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House Fit for Framing : Collector's Home Reflects His Interests


CORONA DEL MAR — For a guy with a $50-million art collection, Joe Price sure has some bare walls in his home. Of course, with a crib like this, who needs art?

Filled with secret staircases and hidden doors and walls of voluptuously swirling wood, his oceanfront masterpiece contains what might be called the fur room, a child's bedroom with a slide to the playroom and a kitchen to rival the Jetsons'.

Designed by the same architect who helped create the Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it must be the most novel house on the Orange County coast.

And it's got a homeowner to match.

To slip behind the security gates and undetectable front door is to experience visual overload--a disorienting but dazzling jigsaw of space that would defy description by even Robin Leach-- if they'd let him in. Two tea rooms were built by a crew Price wooed away from Japan's royal palace and lodged several months in a nearby oceanfront home. Here, three smooth black stones magically make music when water is dripped over them. No nails in sight. Free to build the sanctity of any Japanese home as they deemed best, the construction team followed centuries-old craftsmanship that reveres nature: Beams in the walls face the same direction they did in their original stand of trees, and at exactly the same distance from each other.

Showcased in Architectural Digest and international design publications, the home the neighborhood kids call The Mushroom House for its roof has never been featured in the mainstream press. This is the fiercely private Price's first in-depth interview since he moved here in 1986.

Alas, the only thing the public glimpses of this fortress is the madcap roof, which looks like what might happen if you cooked the house like Jiffy Pop.

"You don't think it blends into the neighborhood?" Price asks, half-incredulous, and a burst of giggles is his answer. "Huh! And I was going for normal here."

Like his casa , Joe Price is, at the very least, a complete original. And he might just be the kind of fellow you'd want to be if you won the lottery tomorrow. Unpretentious, humble, warm--well, a regular Joe.

"If you met him at the supermarket, you'd have no idea" he is one of the biggest art collectors in America, said Bart Prince, the young Albuquerque, N.M., architect who designed Price's home. "He's got that side of him that's very down-to-earth, not an Armand Hammer-type making demands. . . . But he won't roll over when it comes to the art and what's best for the art."

For over a decade, Price, 63, has been placed among the country's top art collectors, a list peopled by old money and new rich and only one other county resident--billionaire developer Donald Bren. As patrons buy and sell art, the list changes, of course, but he vaguely recalls Connoisseur magazine once reporting his as the sixth largest privately owned art collection in the nation.

But you'll see few of the intricately painted scrolls and screens in his home. "It's not the type that you hang in your house," Prince says. "You don't live with it. And, hopefully, the house itself is a work of art."

Before we start the tour, you need to know something about Price to appreciate his house.

Co-heir to an Oklahoma family fortune, Price grew up in what then was a small Midwestern town called Bartlesville. Out on the prairie some 70 miles from Tulsa, the town sprouted around Jake Bartles' gristmill, but its bonanza came with oil--specifically Phillips Petroleum. Way back when, before he discovered the crude, Frank Phillips was a barber and Harold Price a high school dropout who ran a one-man welding shop.

By the 1950s, the elder Price had founded H.C. Price Co., which welded pipelines, and was extremely rich, his youngest son, Joe, recalled.

One day, Joe's mother was leafing through a financial magazine and read a story about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. She convinced her husband to have Wright design Price Towers, and Joe Price acted as liaison between the two men. So began, in his college days, his appreciation for art and architecture.

Elder brother Harold Price always intended to work for the family business, but Joe could not stand it. "I had a number of titles, but they never could find a job for me," he says. "Finally, I bought an old big ship with no engine and radio and set sail for Tahiti."

In 1962, his wayward and carousing days in full throttle, Price traveled to Japan, where he was introduced to Etsuko Yoshimochi. She was 23, had rejected the marriage her family arranged for her and lived and worked in Kyoto as a dental assistant and volunteer art guide at a temple.

She spoke no English, he spoke no Japanese. He presented her with a card that said, "Tahiti Joe, son of the beach, no parents, no money, no morals."

"She went out that day," Price recalls with a wide grin, "and emptied her bank account, because she thought she was going to have to pay for everything on our first date."

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