For 10 years now, the Greystone Mansion has sat empty, a Beverly Hills colossus of 55 rooms and 46,054 square feet, perched on 18 acres of hillside near Trousdale Estates. And no one seems to know what to do with it.
The majestic Tudor-style mansion--considered the crown jewel in a landscape of fabled homes--is owned by the city, which so far has found no public use for it. Time after time, grand schemes have fizzled. Some activists have hoped to turn Greystone into a museum, an idea that drew enthusiastic interest from renowned modern art collectors Joseph Hirschhorn and Frederick R. Weisman.
Yet deals with the two collectors went the way of all other proposals--nowhere. All have collapsed amid community squabbles over traffic, lease contracts and even matters of taste: whether, for example, modern art is desirable in a city better suited, some say, to the Old Masters.
With phase one of a new, $40,000 study expected this month, efforts are under way to resolve the issue of Greystone Mansion and its lavish gardens once and for all. Skeptics abound. Such studies, committee meetings and proposals go back so far that most participants have lost count. No matter what the recommendation--dance theater, think tank, museum of art, sorcery or ornithology--Greystone has remained no more than a hulking civic enigma.
"It's totally a white elephant . . . it's a disgrace," said Frederick Nicholas, former president of the Greystone Foundation, a citizens committee established six years ago to find a use for the mansion. "They've had at least 25 proposed uses and nothing has come of it. It's a valuable asset being permitted to rot."
Nicholas, now chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is a Beverly Hills resident who has lived next door to Greystone Mansion for 18 years. In bitterness and frustration, he resigned from the foundation a few years ago, giving way to a new president, Donald DeWitt, who is less cynical about the mansion.
Still, DeWitt is not expecting a quick solution either.
"I don't think it'll settle anything," DeWitt said of the pending study by the planning and consulting firm of Pannell Kerr Forster. "It may give a little insight into some other options . . . maybe eliminate some things. We've all been frustrated to some degree or another."
The latest struggle over Greystone comes amid rising concern about the fate of many mansions erected during the movie industry's golden age. The razing of Pickfair this year to make room for a new home for singer-actress Pia Zadora and her husband focused attention on the demise of a generation of extravagant mansions constructed from 1900 to 1930.
Every year more are lost and many surviving structures are growing old and worn. Those in jeopardy include the Joseph Nicolosi estate in Bel-Air, designed by Paul Williams, and several homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, most notably the 1924 Ennis-Brown house, according to Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that strives to protect and refurbish homes of historic and architectural significance.
"There are others--some not as famous--that really have been allowed to fall apart, and they're in great danger of what we call 'demolition by neglect,' " Rounds said. "Tear-downs are pretty constant right now. It's certainly an area we're very concerned about."
Greystone itself is not dilapidated, but much of the interior is tattered and the structure needs $3.5 million in restoration and remodeling--including new fixtures and handicapped-access ramps--to meet requirements for use as a public building.
For sheer size and architectural quality, however, "Greystone really is in a class by itself," Rounds said.
The new Greystone study is expected to explore multiple-use ideas: a limited-hours museum, for example, that could double as a corporate conference center or a reception site for visiting foreign dignitaries. A supporter of the concept, former Beverly Hills Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro, noted that Beverly Hills' sister city of Cannes, France, has such a mansion, the elegant Villa Domergue.
But foundation members say the mixed-use plan may draw criticism from anti- and pro-museum forces alike. No compromise so far has succeeded, after all, and competing opinions ensnarl the vast home like thick old vines. Some neighbors, fearful of additional traffic or trams roaring past their multimillion-dollar homes, hope to keep Greystone empty--or nearly so.
Because of the strong neighborhood lobby, picnicking and playing ball are forbidden on the mansion grounds, which are a public park.
"I would like to see them sell it to a private individual who would live in it," said Alan E. Berlin, president of the 535-member Trousdale Homeowners Assn. "A Donald Trump or whatever. It's zoned (residential) and we believe it should be used as a dwelling. I frankly wouldn't care if it were subdivided."