Our very own Camelot

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the king and queen of 1920s Hollywood, created Pickfair, a mansion that befitted their fame.
Times Staff Writer

THANK goodness for real estate. How could Southern Californians manage without it?

It’s our law of physics; like the universe, we believe that equity is endlessly expanding. It’s our party chatter; when religion is untouchable and politics is perilous, we can always natter confidently about housing prices. It’s our imagination and our vocabulary; streets and subdivisions are fancifully named for nonexistent vistas, and houses in those endless ad fliers promise never to be anything less than fabulous, gorgeous and charming.

A house here is more than shelter, more than investment — it is ourselves in wallboard and stucco and tile. Just as we shape and reshape lives, careers and bodies, our houses too are the magic slate on which we draw, erase and draw again.

So it’s the idea of the house, the potential of it, that engages us, not one particular house. We can’t afford that sentimentality, not when our childhood 3 bdr 2 ba might get razed to make way for a 5 bdr 5 ba. It isn’t just your house that can flourish and then vanish. It’s the arc of all architecture in Los Angeles, and it happened to a house that was once the second-most famous home in America, next to the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It was a home that Angelenos showed off and bragged about, just as if they lived there themselves — and with Los Angeles’ belief in luck and chance, one day they just might.

It was Pickfair. The Beverly Hills estate fused the lives and names of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, two of the most famous movie stars in the world. They made 1920s Hollywood a virtual kingdom, themselves its king and queen, and Pickfair its Camelot.

But really, it turned out that Pickfair was as elusive as Camelot and as mutable as L.A. itself.

Over nearly a hundred years, the hunting cabin became a comfortable home, then a mansion, then a grand makeover, then a fixer-upper, and finally, in spite of its pedigree, a teardown, with a mega-mansion built on its bones. Its 15 or so acres ended up cut and cubed like a Waldorf salad. Pickford, its first, fabled chatelaine, died a recluse in her upstairs bedroom. Its second chatelaine, Pia Zadora, made some bad films and some better albums, a never-quite star whose rich husband could buy her Pickford’s home but not her talent.

Like all L.A. real estate stories, Pickfair’s incarnations can be charted in its price. Before World War I, when Beverly Hills was still wilderness, a banker spent $3,000 on the rustic lodge and wild land. By 1920, Fairbanks had forked over $35,000, and built himself and his bride a bigger place.

The original neighborhood was a whimsical, back-lot jumble of architectural styles all on the same street: Craftsman, Colonial, Greek classical, ranch house, Spanish stucco, half-timbered Tudor. Pickfair, in its near-century of life, has incarnated something of almost all of those styles.

The hunting bungalow became a sprawling green-gabled, copper-roofed Tudor-Colonial with what was reputed to be the first private swimming pool in L.A. (with an inflatable shark toy).

Here, over the next dozen years, the golden couple of the silver screen hosted the world’s royalty alongside Hollywood’s. Garbo and Chaplin broke bread with Britain’s Prince George, son of one king, brother of two more. Einstein and Lindbergh dined on plates that Napoleon gave to Josephine.

In 1927, confident in her status as first lady of the film world, Mary offered Pickfair to Calvin Coolidge as a summer White House. Coolidge declined.

The architect Wallace Neff, whose name carries more star power now than many of the luminaries he designed homes for, was summoned to Pickfair in 1932. Tear it down, he told Doug and Mary, and start over. After they said no, Neff settled for building an L-shaped veranda and the east and west wings that Doug and Mary would soon occupy separately and sulkily until they split up in 1936.

Into the 1970s, Pickfair ran on Emily Post white-glove rules. Mary observed the charity garden parties from her upstairs bedroom window, watching to see that no ladies in pantsuits showed up at Pickfair.

By the time Mary died in 1979, only about three acres of her kingdom remained. Pickfair looked modest in a neighborhood of mogul mansions. Its original six rooms had grown to 22 and then to 42, but in 1980 a prospective buyer had fretted at having only eight servants’ rooms.

Jerry Buss, the Lakers owner, bought it in 1980 for a price shaved from $10 million, to $8 million, to $5,362,500. The probate judge who dropped the gavel on the sale remarked, “It must be a fixer-upper.”

Some waggish journo renamed it “Bussfare,” but the name didn’t stick, and neither did Buss. He didn’t so much take the place over as keep it up, updating the plumbing and kitchen and restoring the woodwork. It was too big for his empty-nest bachelorhood, and in 1988 Pickfair was sold for $6,675,000, to businessman Meshulam Riklis and Zadora, his wife.

Which brings us to Pickfair in the era of the mini-estate, an oxymoron that evidently troubles no one, because they’re popping up from Tustin to Santa Clarita. As lot sizes get smaller, the houses on them get bigger. Pickfair — which seemed so grand in the 1920s — was converted in the 1990s into a town in miniature, with spa, gym, salon, sound studio, massage room and disco. The guesthouse built for Zadora’s secretary was slightly bigger than the original Pickfair itself.

Here is where L.A. and older America part company: In the L.A. arm-wrestling match between history and housing, the market wins. In 1990, the Pickfair contractor announced that termites were in residence at 1143 Summit Drive. Pickfair was a teardown. The bulldozers, unimpeded by interfering preservationists, put an end to a legend of 70 years, which is a very long time in such a very new town as this.

Now the Venetian palazzo put up in its place, the one with the spa and the sound studio and the decorating ideas from Versailles and the Sistine Chapel, has also been sold, to a neighbor, for close to $18 million — reduced, after more than a year on the market, to less than half its asking price. In parallel with the evolving demographics of the metropolis at its feet, Pickfair’s newest master is an immigrant, Korean-born businessman Corry Hong. He’d heard of the place, and “the more I know,” he says, “the more I understand and appreciate the architecture and history.” When Riklis signed the papers, Hong saw tears in his eyes; “He told me, ‘Corry, you’re responsible, enjoy this precious place’ … I will cherish that.”

Other cities might have made a monument of Pickfair. Other cities shudder at the shock of the new, at the razing of something venerable. Here, we have no shock of the new. We embrace the new, revel in it — its cleanness, its unburdened blankness. It’s the shock of the old that unsettles us, makes us uneasy with the outdated, the obsolete, the inconvenient detritus of former lives and old tastes. And Pickfair? Will Rogers, the humorist and Beverly Hills’ first mayor, used to say the biggest part of his job was telling tourists how to get there. Now, he’d just direct them to the history books.


Patt Morrison is the author of “Rio L.A., Tales From the Los Angeles River.”