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No Rhapsody on Roxbury

Preservationists criticize the demolition of the Beverly Hills house in which George and Ira Gershwin wrote some of their classic songs.

August 12, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

In the early 1940s, Ginny Simms, a band singer, bought the house. She sold it in 1953 to newlyweds Jose Ferrer, an actor, director and musician, and Rosemary Clooney. The couple had five children by 1960 but later divorced. Clooney, famous for her rendition of "Come On-a My House," died at the house of lung cancer in 2002.

Over the years, a who's who of show business had paraded through her doors, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin. Celebrity neighbors who lived within a block or two on the street included Lucille Ball, James Stewart and Jack Benny.

"It's terrible," said Denny Hankla, who rolled by the property on a two-wheeled scooter one recent morning. "This place was a landmark. It had a really great vibe."

Hankla, a drummer who said he was a friend of Miguel Ferrer, the oldest son of Ferrer and Clooney, said he spent the night in the house one time when "Rosie was still alive."

The common denominator of those who lived at 1019 N. Roxbury, Cameron said, was that they were all self-made American successes.

"I think it was a happy house full of people coming and going and people who had it made," she said. "Roxbury is this street of having it made."

Indeed, "Roxbury is our dream street," said Ned Nik, who bought the property earlier this year from Fisch Properties. Although Nik said the sellers stipulated that the transaction price remain confidential, sources in the real estate community put it at $9 million.

Enamored of the street, Nik, a general contractor who emigrated from Iran in 1980, said he had attempted to buy four other properties on North Roxbury but that those deals had fallen through.

Nik said he at first considered keeping "as much as possible" of the original structure and remodeling. He changed his mind, however, after engineers found mold and termite damage. In addition, he said, the foundation did not conform with current seismic codes.

Nik's purchase was recorded on May 4. Soon after, bulldozers were spotted at the site, and the buildings had all been marked with large Ds (for demolition). After a reporter for The Times called Beverly Hills' Department of Community Development-Planning , the agency dispatched an inspector who issued a stop-work order because the new owner had not yet received the proper demolition permits.

"We continued to work with the applicant," said Aluzri, who heads the planning department.

In 2004, Beverly Hills adopted strict design codes that require anyone building a house to go through a design review process. That process was prompted in large part by the explosion in recent years of what were derisively called "Persian palaces."

Many of those imposing structures, which are adorned by concrete columns and popular among the Iranian-born families who make up about one-sixth of Beverly Hills' population, were the work of an Iranian-born builder named Hamid Omrani. At 1019 N. Roxbury, Omrani is listed as the permit holder.

Aluzri said Omrani submitted plans for a Beaux Arts-style house that "was determined to be consistent" with permitted designs.

Nik said he also was working with two other architects to complete the design.

The city's survey is coming too late to save what Nancy Gershwin, whose father was a first cousin of George and Ira, considers to have been a special house. In New York, she said, the building on West 110th Street where George Gershwin, at 25, composed "Rhapsody in Blue" is marked with a terra cotta plaque.

"History there is perceived as adding value," she said. "In New York, there's a reverence for the past."

As for the now-demolished Roxbury house, she said: "It represents a world that doesn't exist anymore."

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