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The Eye by Barbara King

So seduced, so smitten

Hollywood Regency brings to life a romantic legacy that's distinctly L.A.

June 12, 2003|Barbara King

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love any number of people without wanting to live with them. That's pretty much how I feel about most styles of architecture and interior decoration and, for that matter, most things in general. I fall in love with the world at large on a regular basis. Each new discovery brings on that sudden tingle I've grown overly familiar with. It's like the first bite of a really rich brownie.

And so it is that I have fallen in love with Hollywood Regency. We'll probably never cohabit, but that's not the point, after all. We don't need to. It'll be enough just to spend time with it and have it drape its glamorous sheen all over me like a couturier's satin cape.

I came to this realization only recently. It began when I went for the first time to the home of two brand-new friends, Thom and Chloe Mount, who live in West Hollywood. As soon as I entered the foyer, I was swept away and swept back in time to a more elegant era, writ in Hollywood terms. A sea of white marble encircled me. Two of the tallest, leanest, loveliest doors I'd ever seen opened onto a curved living room, with light from the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass playing off the marble so brilliantly that the whole space was pearlescent. The house moved with an effortless grace, like a dancer. Like Fred Astaire. Each room was its own stagy environment, with its own entrance and exit. At last, a true MGM moment.

I sat down on a pinkish tufted chair, my back to the doors with the big brass knobs in the middle. Something about them was calling forth not quite a memory but a sensation akin to a memory, a kind of cellular knowingness. I turned to look at them just at the moment Chloe spoke the name: Loretta Young. This was Loretta Young's house and these were the most famous doors in TV history, the doors she swung open and swirled through weekly on her '50s TV show. Well, OK, not quite, but the doors the famous doors were copied from.

Thom and Chloe are in the movie industry, it goes without saying. But beyond that, they are passionate students of Los Angeles architecture, in particular the houses of John Elgin Woolf, of which theirs is one. Woolf was a small-town boy from Alabama who came to L.A. in the 1930s to reinvent himself in the best tradition of Hollywood and the West Coast. Los Angeles was -- still is -- a mecca for people looking for freedom of expression, and Woolf freely expressed himself and his grandiose, movie-informed aspirations through his houses. Nothing bespeaks the shimmering elegance of Hollywood in the '40s and '50s like a Woolf interior.

And so it comes as something of a surprise that I have fallen all over again. I, with my British colonialist-leaves-Kenya-for-Key West style of decor, all weathered woods and scorched bamboo. But after a few weeks of doing field archeology on Hollywood Regency -- reading, researching, looking at pictures, unwittingly being inside a Woolf interior -- I fell. The actual coup de theatre occurred Sunday morning, when I met Chloe and Thom at the Melrose Place farmer's market. "I've got to show you something," Thom insisted, directing me farther along the tiny street, one of the most charming in L.A. He pointed to the right, to a building with the telltale mansard roof: "That's John Woolf's old studio. And across the street -- see the red doors? He designed that too." A spectacular row of hearty ficus lined the front stretch of the building; a gate opened to a courtyard and several tall red doors. A fountain splashed. I felt the tingle. Love at second sight.

Woolf's designs suggest the lost legacy of glamour that we see only in photo books or old movie magazines or movies. They can take you back to a time when stars were more special than the rest of us, when we didn't know every last thing about where they bought their beauty products or shopped for underwear. Stars today undervalue the power of mystery; they are overexposed in every way.

Stars of the golden era knew they were royalty, and they lived out their lives in a royal way -- with the help of designers like Woolf and Billy Haines, of course. It took real visionaries and synthecists to make it happen with any authenticity, so that even the pretentiousness became part of the aura.

L.A. has always been accused of lacking culture. Before I moved here, I too believed all the easy cliches. Yet there is an architectural history here as rich as in any place I've ever lived. As I began to drive around, the landscape became less a blurred matter of passing scenery than a real place with a real heritage.

The fact of the matter is, the Joan Crawfords had beautiful houses specifically built for them that didn't just reflect the personae they wanted to project; they helped create them.

But as glamour gave way to grunge -- just try to imagine Crawford or Young flip-flopping around in rubber thongs -- so too did Regency. Now it's coming back with a vengeance. And a hot, hip, haute new face.

As I looked more closely at Woolf's buildings on Melrose Place, I recognized something else besides the obvious glamour: They also represented a lost legacy of craftsmanship. Woolf executed a complete realization of a complete vision.

Movie stars wanted houses that separated them from the masses and denoted their status. In this town, nothing announces your status more than custom-made. Hollywood Regency is the bespoke tailoring of architecture and decor.

Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com

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