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'Phantom' Villa Was Casualty of Depression

October 18, 1987|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

Walking up the short, rustic road off of Peppertree Drive in Portuguese Bend, Kay Bara pointed to a sea-view promontory a little farther up the hill.

"The mansion was supposed to be up there," she said, "but it never got built."

What did get beyond the architectural drawings was a Mediterranean-style guest house and a compound of outbuildings around a courtyard reached through an archway that could well serve as the main gate to a Renaissance Italian township.

The phantom estate, a casualty of the Great Depression that shattered many dreams of gracious living, was to to be the domain of Harry E. Benedict, manager of the landholdings of Eastern financier Frank A. Vanderlip, who owned most of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and had dreams of his own about developing his 16,000 acres. Most of those dreams, too, died with the Depression, and the Peninsula had to wait two decades to really blossom.

After the stock market crash of 1929, according to Delane Morgan's book, "The Palos Verdes Story," Benedict said, "People who could still afford to build elaborate homes were in no mood to construct them."

This included Benedict, who moved into the completed guest house with its adjoining garage, stable and servants' quarters in 1930, naming it Villa Francesca after his first wife. He called it home until shortly before his death in 1977 at the age of 87.

After a brief ownership by another family, it was bought by Bara, who sells real estate, and her husband, Richard, a maritime union official.

A year ago, Villa Francesca was placed on the National Register of Historic Places based on an application filed by the Baras with the State Historical Resources Commission, which makes recommendations for the register.

Lee Belnap, historical society president, said the villa was chosen for her group's annual recognition of a historic site because it is one of the earliest homes on the Peninsula and has achieved national recognition. In the past, the society has honored such places as La Venta Inn, which was built to house prospective buyers of Palos Verdes Estates property in the 1920s; Point Vicente Lighthouse; the Malaga Cove Library, which was the Peninsula's first library, and the Gardner Building, the first commercial structure in Palos Verdes Estates.

Paid $35,000 in 1929

In 1929, Benedict paid $35,000 to build the abortive estate on land Vanderlip gave him as a wedding gift.

A half-century later, the Baras paid $240,000 for the buildings and 12 acres; Kay Bara conceded they would have paid more if Villa Francesca were not in the active Portuguese Bend landslide area. There has been some damage to the row of stables on the compound, where pillars lean because a portion of the building has been raised.

Bara calls life in the slide area--where the pepper trees and pines cast shadows across open land and the occasional sharp cry of a peacock is heard--"a double blessing: You have to fix your stuff, but you don't have a wall of condos. But it's only for the hardy."

The Baras live in the villa with their son, Richard, a Palos Verdes High School student, whose prowess as a surfer made him a cover boy on a surfing magazine, which is framed on top of a grand piano. The family has two horses and a friendly Saint Bernard named Ascii.

Kay Bara said little has been altered in the villa, which has seven rooms on just 2,500 square feet. The sunken living room with its beamed ceiling looks out on a garden. Floor tiles, woodwork and cabinetry are original, and there is a large window that climbs a western wall of the villa, flooding the entryway with light.

"There was no heat when we bought, so we put in a furnace," Bara said. "The place was overgrown, so we replanted."

She said the villa and the compound building were solidly constructed, with thick double walls of wood and stucco that act as a natural climate control system. "They're made to stay," Bara said, adding that this has given Villa Francesca an advantage in resisting the destructive land movement.

"We feel real peaceful here, real safe," she said.

Bara said there have been no offers to buy the house, though it isn't hard to rent the two apartments that Benedict fashioned out of the servants' quarters. Scouts for movie and TV locations have visited, and the villa has been used as background for fashion layouts.

According to historian Morgan, Frank Vanderlip--journalist, assistant treasury secretary in the McKinley Administration and New York banker--bought his Peninsula acreage for $1.5 million in 1913 without even seeing it. And after that, he was an infrequent visitor.

He began putting up a series of cottages and guest houses a few miles west. In the end, he fared better than either Benedict or another Vanderlip family member, who also planned a Peninsula estate but stopped after building a gate house.

Vanderlip's series of buildings and gardens became the Villa Narcissa, which he named after his wife. A member of the Vanderlip family still lives there.

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