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125 YEARS / L.A. STORY

Our very own Camelot

April 30, 2006|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

THANK goodness for real estate. How could Southern Californians manage without it?

It's our law of physics; like the universe, we believe that equity is endlessly expanding. It's our party chatter; when religion is untouchable and politics is perilous, we can always natter confidently about housing prices. It's our imagination and our vocabulary; streets and subdivisions are fancifully named for nonexistent vistas, and houses in those endless ad fliers promise never to be anything less than fabulous, gorgeous and charming.

A house here is more than shelter, more than investment -- it is ourselves in wallboard and stucco and tile. Just as we shape and reshape lives, careers and bodies, our houses too are the magic slate on which we draw, erase and draw again.

So it's the idea of the house, the potential of it, that engages us, not one particular house. We can't afford that sentimentality, not when our childhood 3 bdr 2 ba might get razed to make way for a 5 bdr 5 ba. It isn't just your house that can flourish and then vanish. It's the arc of all architecture in Los Angeles, and it happened to a house that was once the second-most famous home in America, next to the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It was a home that Angelenos showed off and bragged about, just as if they lived there themselves -- and with Los Angeles' belief in luck and chance, one day they just might.

It was Pickfair. The Beverly Hills estate fused the lives and names of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, two of the most famous movie stars in the world. They made 1920s Hollywood a virtual kingdom, themselves its king and queen, and Pickfair its Camelot.

But really, it turned out that Pickfair was as elusive as Camelot and as mutable as L.A. itself.

Over nearly a hundred years, the hunting cabin became a comfortable home, then a mansion, then a grand makeover, then a fixer-upper, and finally, in spite of its pedigree, a teardown, with a mega-mansion built on its bones. Its 15 or so acres ended up cut and cubed like a Waldorf salad. Pickford, its first, fabled chatelaine, died a recluse in her upstairs bedroom. Its second chatelaine, Pia Zadora, made some bad films and some better albums, a never-quite star whose rich husband could buy her Pickford's home but not her talent.

Like all L.A. real estate stories, Pickfair's incarnations can be charted in its price. Before World War I, when Beverly Hills was still wilderness, a banker spent $3,000 on the rustic lodge and wild land. By 1920, Fairbanks had forked over $35,000, and built himself and his bride a bigger place.

The original neighborhood was a whimsical, back-lot jumble of architectural styles all on the same street: Craftsman, Colonial, Greek classical, ranch house, Spanish stucco, half-timbered Tudor. Pickfair, in its near-century of life, has incarnated something of almost all of those styles.

The hunting bungalow became a sprawling green-gabled, copper-roofed Tudor-Colonial with what was reputed to be the first private swimming pool in L.A. (with an inflatable shark toy).

Here, over the next dozen years, the golden couple of the silver screen hosted the world's royalty alongside Hollywood's. Garbo and Chaplin broke bread with Britain's Prince George, son of one king, brother of two more. Einstein and Lindbergh dined on plates that Napoleon gave to Josephine.

In 1927, confident in her status as first lady of the film world, Mary offered Pickfair to Calvin Coolidge as a summer White House. Coolidge declined.

The architect Wallace Neff, whose name carries more star power now than many of the luminaries he designed homes for, was summoned to Pickfair in 1932. Tear it down, he told Doug and Mary, and start over. After they said no, Neff settled for building an L-shaped veranda and the east and west wings that Doug and Mary would soon occupy separately and sulkily until they split up in 1936.

Into the 1970s, Pickfair ran on Emily Post white-glove rules. Mary observed the charity garden parties from her upstairs bedroom window, watching to see that no ladies in pantsuits showed up at Pickfair.

By the time Mary died in 1979, only about three acres of her kingdom remained. Pickfair looked modest in a neighborhood of mogul mansions. Its original six rooms had grown to 22 and then to 42, but in 1980 a prospective buyer had fretted at having only eight servants' rooms.

Jerry Buss, the Lakers owner, bought it in 1980 for a price shaved from $10 million, to $8 million, to $5,362,500. The probate judge who dropped the gavel on the sale remarked, "It must be a fixer-upper."

Some waggish journo renamed it "Bussfare," but the name didn't stick, and neither did Buss. He didn't so much take the place over as keep it up, updating the plumbing and kitchen and restoring the woodwork. It was too big for his empty-nest bachelorhood, and in 1988 Pickfair was sold for $6,675,000, to businessman Meshulam Riklis and Zadora, his wife.

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