L.A.'s high-style high-rise

Martin Fassnidge, left, and Franck Verhagen enjoy the L.A. view.
(Bryan Chan / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

For a select group of Angelenos, the route to grandma’s didn’t go over the river and through the woods, but along Sunset to a 32-story Modernist block of stucco and glass built in 1964, a singular apartment house set back from and above the storied boulevard. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, encounter anyone under 60 in an elevator at Sierra Towers, and you’d assume they were visiting an older relative.

That was then. Now, paparazzi waiting for a glimpse of Lindsay Lohan or Matthew Perry leaving the condominium building might mistake an underweight Juicy Couture-clad blond toting a teensy dog in a Louis Vuitton carrier for a boldfaced name. A thirtysomething entertainment lawyer, just back from exercising his horses in Malibu, tracks dust on the travertine floor on his way to the elevator. Outside, Mamas Mesforoush, a polite young man who shuttles between homes in Los Angeles and London, hands a valet the keys to his customized Range Rover. He’s just in time for a meeting with Mike Russo, the veteran contractor who’s going to turn his apartment into a showplace, at a cost of $1,000 a square foot.

“Is that negotiable?” Mesforoush inquired at their first meeting.

“No,” Russo replied.

“All right,” the young man said. “Then you’re hired.”

Sierra Towers sits on Doheny Road at the western end of the Sunset Strip, where the lively commercial clutter of West Hollywood gives way to the grand mansions of Beverly Hills. The building has always had its fans, well-heeled Westsiders of a certain age who appreciated the unobstructed views from every floor and the tender ministrations of porters and attentive doormen. It isn’t surprising that condos in the building have been selling for jaw-dropping prices the last few years — the cost of residential real estate has skyrocketed throughout Southern California. Yet a Sierra Towers address now represents something more than a hefty price tag: The building has acquired a cool quotient.

Franck Verhagen, a Belgian-born hairdresser, has warm relationships with many of the stylish men and women who sit in his chair at the Joseph Martin salon on Rodeo Drive. They come bearing fresh Aspen dish or such essential information as the current yachting port of choice (Dubrovnik). Then they’ll ask what’s new with him. Throughout 2004 and the beginning of this year, whenever Verhagen would reply that he and his partner, Martin Fassnidge, were planning to move to an apartment in Sierra Towers that they had gutted and were remodeling, the response often was, “I love that building.” Some had heard the false gossip column reports that model Kate Moss paid $3 million for a condo there. Others knew that oil heir Brandon Davis and Harry Morton, scion of the Hard Rock Hotel empire, were looking in the building.

But many of Verhagen’s clients knew that Sierra Towers was smokin’ even before the latest crop of tabloid regulars arrived. A rash of free-spending owners combining a sense of manifest condo destiny with a contemporary design aesthetic have reinvented the once dowdy and undervalued building as a star, reeking sex appeal.

“When I tell people I’m moving there, they’re so jealous,” says jewelry and eyewear designer Loree Rodkin. “They say, ‘I want an apartment there. Do you know anyone?’ like it’s some speakeasy you can only get into if you know the right person.”

A former manager and friend of the famous, Rodkin bought side-by-side one-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments 18 months ago, then gutted both to create a “minimal Zen tribal” 4,000-square-foot one-bedroom haven that will be completed in March, if she doesn’t make more changes.

From the beginning, the building has been home to a colorful and eclectic cast of characters: an Internet diet guru, a periodontist, a banker, directors, writers, producers, songwriters, an Oscar-winning actor, a land developer, a music mogul, wealthy widows, a legendary jockey, a hotel heiress (no, not that one), the ex-husband of a Kennedy, the daughter of a Rat Pack member and the mother of a TV talk show host, a former big band singer, the owner of a local chain of women’s clothing stores who committed suicide in the early ‘90s by jumping from his 31st-floor balcony, one of the founders of MGM and an aging former Playboy bunny whose apartment was a gift from her married paramour, which didn’t faze anyone as long as her homeowners association dues were paid. (See box at right.)

The meeting of producer and theater chain owner Ted Mann and actress Rhonda Fleming at Sierra Towers in the ‘70s resulted in a 24-year marriage. The late television star David Janssen and his wife Ellie and singer Buddy Greco and his vivacious wife Dani lived there in the ‘70s too. Observant neighbors were aware of David and Dani’s affair before any gossip columnists. The lovers divorced their respective spouses, married and moved out of the building.

But there has never been so much activity and enthusiasm for creating luxurious homes in the sky as Sierra Towers has experienced since the beginning of this century. Five floors down from Rodkin’s condo, the home of Irwin and Lynne Deutch occupies the same footprint as her masterwork in progress. The view that forms a backdrop for the Deutchs’ dining room includes nearby green hillsides, the Getty Museum beyond and on a clear day, the Pacific. A spacious living room, media room and the apartment’s only bedroom overlook the city, a panorama that’s especially dramatic after nightfall, when the stars above and lights below twinkle.

The Deutchs bought the apartment six and a half years ago from George Hamilton, who left behind a lone bottle of suntan oil on the terrace. Mirrored walls that had reflected a pair of towering elephant tusks were also Hamilton’s legacy, so Alison Spear, a Miami architect who had designed a pied-à-terre in New York for the Deutchs, was hired to transform the apartment into a loft-like space that would showcase their art collection and honor the views.

It took two years to pave floors with Lagos Azul limestone, construct room dividers of Australian walnut, enclose the kitchen in glass, install a state-of-the-art lighting system and conceal window shades controlled by timers in the ceiling. The result is a sleek, sophisticated apartment that echoes the simplicity of the building’s architecture. God is in the details: The headboard in the master bedroom is recessed; if a door handle protruded, a cavity was carved into the wall to match it, so that the door lies flush when open.

“The Deutchs were really the front-runners,” says Linda May, a Realtor who moved to Sierra Towers in 1990. “They were the first people to hire an internationally recognized architect to redo two apartments at such a high level. They took a leap of faith.”

Russo, the general contractor who first refurbished a Sierra Towers unit 28 years ago, jumped with them. He is now such a familiar presence that he’s rather like the building’s unofficial mayor. He figures he’s worked on 120 of the 148 apartments there, and redone some four times. He’s currently involved in five major projects, including Mesforoush’s and Rodkin’s, and on a typical day 60 to 70 of his employees are at work high above Sunset Boulevard. A year and a half ago, he was so busy supervising 12 apartments in various stages of completion that he couldn’t take on any more, even Matthew Perry’s.

“For years, we’d just change a few things in a unit,” Russo says. “There was a lot of old money in the building, people who weren’t into design or doing everything over. If someone spent $200,000, that was a lot. I was so tired of doing the same thing over and over — putting in crown molding, new drapes and new cabinets — that I was ready to retire. Then younger people started moving in and gutting everything. The typical unit I work on now costs $1 million to redo, and it keeps going up. The building is built really solid, yet it was a sleeper for so many years.”

The costliest of Russo’s makeovers was $2.5 million, but that record could be broken soon, since fixing up apartments has become a competitive sport. “Every new owner has seen what’s been done before, and they want theirs to be the flagship,” he says. Four years ago, only five apartments had been combined with another to create bigger units. Now the number has risen to nine. Each floor contains six apartments, and for the first time, three units — the whole front of the 18th floor — will be gutted and combined into one apartment for real estate executive Charles S. Cohen.

Sierra Towers is so much taller than other buildings in the area that through the years, urban legends were spun about who was paid off by whom to get approval to build the high-rise at the edge of a neighborhood of houses. Residents still mention being able to walk out the door and be surrounded by homes as one of the building’s most attractive features.

The L.A. dream had long been to own one of those houses, with a yard and palm-sheltered pool. (And maybe a guest house and cabanas.) The prevailing view held that apartment living couldn’t match the appeal of a house surrounded by the wide open spaces. Even for apartment lovers, in the 1980s and early ‘90s, new condo buildings built on a Manhattan-like strip of Wilshire that became known as “the corridor” eclipsed Sierra Towers. The apartments in Westwood were newer and larger, and offered the latest kitchen bells and bathroom whistles. A Sierra Towers unit that hadn’t been updated since the ‘60s looked shabby in comparison.

But not to Russell Filice. A Realtor used to high-rise living in San Francisco, he was 36 when he moved to Sierra Towers four years ago. When owners who had lived in the building for decades died or moved away, he targeted a young crowd lousy with disposable income, “a young, sexy, hip clientele that’s out there with no place to go,” he says. “My clients don’t want the maintenance of a yard and a pool. They want a lifestyle that’s similar to how they lived in college, except at a more luxurious level and with every amenity.”

Publicist Jeffrey Lane has lived in 10 different Sierra Towers apartments in the last 15 years. He says, “Russ would call because he had someone who wanted to look at my unit. By the time I’d get home from the office, he’d say, ‘We got an offer.’ He is the whiz kid of that building. He has great architectural flair. When he shows a unit, he can envision what can be done with it. The brokers who came before were just selling a condo and that was it. Russell takes pride in the building and understands its potential.”

Actor-director and architecture buff Vincent Gallo, who has bought and sold several units in Sierra Towers, purchased the two-story apartment once owned by David Geffen from Filice via a transatlantic phone call. Filice says Gallo has engaged Rem Koolhaas to redesign the space.

Mesforoush, another Filice client, drives up to Sierra Towers in one of two Rolls-Royce Phantoms, or in a Porsche GT when he’s not in his Range Rover. A 27-year-old former bouncer, he says he got rich quick trading equities, and has bid $60 million to buy the Chateau Marmont. “This is the only condo building that has a young, sexy vibe,” he says. “I’m going to buy up as many units as I can and redo them with a quality to the finishes that will blow every other apartment in this place away.”

Verhagen and Fassnidge bought a three-bedroom apartment from Filice for themselves, but they also wanted a guest room, one of 11 privately owned suites on the sixth floor that residents use for offices, live-in help or guests. The tiny rooms sold for $60,000 a decade ago, but current prices as high as $300,000 haven’t diminished demand. When Filice told them one was available, they didn’t hesitate. After all, no sooner had they gutted their apartment than they were offered twice what they’d paid.

The couple hired San Francisco architect Tim Gemmel to create a gallery-like space with an office and one bedroom. They wanted an uncluttered shell to contain original Art Deco and mid-20th century furnishings and contemporary art. In deference to their dogs, Archie and Freddie, rugs of chocolate brown were chosen, and upholstered pieces were covered in brown, taupe or gray.

The pair picked a German lighting system that was more costly and intricate than even what Russo was accustomed to. Shortly before a polished concrete floor was to be installed, Fassnidge walked down Rodeo Drive from the salon he co-owns with Joseph Campbell to the Dolce & Gabbana store, where he was transfixed by the boutique’s volcanic stone floor. Russo imported the stone from Italy, and the change lengthened the project by four months and exploded the budget. No sign of birth pangs is evident in the serene, seamless and deceptively simple apartment, completed in April, which owes much to the owners’ eye for Modern design and the forethought that has become Russo’s trademark.

Every unit in the building has terraces 8-feet wide that owners can enclose in glass or leave open to the elements, beyond glass walls. (Russo has closed in an apartment’s terrace, only to open it up for the next owner.) Verhagen and Fassnidge frequently entertain on the terrace they chose to expose, which overlooks homes that dot the hills behind the building. “Sitting outside, you feel like you’re in the South of France,” Verhagen says. “I always thought if Doris Day and Rock Hudson had really been a couple, they would have lived at Sierra Towers.”

Now, even a pair of Hollywood sweethearts would be lucky to get in. Several of Filice’s clients want to buy as many units as they can. Josh Greer, a 30-year-old developer from Mobile, Ala., bunked at the Peninsula Hotel after his apartment was gutted. He bought another unit he’ll quickly fix up and stay in until his first place is finished.

“It’s like buying a lot that you then build a house on,” he says. “By the time I’m done, I’ll have spent $3 million on a 1,600-square-foot apartment. I know I could have gotten a house for that, but I wanted to be in Sierra Towers. There’s Beverly Hills, there’s West Hollywood, and then there’s Sierra Towers. It’s not a building. It’s a neighborhood.”

Celeb residents, past and present

In Manhattan, mention that you live at the San Remo, Richard Meier’s Perry Street Towers or the Dakota, the gothic coop favored by artists, musicians and theater folk, and people nod knowingly. Sierra Towers in West Hollywood is one of the only condo buildings in L.A. to have similar cachet, thanks, in part, to a changing cast of well-known residents.

Matthew Perry moved in this year.

Joan Collins sublet for a while.

Sidney Poitier was a ‘90s resident.

George Hamilton moved on.

Current resident PJ Harvey.

David Geffen owned a duplex.

New owner Lindsay Lohan.

The late Bill Shoemaker.

Current resident Diahann Carroll.