Neighbors block demolition of Williams-designed home
In the leafy Oakmont section of Brentwood, populated by Hollywood moguls, money men and a maestro, one house stands out for its relative modesty — the 1940 single-story traditional at No. 7 that was designed by famed Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams.
This week, the property was saved from demolition at the last moment when city building officials issued a stop-work order to crews who had already ripped wood siding from the front and taken sledgehammers to the roof.
The city — which had issued permits for the demolition of the existing 3,900-square-foot structure and for the construction of a new 23,000-square-foot house with five-car garage — had been alerted to the house’s provenance by preservation-minded neighbors.
The neighbors included Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, who lives nearby in a restored Williams house. Iger said he did a lot of “last-minute work with L.A. city planning” to stop the razing.
His wife, Willow Bay, and Lisa Mesdag were among those who on Wednesday morning “stood in front of the bulldozers,” said Will Mesdag, Lisa’s husband and president of the Oakmont Homeowners Assn.
The city decided to enter into the fray in the eleventh hour because of Williams’ “overriding significance,” said Ken Bernstein, principal city planner and manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources. Williams, who designed schools, churches and homes for many celebrities, was the first African American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects.
The city informed the property’s owner, Robert Hanasab, that it was initiating an application to designate the house as a local landmark. Designation as a local historic-cultural monument would not necessarily protect the house, but it would require the owner to go through a review process.
The house — built for Nelle Payton Hunt, widow of Willis G. Hunt, a paper company executive — is a relatively rare example of a smaller home by Williams.
“I think that was part of the argument for significance,” Bernstein said. “Many Williams homes were grand period-revival-style architecture. He worked less frequently in traditional ranch style.”
Hunt hired Williams to design an addition in 1946, and she remained in the house until at least 1954, said Christy McAvoy, founding principal of Historic Resources Group,* which has been surveying houses in Brentwood as part of a citywide inventory. The house subsequently passed to other owners, including Michelle Pfeiffer and David E. Kelley, who, according to neighbors, used it as a guest house while they were living in a larger place next door.
Other residents of the exclusive area include maestro Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy; actors Rene Russo and James Garner; investor Howard Marks, chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, an owner of Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times; and Eli and Edythe Broad, who live at the top of Oakmont.
Baret C. Fink, Hanasab’s attorney, suggested that the turn of events was unfair to his client.
“The simple facts are that the building permit had been issued without any variances; the demolition permit had been issued,” Fink said. “Very influential neighbors decided, in my opinion, that they didn’t want a large house built on the lot and used technicalities … to seek historical status.”
The exclusive neighborhood, he added, is filled with “lavish homes that people pay a lot of money for.”
“Their houses are monuments,” he added, “and this house is way below the standards of the neighborhood.”
Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said: “Owners of a house designed by a marquee architect like Paul Williams should not be surprised when there is an outcry [over] its proposed demolition.” She said the owner should consider the option of incorporating the existing house into a “new vision” for the property.
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