Hot Property

If this house could talk: Home biographer tells tales of famous names who once lived there

Chemosphere
The midcentury house, designed by architect John Lautner, is one of Silverman’s subjects.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

What do you get the Los Angeles billionaire who has everything? How about a one-of-a-kind coffee table book about his multimillion-dollar mansion?

David Silverman researches, writes and publishes those custom-made books. His clients are the ultra-rich, and the tomes delve into the history of their palatial estates and the celebrity connections and architectural significance behind them.

“I essentially print one copy of the book for the owner,” he said. “It tells the story of their house and all the owners from the time it was built until today.”

One of his books was on a Spanish Revival in Beverly Hills that used to be rented by actress Marlene Dietrich; Marilyn Monroe was once a next-door neighbor. Another book looked at a Georgian colonial estate in Holmby Hills that was the location of a wedding after-party for Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow in 1966; Silverman unearthed a photo of the newlyweds posing with Dean and Jeanne Martin.

Silverman’s magnum opus is a deep dive into Shirley Temple’s former house on Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood.

“She’s probably one of the most photographed people in history,” Silverman said. “I got really obsessed with it.”

The books run from 150 to 250 pages, can take more than 200 hours to produce and are filled with boldface celebrity names and archival photos of stars hanging out in the home with famous friends. They start at $5,000 and go up from there depending on the work involved and expenses incurred.

Shirley Temple estate
Silverman says he was obsessed with the home in Brentwood, depicted above in a vintage postcard.
(20th Century Fox )

Silverman, 50, grew up in Cheviot Hills and dreamed of being a movie producer. He didn’t wind up as an producer, but his background as an entertainment lawyer has proved useful in helping him dig deep into the history of some of the region’s most alluring homes.

“I’ve always been interested in Old Hollywood, historic sites in Los Angeles and the history of the city,” said Silverman, a Brentwood resident. “This project combines all of those things.”

The process takes Silverman through public libraries and government archives in search of old photographs, magazine and newspaper articles, architectural plans, celebrity biographies and auction house brochures in search of any mention of the house.

The research junkie searches property records for ownership transfers, scours tax assessment files for prior owners and scans microfiche voting records at the registrar’s office in hopes of piecing together the puzzle of all the former residents of a particular address.

He also reaches out to the previous owners to see if they saved any historic documentation of the house: photos, real estate brochures, home movies. On occasion, he’ll stumble upon the motherlode: A Hollywood fan magazine from the 1930s or ’40s filled with pages of photographs of a celebrity casually lounging in the home.

Then the search shifts online. During law school, Silverman developed a passion for computer-assisted research as a representative for LexisNexis, the digital depository for legal, business and journalism archives.

“It’s incredibly exciting to find something completely unexpected.”

His research doesn’t always result in books. Once, Silverman filled a linen box with original sketches, architectural drawings and floor plans of screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Spanish hacienda-style house in Brentwood.

He even found construction invoices from 1939 and aerial photos shot by the home’s architect, Cliff May, who was also a pilot. The biggest find: a 1940 Country Life article about the original owners with photos of the house by architectural photographer Maynard Parker.

“The box was like an ancestry search that revealed the DNA history of our house from its origins,” Huyck, whose work includes 1973’s “American Graffiti” and 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” said in an email.

Silverman stumbled upon his passion project by kismet. He wrote his first home history book for his sister when he discovered she had no idea who had lived in her Holmby Hills home. Turns out the the French Normandy-style estate once belonged to dancer-actress Barrie Chase, Fred Astaire’s dancing partner in such movies as “Daddy Long Legs.”

“It was just so fascinating,” Silverman said. “I was delving into lots of intriguing L.A. history and people I’d never heard of.”

Since then, his custom book-writing business L.A. House Histories has grown by word of mouth. So far, he’s written five historic home biographies and is working on three more, about homes in the $10-million to $40-million price range.

They include the UFO-shaped Chemosphere by architect John Lautner, considered a masterpiece of California Modernism and beloved by cultists of midcentury design, as well as the $40.8-million Holmby Hills home once owned by Universal-International Pictures President William Goetz and his wife, Edie Mayer Goetz, the daughter of studio head Louis B. Mayer.

Goetz estate
The 1938 home is known for its past owners, Universal-International Pictures President William Goetz and his wife, Edie Mayer Goetz, daughter of Louis B. Mayer.
(Jim Bartsch )

Silverman typically has three types of clients: home owners (or friends of home owners), real estate brokers looking for a unique gift for home buyers, and architects and interior designers in search of original plans and decor inspirations for restoration projects.

The exclusivity of a one-of-a-kind book is part of the allure.

“There’s certainly a wow factor when someone picks it up and sees a whole book about the house,” he said.

hotproperty@latimes.com

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