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Mere Real Estate It Is Not

To these sales agents, L.A.'s architecturally siginificant homes are more than hot commodities; they are gems

January 13, 2002|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crosby Doe started his career in real estate by knocking on doors. He cruised the tamed hillsides of Hollywood, where residential surprises, good and bad, lay around every switchback. One day he'd discover a little witchypoo cottage nestled between a neo-Palladian villa and a crumbling stucco hacienda. Another excursion would take him past mansions festooned like wedding cakes, only to arrive at a perfectly disciplined Craftsman bungalow. One spring afternoon in 1974, he parked his red Rover sedan in Nichols Canyon, across from a sleek, flat-roofed box of a house with glass walls. He recognized it as the work of Richard Neutra, the Viennese architect whose style of California Modernism has become a brand around the world.

Doe knocked on the spruce wood door, more excited by the prospect of seeing the home's interior than worried about meeting rejection. A dapper, soft-spoken man of average height with a sandy pompadour and a groomed mustache, Doe wouldn't be the type to startle an unsuspecting homeowner. After spending a few hours with the owner, choreographer Eugene Loring, who'd lived in the house since it was completed in 1958, he persuaded Loring to let him sell the house. It was Doe's first listing, and it sold for $100,000.

That was before real estate prices joined plastic surgery and box office grosses as a fail-safe small talk topic. Before a star architect's name on a house could carry as much currency as a Hollywood pedigree. Before the 1990s, when international tastemakers like Gucci designer Tom Ford would scour Los Angeles for the right Neutra, ultimately paying $2 million for a place in Bel-Air he would spend more than a year restoring. It was just before Doe invented a marketing niche, concentrating on historic and architecturally significant properties. It has become his life's great cause, a focus that is as much crusade as business, and which has helped preserve the landscape of Los Angeles.

"I was considered a kook at the beginning, because a lot of architectural styles that have become popular weren't appreciated then," Doe says. Yet in the years since he began tracking down houses listed in a Los Angeles County Museum of Art guide from the '60s, a number of competitors who once just thought he'd come up with a useful gimmick have also taken to calling themselves mavens.

Most active among them is Barry Sloane, an Australian-born television director and producer who bought two homes from Doe, then decided to make a career change. The pair are now gentlemanly rivals who've benefited from the steadily growing interest in mid-century Modernism.

No other American city markets its fine architecture with such vigor and scholarship. George Ballantyne, executive vice president of Sotheby's International Realty in New England, has a graduate degree in architectural history and sells many historic properties, but that's inevitable in his area, he says, where the bulk of luxury homes was built before 1900. Leave it to L.A. to elevate all that is stylish and quirky, to put architects' names above the title, so to speak. "Six rooms, ocean view" becomes "Gregory Ain beauty in the hills."

"People who really care about architecture go to Crosby, because he's the most knowledgeable," says Julius Shulman, the 91-year-old photographer whose architectural photographs have become iconic. "Barry is serious, too. But the other firms who are calling themselves architectural specialists just followed Crosby's lead. He was a genuine pioneer, and because of him a lot of the high-quality Modernist architecture has come back."

Ron Radziner, a partner in the Santa Monica-based architectural firm Marmol & Radziner, which specializes in restoring modern homes, says, "They have helped build the appreciation for the wonderful private architecture in this city. It isn't always about money for them. They care." Doe, 55, and Sloane, 53, serve as high priests to a congregation of true believers, devout preservationists who recognize that Los Angeles has the greatest concentration of distinguished domestic architecture in the country. The cognoscenti have heard all the snide cliches: that there is no respect for history here; that whatever culture exists is disposable; that there is a lot of taste in Los Angeles, all of it bad. Sitting in a serene Bauhaus showplace or behind the Andalusian gates of a sublime Moorish estate, they know better.

They understand that Doe and Sloane are businessmen. But they're also grateful that these specialty real estate agents and the proud buyers who shun nouveau starter castles on the Westside to seek out hidden treasures in Silver Lake, Pasadena and Los Feliz have become custodians of L.A.'s unique heritage.

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