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Inside the Master's Retreat

Jascha Heifetz's studio, dismantled after the violinist's death, is rebuilt at the Colburn School. It wasn't easy.

March 28, 1999|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Robert Lipsett, a master teacher at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, gave 15 to 20 of his violin students a one-day crash course in Jascha Heifetz earlier this month.

He played a rare 33-rpm record on which the legendary violinist talked about being an artist. He invited colleagues of the musician to reminisce about the man. And he showed a video of Heifetz practicing in his Lloyd Wright-designed studio--the very room in which the group was sitting. For after the violinist's death in 1987, his beloved redwood retreat had been dismantled from his Beverly Hills home, stored in a crate for six years and recently reconstructed at the Colburn School.

For Lipsett, the studio is a piece of musical real estate with great inspirational potential.

"Last century, there was Paganini, who reinvented the violin," the teacher says. "This century, there was Heifetz. He had absolute command of the instrument, which is the hardest one to play. He not only raised the standard but maintained that level for decades. Though I'm not drawn to spiritual stuff, I do feel his aura in this room."

Heifetz, no doubt, would feel right at home in the space, which the school is dedicating on April 18. Walking through the original "lobby," he'd find his blue-green daybed, his brick-and-stone fireplace and the black leather desk chair--on which, out of deference, Lipsett refuses to sit. He'd also be surrounded by his bust of Beethoven and his Rachmaninoff poster, as well by as the cartoons he taped onto his built-in file cabinets. In one, an unhappy customer is questioning a bill--complaining to the owner of a car repair shop: "$120.34 for a tune-up," he says. "Who tuned it? Jascha Heifetz?"

Students find the studio both awe-inspiring and intimidating. "There's a lot of history in this room," says Wesley Precourt, 15, who travels from San Diego twice a week to study violin at the school. "People grow quiet walking in, wondering if they should be here. And the studio is designed so you can hear everything perfectly."

Those words are music to the ears of Harold Zellman, a Venice-based architect who oversaw the project. The task had particular resonance, he says, because his father was first-chair violin in a Los Angeles youth orchestra and a great admirer of Heifetz. Form Design, the contractors, spent six weeks dismantling the 850-square-foot studio while Zellman's team worked up a reconstruction manual. Each piece of natural wood had to be labeled, photographed, marked on the back with indelible ink and individually wrapped before being stored in a steel weather-tight container. A computer model of the studio was also created to document geometric relationships.

"Architecture school teaches people how to design something new rather than reassembling existing pieces," Zellman says. "We had to devise a strategy--a method of working backwards. It was like putting together an enormous puzzle with just under 1,000 pieces--then making it conform to new earthquake and building codes because it was rebuilt in a school. In the end, it was worth it, though. L.A. is famous for allowing its architectural and cultural history to disappear."

Lloyd Wright, architect son of Frank Lloyd Wright and a friend of Heifetz since the 1930s, built the studio in 1948, just after the musician moved to Southern California. Located at the family home in Coldwater Canyon, it was originally a free-standing building with three irregular hexagons (lobby, studio, office-bedroom) connected to the main house by a covered breezeway. After his retirement in 1972, the musician spent much of his time there--practicing, doing paperwork, gazing out of two giant picture windows at the cityscape below.

After Heifetz died at the age of 86, the property was bought by actor James Woods, who planned to tear down what was there and rebuild something more to his liking. Before decimating the studio, he offered it to anyone willing to assume the moving costs. The Los Angeles Conservancy sponsored the search but bowed out after prolonged negotiations.

"Jimmy felt that the space was so special both to Heifetz and Lloyd Wright--and that its destruction would be a real loss," says Woods' architect, Lise Claiborne Matthews, who designed a trellis, at the actor's request, to commemorate the studio.

Others agreed. But money--as always--was tight. The Skirball Museum, dedicated to American Jewish history, wanted to rebuild the studio in one of its galleries. Friends of Runyon Canyon hoped to turn the structure into the park's visitors center, and the Cate School in Carpinteria was another interested party. At one point, Dr. Michael Rabkin, a Brentwood ophthalmologist, hired Zellman to help move the studio next to his Lloyd Wright home. Things fell apart, however, in the face of neighborhood opposition.

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