in Sacramento, which initially was rented and then bought by his supporters.

In 1972, Stephenson was awarded a $5,000 state contract to begin preliminary work on a new governor’s mansion in Sacramento. According to a Times report in 1972 quoting the then-state architect Fred Hummel, Stephenson’s role would be to write a plan “describing what a governor’s residence should be -- how big, how many rooms, preliminary cost estimates, landscaping, security.”

But plans for the mansion became a partisan issue, and the structure was never built.

Born in Portsmouth, Va., on Aug. 30, 1912, and raised in Norfolk, Va., Stephenson attended the University of Virginia, graduating with a degree in architecture in 1934. He moved to New York, where he eventually became a dance instructor for Arthur Murray. He parlayed his dancing ability into teaching jobs in Hawaii and in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel and the Beverly Hills Hotel in the late 1930s and early 40s.

During World War II, he worked at Douglas Aircraft as a structural engineer and earned his license to practice architecture in 1946. He worked for architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Burton Schutt until the early 1950s, when he went into practice on his own. He retired in 1997.


In 1939, he married Patricia Burke Ziegfeld, the daughter of actress Billie Burke and Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld.

He is survived by his wife; daughters Cecilia Duncan, Florenz Crossley and Susan Plemons; son W. Robert Stephenson Jr.; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Services were private.