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BE IT EVER SO HUMONGOUS : As Rich Get Richer, Homes Get Larger--What's the Appeal?

December 01, 1989|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES SOCIETY WRITER

Alexander Coler stood on what is soon to be the floor of his dining room, a room that will comfortably seat 50 with a glass floor that will look down into the indoor swimming pool below, a pool outfitted with changeable colored lights and a paddle to gracefully churn the water.

"The architect who designed this house thought this would be a nice crowning point to my career," says Coler, a builder and developer. "But I've always been low-key and not ostentatious in any way. I have a helluva time convincing anybody, when you look at some of the things I've built," he adds with a chuckle. "Especially this home."

This home is a Beverly Hills mansion of about 40,000 square feet that overlooks Coldwater Canyon Park, a house that features columns of imported marble of a certain vein hand-selected from Italian quarries, carved doors from Manila, a disco, a library, two gyms, a two-lane bowling alley, servants' apartments, a museum, huge garages and a tennis court that sits atop a greenhouse.

The mansion is unique in neither size nor opulence. The tear-down frenzy that has Los Angeles homeowners razing homes to build new ones has escalated; now mansions are being torn down to make way for mega-mansions measuring 30,000 square feet and up. Lot too small to hold something that size? Buy the house next door, tear that house down and build whatever you like.

Not every exclusive L.A. neighborhood has its own ultra-mansion--yet. But realtors and architects tracking this trend say it's going to continue, as long as the rich get richer, which, of course, they will.

Why they're building such enormous dwellings seems to be the question of the day. Why design a palace on a relatively small lot? How could a small family possibly use that much room? Wouldn't they rather get out of the house once in a while and go bowling in a bowling alley?

The reasons seem to go far beyond mere economics and good investments. As one observer put it, "You don't buy a Ferrari because it gets good gas mileage."

"Why did the kings of France build the palaces they did?" says architect Rick Corsini of David Kellen Architect, who also teaches architectural design at Cal Poly Pomona. "You have a bourgeois culture that's as profitable as it ever has been. We have the equivalent of the robber barons, and they're just accumulating that wealth and looking for an expression of it. It's not a new phenomenon, it's just sort of resuscitated.

"In Beverly Hills," Corsini adds, "you have modestly sized parcels of land with moderately sized houses that still command considerable prices. They're torn down and are replaced by buildings that virtually fill the site." (In Beverly Hills, new homes are restricted to 40% of the lot plus 1,500 square feet.)

"If you drive around, you'll see the results, and it's almost absurd. You see mansions that are built on the scale of an 18th-Century English country house that would be on dozens of acres of land suddenly plopped on a 100-foot-wide lot in Beverly Hills."

Often they loom over the sizable homes nearby, incurring the wrath of neighbors who swear about what an eyesore the thing is, not to mention the dirt and noise caused by the construction.

The mansions alarm even those miles away from these pricey neighborhoods, who seethe at the juxtaposition of the outsized homes and homeless people nearby sleeping on bus benches, and at the lack of affordable housing for middle- and lower-income families.

"There is the disparity between rich and poor that this sort of thing points up," Corsini says. "That's something beyond the scope of the architect, it's a problem that has to be tackled politically."

"Clearly, it's not like a car, where the smaller and more refined it is, the better," says Dana Cuff, assistant professor in the schools of urban and regional planning and architecture at USC. "A big house is a clear demonstration that you've got a lot of money, so much so that you can build something you don't even need.

"It also says something about society that there's so little of the public realm that we live in. We entertain in our homes, we exercise in our homes, we have beauty salons, and those used to be public facilities.

"I think that's sort of the sad aspect of it, that people fill their property so much that they don't have lawns anymore; they've built to the maximum so the private life never comes out into the public life. It's sort of cocooning with a gold lining."

Cuff can understand neighbors being upset over the construction of a mansion in their neighborhood, even if the street already has a number of million-dollar homes.

"People might feel that the neighborhood is being completely ignored, if it blocks someone else's view or it doesn't fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. Plus, I don't think people like to see that kind of change. In a neighborhood where there have been traditional kinds of houses, to see someone tear one down represents a kind of change that could put them out of their own neighborhood."

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