A rare Luis Barragán fountain at an L.A. home? Maybe

Campbell sits in an expansive entertaining area with sliding glass doors open to the pool and fountain.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

UNUSUAL homes often inspire wonder, but for residents of L.A.'s Beverly Crest neighborhood, the 1927 house has long seemed particularly curious, hidden behind a two-story, reddish wall that runs the length of the lot. “Every time someone from the neighborhood finds out that I own the property,” Eugene Leoni said, “they’re always dying to know: What’s behind that wall?”

Behind the wall, it turns out, is a fountain that may have been designed by the late Luis Barragán, often regarded as Mexico’s greatest architect. Though the house had been a popular party spot for movie stars, musicians, artists, even royalty 40 years ago, today the property’s greater claim to fame is a 5,000-square-foot swimming pool graced with a towering stone fountain. Records show that Barragán designed the fountain -- a surprise even to some Barragán experts who have long insisted that his only U.S. project was his consultation on Louis Kahn’s plaza for the Salk Institute in La Jolla.

Barragan fountain: A July 24 article in the Home section about a Los Angeles house with a fountain credited to Luis Barragan misstated the size of the fountain and accompanying pool as 5,000 square feet. They cover about 1,000 square feet. —

The history of the fountain’s construction and recent rehabilitation -- an epic tale of money, lawsuits and suicide -- is important not only for those who believe that Barragán did guide the creation of this little-known landmark. As Southern California’s architecture gets older and the region’s appreciation of significant homes grows, the fountain also represents the rising importance of provenance -- the ability of homeowners to trace the pedigree of a house or garden much as an art collector might authenticate a painting.

For Leoni and his business partner, Anthony Brent, the story starts three years ago, when they bought the site, including its 4,900-square-foot house, primarily to use as offices for their real estate projects and, eventually, to sell.

“We initially thought that we’d put $200,000 into it,” Brent said. “But the longer we stayed here, the more we realized that it had great potential for an architecturally significant home.”

Thanks to designer Tim Campbell, the remodeled house -- four bedrooms and six baths in 5,500 square feet -- respectfully acknowledges Barragán’s style without aping it. Campbell and his clients knew the house would be a challenge, but it was nothing compared with the story of the fountain.

The home’s previous owner, Douglas Argyle Campbell (no relation to Tim), hired the landscape firm LRM of Culver City to renovate the courtyard in 1987. That’s when LRM partner David Larkins suggested to his client that they involve Barragán.

“When I said ‘Barragán,’ his eyes lit up,” Larkins said. “He came back five minutes later with a stack of books on Barragán and said, ‘I’m just going to go hire him.’ ”

LRM partner Larry Reed Moline said his client wanted to enlarge the existing pool, but then it would have been too big. “So he said, ‘Well, how about a swimming pool that we could empty when we needed to throw a party?’ And that’s just what Barragán did: He created a fountain that still works when you drain the pool. That way, it becomes an additional patio.”

Barragán died the following year, so his business partner, Raúl Ferrera, took over and worked with LRM on construction. The original design called for colored concrete, but Douglas Campbell insisted on stone. Obtaining a suitable material from a quarry in Querétaro, Mexico, was difficult and costly (about $1 million, Leoni said).

“The stone was so hard that it was destroying all their equipment,” Larkins said. “And as soon as they found a vein, they’d run out. So they had to search everywhere for it, often in places that had never been mined before. But then the color wouldn’t be right or they couldn’t get enough of it. And this dragged on for a couple of years.”

That was only the start of Ferrera’s problems. After Barragán’s death, projects fell through and Ferrera was forced to sue clients for outstanding invoices. On April 24, 1993, he killed himself.

LRM completed the fountain in 1996, and that same year Douglas Campbell applied for historic landmark status, stating that the design was a contribution to the civic landscape. “In a city who’s Mexican population is significant and growing,” he wrote, “it seems of the premier importance to honor an outstanding example of this culture.”

The fountain, officially Campbell Divertimento Fountain, remains Historic-Cultural Monument No. 637, thanks to a 1997 ruling by L.A.'s Cultural Heritage Commission. Though the design is described as “Mayan-inspired” and Barragán rarely used such fussy vernacular, the commission declared the fountain “a signature project of Barragán, an architect of international fame and an architect of great importance to contemporary Mexican culture.”

Few have questioned Barragán’s role in the project. After all, the names Barragán and Ferrera are clearly stamped on the blueprints dated 1987. Only Ferrara signed them, but that was common for the period. Leoni and Brent also have correspondence between Barragán’s office and Douglas Campbell, who died this year.

But the Barragán Foundation in Switzerland remains skeptical. It said Barragán’s sole U.S. project is in La Jolla, where Barragán advised Salk, “Do not put one leaf, nor plant, nor one flower, nor dirt. Absolutely nothing.”

Virtually every study of Barragán’s career suggests that his Gilardi House in Mexico City (1975-77) was the last project he designed himself, and most historians familiar with his career point out that he turned over the firm’s business matters to Ferrera in 1983.

Their company was dissolved that year after Barragán became too ill to handle the stress of working. His health improved somewhat the following year, and Ferrera continued to pursue projects under the name Barragán & Ferrera. But as Antonio Riggen Martinez stated in “Luis Barragán: Mexico’s Modern Master, 1902-1988,” Barragán collaborated only as an “aesthetic consultant.” By 1985, Parkinson’s disease had left the architect bedridden.

Records show that Campbell contacted Ferrera in late 1986 or 1987, and the fountain’s blueprints are dated ’87. No one knows how much Barragán contributed.

Ferrera’s widow, Rosario Uranga, said by e-mail that her husband had consulted with Barragán until the very end. Of the fountain’s architectural style, Uranga said: “It might have been that Raul’s influence over Barragán -- who was very ill and old at that time -- was very strong.”

In terms of copyright, the fountain remains the only Barragán & Ferrera project built in the U.S. Many surmise that it might have been solely Ferrara’s design. To others, the point doesn’t matter.

“After all these troubles,” Uranga wrote after seeing photographs of the fountain and the new home, “the result was excellent.”