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The Big-Box Battle of Beverly Hills

Or How Architectural Restraint Finally Prevailed in the Land of Ostentation

June 13, 2004|Karen Alexander | Karen Alexander is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer now living in Northern California.

Hamid Omrani drives up and down the southern residential streets of Beverly Hills, stopping to point out the homes he has built. His dusty Ford Explorer barely kicks into gear before he's stopping again. On some streets he can lay claim to two or three houses per block.

The Iranian-born builder--he studied architecture and urban planning in Tehran but is not a licensed architect--parks on Foothill Road just south of Burton Way. The cream-colored two-story home on his right is much like dozens of others in the neighborhood. Its 4,500 square feet dominate its 7,500-square-foot lot, and the result is a looming vault of stucco and glass adorned by four hulking cement columns. It has all the grace of a Humvee in a wedding dress.

Twenty years ago this imposing house would have seemed out of place on a lot of its size, but today most of the homes on that block are of similar scale and design. What looks out of place now is the charming one-story Spanish-style house that remains across the street, a relic from the neighborhood's original pre-World War II housing stock. With no established architectural style to describe them, houses such as the ones Omrani builds are derisively known in Beverly Hills as "Persian Palaces" because they are particularly popular among the Iranian-born families who make up an estimated 6,000 or more of the city's 34,000 residents (and nearly all of Omrani's clientele). It's a stereotype, to be sure, but Omrani embraces the term with enthusiastic pride.

"I believe everyone has the right to have his own palace," he says. "If you can't afford a big palace, so we build you a smaller one."

This particular Foothill Road palace has a flat roof, two second-floor balconies with glass French doors and 13 tall windows, most of them covered from the inside by pleated paper shades. The oversized entry doors are glass, embellished by ornate swirling brown metalwork. Thanks in part to Omrani's coaxing, many Persians have come to consider massive concrete columns a symbol of wealth. The builder says his clients pay $1,000 to $2,000 per column, depending on their size and the amount of detail involved. This particular home has four two-story columns flanking the facade, and two more supporting a carport above the city-required driveway on the right-hand side of the house--the only feature that prevents the building from being symmetrical. The front yard features two anemic miniature palm trees and a black wrought iron gate, which is a different color and style from the metalwork on the entrance.

Inside, the five-bedroom, 5 1/2-bath house has the cavernous feel of an upscale hotel lobby. The soaring two-story entryway features a lavishly inlaid marble floor. Above the grand swirling staircase with its ornate metal banister is a circular ceiling pattern surrounded by gold-tinted skylights. Recessed lighting abounds, and even the crown moulding seems to have crown moulding. With few walls, the entire space has an open, flowing feel. The upstairs bedrooms include two with balconies over the front yard and three with balconies over the petite backyard, where Omrani has crammed a pool and spa, fire pit, wet bar, built-in grill, waterfall and a raised gazebo supported by four more columns. It doubles as a carport. The back wall of the house, made almost completely of windows, is embellished with four columns as well.

While the sight of it might thrill the owner and hundreds of would-be palace dwellers, it has mortified others in this profoundly image-conscious city. It's not just that the new houses are bigger than their predecessors; all over the country homes are being built larger. The problem here is that a lot of people consider these houses the residential equivalent of a push-up bra--in-your-face boastful, obtrusive, even vaguely obscene. There are a lot of such houses in Beverly Hills, each one a reminder of the Persian community's increasing influence and confidence in its adopted home.

So when the elected leaders of this unfailingly polite city this spring adopted strict new design codes to help educate and encourage the Beverly Hills home-building public on the finer points of aesthetic restraint, it was with an undeniably sticky cultural subtext. Even the code's civil language has an unmistakable tsk-tsk tone: "Emerging trends have led some owners and developers in residential areas to disregard prevailing styles and neighborhood character in an effort to maximize development and density . . . [The trend] poses a serious danger that such overbuilding will degrade and depreciate the character, image, beauty and reputation of the City's residential neighborhoods with adverse consequences for the quality of life of all residents."

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