Once favored by the leading lights of Old Hollywood, the Trousdale section of Los Angeles fell out of fashion in the ’70s — its trove of midcentury architecture tarted up or torn down — only to be rediscovered by a new wave of glamorous Angelenos devoted to preserving its unique style. It’s ready for its closeup, again. New York Times writer Peter Haldeman rediscovers this modern treasure trove...
Trousdale, a place many Angelenos know best as a shortcut to the Valley but which is also home to a treasure trove of midcentury architecture, is having a moment, or rather, another moment. Its recent rediscovery by A-listers like Elton John, Jane Fonda and Vera Wang as well as investors is quite a comeback for a high-end housing tract about which the esteemed architecture historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter once said, “Everything is so wrong it forms a kind of unity.”
Situated in the foothills at the northeast end of Beverly Hills, Trousdale Estates spans 410 acres that once made up the Doheny Ranch — a patchwork of orange groves and hunting grounds belonging to the oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny. In the late 1920s, Doheny built a 46,000-square-foot Tudor pile, and gave the house and the land to his son Edward (Ned) L. Doheny Jr., and his wife, Lucy. Five months after they moved in, Ned and his male secretary were found dead of gunshot wounds in a guest room. (Speculation that the deaths were the result of a lovers’ quarrel persists.) Lucy remained in the house until 1955, when she sold the mansion to an industrialist and the grounds to Paul Trousdale.
Trousdale, who sold gum and advertising before going into real estate, conceived of Trousdale Estates as an exclusive enclave offering residents “a life above it all.” He oversaw a monumental grading project that transformed the scrub-covered hills into 539 lots, precisely stepped to maximize their canyon, city and ocean views.
From the beginning, Trousdale courted the rich and famous. Dinah Shore and Richard Nixon were among the early buyers, both of them commissioning modern ranch houses from Allen Siple. “I’d rather have Nixon in that house than the other House,” Groucho Marx quipped of his Trousdale neighbor. Marx, who hired the society architect Wallace Neff to design a low, curvilinear home with an open carport to showcase his three DeSotos, was a common sight in the neighborhood, walking his black and white Scottish terriers, Scotch and Soda. Danny Thomas built a sprawling Levantine mansion he called Villa Rosa. Like Paul Trousdale, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley both chose houses in the theatrical Hollywood Regency style.
They created stage sets for lavish indoor-outdoor living, Southern California style. The “Tonight Show” producer Freddie de Cordova and his wife, Janet, entertained social lions (the Reagans, the Bloomingdales) and industry titans (the Gary Coopers, the Jack Bennys) at their home. Across the street from the de Cordovas, in a stone-clad villa by Robert Earl, the Hollywood agent Irving Lazar’s legendary Oscar parties started out as small gatherings. “Irving and Mary had wonderful parties, with Billy and Audrey Wilder and Frank Sinatra and divine people from Europe and New York,” recalls Angie Dickinson, who still lives down the street. “I met Gloria Vanderbilt there once and nearly fainted.”
As the area’s original homeowners began to die out, so did the enthusiasm for open, forward-looking residential architecture. The first tear-down occurred in 1977: a house designed by William Sutherland Beckett (with a Mondrianesque facade of colored plastic screens) and inhabited by Wilt Chamberlain was replaced with a bland stucco contemporary. The fall of the Shah of Iran brought many Iranian immigrants to Trousdale, whose hilly topography and low-slung architecture reminded them of their homeland; they in turn imported an eclectic design vocabulary — arches and columns, moldings and gildings — that made the earlier ornamentation look positively restrained.
It’s not just flippers who have no use for the old houses: the DreamWorks Animation C.E.O., Jeffrey Katzenberg, replaced the midcentury house he acquired in 2009 for $35 million with a rustic rambler. And Jim Jannard, the Oakley eyewear and apparel founder, is erecting a concrete behemoth where a crab-shaped Levitt once stood. (Under the aegis of a preservation ordinance enacted by the city of Beverly Hills last year, Price has been compiling a list of Trousdale properties to nominate for landmark status.)