It started as a rumor, hardly louder than the rustle of palm fronds from the octet of 90-foot trees that sway above the southern end of one green, quiet block. Frank Gehry, for most people's money the most famous architect in the world, had bought the large vacant lot at the northern end of the block. He was planning to build his dream house there.
Perhaps the very first thought -- you could see it in people's dawning reaction, even from those who haven't yet rattled their jewelry at the much-debated Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown -- was that the house had every chance of looking as wrong as Shaquille O'Neal in a Miami Heat uniform. But that thought was almost immediately shooed away by a second: They were about to be ... Gehry-adjacent.
History tells us that Gehry was still a relatively obscure name the last time he moved. That was in 1978, when he bought himself a pink bungalow in his previous neighborhood, at the corner of 22nd Street and Washington Avenue in Santa Monica, and set about a then-shocking redesign that seemed to inflate the original house, with glass skylights framed in slats of wood, a corrugated steel frame and, on the second story, intended to contain his 2-year-old son Alejandro, a now legendary span of chain-link fencing.
"So," says Gehry, "Alejandro climbed over it the first day." His son was unharmed, but thanks to his design, "the neighbors all came out and killed me."
This time Gehry is tiptoeing into town. He accepted an invitation from Sister Ada Geraghty, director of the Women in Recovery center for St. Mark Church, whose newest building overlooks Gehry's property, to speak with some immediate neighbors and show a model of his plan.
The plans and models Gehry showed the gathering at Sister Ada's facility were "not at all monolithic," according to Frank Glenn, an assistant director who lives two lots east of the Gehry site and who typifies the attitude of the many film and television professionals living nearby. "It's a nice little testament to how to underbuild in a spot like this."
Not that veterans of this enclave of southeastern Venice are starstruck, or even aware of the newcomer's potential for impact. Darleen Tripp was a longtime occupant of the house directly east of Gehry's property. She moved not long ago, but she doubts that any newcomer could unify the neighborhood as it once was. "We were all a family," she says of the neighbors. She asks who's moving in. "Frank Gehry?" she repeats. "I'm sorry, I don't know who that is."
Gehry's land sits at the intersection of Harding and Grand View avenues, currently protected by chain link and dominated by a regal pair of thick-trunked palms and a stately pine. Along the block are the homes of a Venice that veers between old school -- a retired group including a former sheriff, a house painter, a newspaperman and a British navy vet -- and new -- a computer graphics whiz, a set designer, university genetics and child development professors.
"I think the neighborhood isn't as hostile this time," says Gehry. "I don't think we're threatening anybody; in fact, when we showed it to them, they said, 'Gee, this is modest.' I said, 'Well, what do you think, I'm some rich guy? If I was a really rich guy I'd be living somewhere else.' "
Gehry the home builder is quick to bemoan his lack of financial resources, even as you find him sitting in the colossal Marina del Rey office complex where about 100 architects beaver away on projects under his banner -- or, more precisely, under the scattered hockey jerseys that colorfully adorn the high white walls. He occupies a glassed-in office that's probably not much larger than the one his father, Irwin Goldberg, who named him Ephraim at his birth in 1929, had in the Canadian furniture factory he owned.
Arrayed in a sweeping arc from his office vantage point are Gehry's current huge projects -- a 70-story high-rise in downtown Manhattan, a new arena and mall in Brooklyn, a billowing glass enclosure that will be an art museum in Lisbon. They are soon to be joined by his design for a museum at the former World Trade Center site. But not 10 feet away, and framed in a large window, is Gehry's current obsession -- his house, as represented by a scale model on a plywood platform the size of a pool table.
"We'd like to be in within two years," says Gehry, who's amiable but circumspect in describing what Venice artist Chuck Arnoldi, his friend of four decades, says is a structure still at a tender stage of artistic development. Gehry hopes to break ground in a year, but grouses about the pending city planning commission approval of an 8-foot wall he wants along part of the perimeter.
The architect hovers about his scale model, uneasy at having a stranger see it and not certain that he should be showing it at all -- he refused to release any images for this story, and a Gehry spokesman said the firm is "months and months" away from allowing the model to be photographed or any plans to be released.