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Collector's Items : Owner of Mediterranean Mansion in Laguna Beach Indulges International Tastes With Room-by-Room Themes

October 03, 1992|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You've seen the Mediterranean mansion looming over the Pacific Ocean on Camel Point Drive in Laguna Beach, a mansion so grand that travelers sometimes think it's the Ritz-Carlton.

But it's not.

The 12,000-square-foot villa with an 11-car, subterranean garage is the private home of a reclusive businessman and art collector and is the spectacular fulfillment of his fantasies about the perfect home.

To create his dream, the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, commissioned interior designer David A. Harte of Los Angeles and Orange County architect Brion Jeannette.

"The client wanted to have every room speak for itself," Harte said. "So every room has a theme to it--almost Disney-like in the fantasy aspects of it."

Because the house was built from the ground up, the owner was able to build as many rooms as he wished. "This property was originally owned by Charlie Chaplin, and there was a house on the site," Harte explained. "But only one room had an ocean view, and the rooms were small and dark." The only structure remaining from this period is a gazebo on the cliff away from the house that overlooks Aliso Beach, and even that was renovated.

The estate consists of a main house, a guest house and beautiful grounds that are resplendent in flowers year-round. The slope was landscaped with plants from around the world to remind the owner of the countries he has visited.

This international flavor is evident in the house, also.

Upon entering the house through the double doors, you arrive at the entry hall with its travertine and Italian marble floor and immediately enter an eclectic European area: a circa 1645 oil painting by Pieter Craesz, Irish cut-crystal jardinieres, a Dutch credenza inlaid with burled wood and a large French mirror from around 1850 over a a marble-topped, gilded table. The spectacular Baccarat crystal chandelier hangs over the two-story expanse.

The step-down main sitting room has a panoramic ocean view, and the owner wanted it to be very formal and very French.

"This area has a see-through fireplace in the middle of the room, so you have two separate sitting rooms--one with a lacquered, antique grand piano and the other with a couch and chairs," Harte said.

The chairs are from a Russian Imperial palace and are gilded with the heads of Bacchus, adding to the room's palatial appearance. The suites are French and all the draperies were custom-made in England by a firm that weaves ecclesiastical fabrics. Crystal sweet meat dishes sit atop a circa 1820 tea table done of intricate marquetry.

Throughout the house you see collections of objects artfully arranged, from the crystal to miniatures of Napoleon in the library to a collection of walking sticks that would be at home in any decorative art museum.

If one feeling permeates the house, besides the fantasy aspect, it is that of a house within a museum--or perhaps a museum within a house.

"The owner gave me free rein to buy many of the items for the house since we've worked together on other projects," Harte said, "but they do reflect his tastes since he is a true aficionado of the arts."

Although the owner is a collector of surrealist artworks, there are few in the house. The art is more traditional, but retains elements of mystery and intrigue. What performances were seen through the antique opera glasses in the hall? And who slept in the master bed?

The master bed is one of the many jewels in the house.

Built around 1870 during the days of the Raj in India, the gold-and-silver gilded peacock bed of hand-carved wood is the focal point of the room. The 1850 French night stands hold gilded, carved dolphin lamps.

All the walls in this room are covered with fabric, and the draperies open and close with the touch of a switch. The couch came from an estate in Upstate New York.

"I found it in a deserted estate, and it was totally destroyed. The fabrics for the couch and for the bed were woven in London and have a peacock fan motif to coordinate with the bed," Harte said. On the papier-mache table of mother-of-pearl are antique, mother-of-pearl jewelry boxes and a gold watch fob holder.

Although treasures fill the house, the collections are of relatively small objects displayed in large, but not massive, rooms. The furniture, though grand, is not voluminous.

It is a testimony to Harte's design that nothing overpowers the viewer and that each room flows easily into the next, even though each has a different theme. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the design is the great attention to detail. Every time you turn around, there is something new to see, a bit like a Faberge Easter egg hunt.

"Everything in the house was bought and then restored," Harte said. His company in New York City, Julian Graham-White Ltd., handled all the work. Harte redesigned functions for many of the objects, such as ornate gilded shelves used as sconces in the entry.

The house also has a functional kitchen that the owner enjoys cooking in, a formal dining room with a Crown Derby china display, a whimsical Napoleon office full of statues and pictures of the French emperor, an indoor swimming pool with a trompe l'oeil shark in it and several guest suites. A guest house is decorated more casually, with a framed collection of menus on the walls.

The house is an amazing retreat for a busy man.

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