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One Man's Castle : A Tale of Love, Obsession and Memory

December 01, 1985|JOHN RILEY

When they moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles and bought a house high in a canyon, Don O'Neill told his wife, Sandra, who was younger than he, that he wanted no children. But when she won him over and he experienced first their daughter and then their son, he said he wanted many more. He did everything to excess.

A leprechaun of a salesman, in his early 40s he quit smoking four packs of Camel shorts a day, sold his photo lab, and, after answering a "for sale" newspaper ad for art nouveau antiques, became fascinated with their curvy, ornamental look. He began to deal in them.

If a customer at his Canon Drive Gallery showed interest in a $100,000 Emile Galle commode, he charmed and negotiated until the sale was made, fighting never to break his rule of "don't let them get out the door!" He sold millions of dollars worth of art nouveau and Art Deco pieces to elite clients such as Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart, Barry Diller and Elton John.

In the backyard of the 50-year-old run-down Spanish house he bought on North Rodeo Drive, just above the city's shopping district, he created a strange, obsessive miniworld of his own in 1900-15 art nouveau style--a game house and guest house in fairyland shapes of snow-white cement and multicolored mosaic tiles.

He guessed the work would take less than a year, but due to his zeal for detail it took five. Neighbors complained to the city about cutting noises made by his tile workers.

There is nothing in North America like his buildings, which were inspired by the fantasy structures of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Victor Horta in Belgium and the ornamental Paris Metro entrances of Hector Guimard. They can be seen in the movie "Breathless" as Richard Gere steals a car parked nearby in an alleyway. Soon Hal Ashby will film a high-tech cocaine party in them in "Eight Million Ways to Die."

O'Neill's plan was to dwell in his backyard secret garden and extend it toward the passing public, replacing the old house with a huge art nouveau pleasure dome, an 11,000-square-foot Baked Alaska-shaped, tourist-attracting, lumpy landmark of sinuously shaped art nouveau frosting with round- and oval-shaped rooms. He thought the planning of it would take, again, a year. This time it took five because he'd developed cancer of the esophagus. He sublet his gallery, scaled down his plan for the house to 7,500 square feet and underwent surgery, radiation and constant chemotherapy.

He never complained.

His architect, Don Ramos, a health nut, told him to take vitamins and eat natural foods.

"You don't have a lease on life," O'Neill joked. "I might outlive you."

He did. Ramos, hanging upside down in a gym apparatus, fell and broke his neck, fatally.

O'Neill stretched the year his doctor gave him to 3 1/2. In March, when he checked into Good Samaritan Hospital the last time, his new architect, Tom Oswalt, showed him his freshly issued building permit. A week later, Don O'Neill died, at 58, on St. Patrick's Day.

A few weeks ago, Sandra O'Neill, 42, watched a bulldozer raze the old house and start digging the foundation of his four-bedroom, four-bath, 12-skylight melting dream house in which she plans to live the rest of her life, remembering him.

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