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ROYAL TREATMENT : For Some Southland Homeowners, Their Home Is Their Castle

January 16, 1994|CAROL TICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Tice is a Los Angeles free - lance writer. and

Don Brownstein feels like the king of his block. When he turns into the driveway of his Northridge home, he usually finds the street clogged with cars full of gawking picture-takers.

Passersby stare because Brownstein lives in a recently completed, 7,800-square-foot medieval castle.

"You only live once," Brownstein said, "so we wanted to build something we love. And I've always had a fascination with things that are medieval and strange."

A castle in Southern California? It seems a hopelessly odd mix--an ancient building designed for military defense plunked down in a city protected by electronic security alarms. Castle owners may be out of step in the land of youth, surfing and instant mini-malls, but they care not. Eschewing trendy high-tech styles, equipped with large budgets or small, local castle owners create medieval fortresses where they are shielded from the bustle of urban life.

Brownstein and his wife, Renee, had always been interested in ancient architecture. After a search for larger quarters yielded nothing located closer to Brownstein's Vernon-based recycling business, the couple decided to start from scratch on their existing lot and build a one-of-a-kind castle. They even found a way to recycle their original, 2,600-square-foot house--instead of tearing it down, they donated it to charity.

Their new three-story home has classic castle features, including a 300-pound wooden front door, battlements and hidden passageways, as well as Brownstein's whimsical "physical jokes"--two-way mirrors, carved figures tucked into every corner and a torture chamber/workout room adorned with realistic paintings of whip-wielding taskmasters and snarling dogs.

New materials were often used to create the appearance of age. Concrete and stucco, painted to look like old stone, were used for the entryway flagstones and some interior and exterior walls. The Brownsteins were influenced by castles they saw in Europe, as well as Hearst Castle and Disneyland. "We'd be on the Haunted Mansion ride admiring the wall sconces," Brownstein said. The result is "a vaguely European feeling without being any particular style."

"There are faces in the balusters, jokers and dragons, gargoyles on the outside parapets," Brownstein said. To complete the look, Brownstein is having a fire-breathing bronze dragon sculpture installed to guard his front yard, which will eventually include a moat.

But dragons aside, what the family really enjoys about the house is the sense of privacy, of being away from the modern world. While their children Erin, 11, and Adam, 14, frolic with playmates in the hidden passageways, Brownstein can hole up in his office or work out in the torture chamber. "What I like is I can go up into my own area and not be bothered," Brownstein said. "It's peaceful and quiet. It's just a fantasy house."

Hollywood castle owner Chuck Friedman feels the same way about his 18-year-old, two-story medieval home.

"We live a fairy tale here," he said of the 6,000-square-foot castle he built gradually, as finances allowed. The final design includes two main living areas surrounded by battlements, waterfalls, a winding moat and drawbridges. At one point the property also housed horses in suitably ancient-looking stables.

"Every year we added something," he said. "It was ad-libbed. There was no architect."

For Friedman, the castle motif was actually his second choice, selected after he learned that building codes prohibited construction of a ship-shaped home in the style of a Spanish galleon. Friedman decided a hilltop castle would be the next best thing. Back then, the area was more rustic, he recalled: "You could take your horse, go out the back door and go seven miles without hitting a house."

More recently, Friedman's castle has been the setting for many Hollywood movies and television shows, as well as charity events, including Halloween costume parties and sword-fighting demonstrations. "I've never yet had someone have a bad time here," Friedman said. "The house takes on a lot of beautiful atmospheres, particularly if it's a foggy night."

Atmosphere--an air of sophistication, actually--was what early Southern Californians sought when they built ornate European-style castles, many of which have not survived. Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker said the years 1910 to 1930 saw construction of many of the grandest castles. Two of the most impressive were within sight of each other: Castle Sans Souci, owned by Dr. A. G. Schloesser, and Castle Glengarry, which stood at Franklin Avenue and Argyle and was owned by actor Sessue Hayakawa.

"There was a lot of interest in Europe," Wananmaker said, "particularly in people who moved here from back East and the Midwest. They'd seen how the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers lived, and they wanted houses with that royal, noble feeling. It was a way of showing you had culture."

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