The decision of art collector Frederick R. Weisman to back out of a deal in which his multimillion-dollar trove of modern art would be housed in the Greystone mansion has left Beverly Hills with the problem of what to do with the star-crossed chateau.
The plan apparently collapsed with Weisman's announcement in a Nov. 12 letter that he will take his collection elsewhere because the fate of Greystone has been caught up in a controversy over how to finance Beverly Hills schools.
Weisman said events have turned "what was originally a well-intentioned, philanthropic gesture into a divisive dispute within the community."
In an effort to change Weisman's mind, members of a newly formed group called Friends of Greystone sent Weisman a telegram last week saying that many of the city's prominent citizens "strongly urge you to reconsider and to bring your world-respected collection to Greystone.
"This community welcomes you and needs you to help us fulfill our cultural obligations to all our residents," the telegram said. It was signed by five former mayors and other civic leaders.
In a separate letter, Councilwoman Donna Ellman said, "I urge--and I pray--that you will reconsider your decision to withdraw. Political controversy is a way of life in Beverly Hills, but if an aroused public is what is needed to allay your concerns, I will do all in my power to bring the persuasive forces together."
The proposal would have leased the building to a Weisman foundation for $1 a year over 55 years, but it would have obliged Weisman to spend up to $8 million to refurbish the decayed interior. The city would have paid up to an additional $3 million to bring the structure up to safety standards.
Despite the appeals, a spokesman for the 75-year-old collector said that he is not likely to change his mind and that he is already looking elsewhere for a site to house the Weisman Foundation's estimated $15 million to $25 million worth of Abstract Expressionist, Pop and more recent styles of art.
"He holds by that letter," said spokesman Robin Green. "That letter is final."
It was a proposal to break up the Greystone estate and sell it to raise funds to permanently endow the schools that prompted Weisman to withdraw from the deal, his letter said. He also expressed concern that the museum might be dragged into a fight over a proposed $279 real-estate parcel tax that the Beverly Hills school board has voted to put on a March 3 ballot.
Greystone occupies an 18.6-acre hillside site next to Trousdale Estates, an exclusive residential development that was once the ranch of the Doheny family, which built Greystone.
$3 Million in Revenues
According to the proposal put forward by a Beverly Hills newspaper, the estate could bring in as much as $40 million if broken up into residential lots, and that sum could then be invested to produce $3 million a year in revenue for the schools.
Councilman Robert K. Tanenbaum, an advocate of finding new sources of school revenue, said in an interview Wednesday that he does not favor selling all of Greystone, however.
"First of all, we should have it appraised, then discuss the options," he said. "Good arguments can be made for keeping it intact. But other people can make cogent arguments for selling some of it."
Tanenbaum said he might favor selling the portion of the estate that adjoins Doheny Road, or about one-third of the total acreage.
Such a sale could yield about six one-acre lots that would sell for more than $1 million each, but other council members said there is a majority of three firm votes on the five-member council for keeping Greystone as is.
"The important thing is to explain that the schools are one issue and Greystone is another issue, and the difference should not be fuzzed up," said Vice Mayor Benjamin H. Stansbury Jr.
At a meeting in the Beverly Hills library Monday night, 45 members of the Friends of Greystone vowed to gather thousands of signatures on a petition declaring the estate to be "a historical treasure to be kept permanently for the benefit of the citizens of Beverly Hills."
The city-owned mansion, which was the site of one of the most sensational murders of the 1920s, is now closed to the public. But the elaborately landscaped grounds of the estate serve as a park that attracts an average of 9,000 visitors a month, city staff members said.
It is also used frequently as a location for movies and television, most recently the comedy film "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
But no fictional drama is likely to measure up to the real-life happenings at Greystone on Feb. 17, 1929, when gunshots killed Edward Laurence (Ned) Doheny Jr., scion of one of the country's great oil fortunes, and his secretary, Hugh Plunkett.
Reports at the time said Plunkett, who had been suffering from a throat problem that required an operation, apparently intended to commit suicide. Instead, he shot Doheny in a fit of sudden madness and then killed himself.