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In Defense of the Persian Palace

They're ostentatious and ridiculous and blot out their neighbors' sun. They're also open to light and the street, and expressive of an inviting, sociable culture.

December 17, 2006|Greg Goldin | Greg Goldin is Los Angeles magazine's architecture critic.

The Rexford residence make-over is a starter Persian Palace, without knowing it. It presages the architectural expressionism of the genre. In the past 100 years, home-building has been largely the domain of speculators and moneylenders churning out tract houses, like GM car chassis, of undistinguished utility. For most homeowners, originality or individuality amounts to minor variations in floor plans and landscaping. There were bound to be modifications. Charles Jencks, the architectural historian, once filled a book with images of what he called "Daydream Houses of Los Angeles." Jencks spotted a Mission-style Spanish done up like a Wedgwood plate, a stucco dingbat capped by a finial-sprouting mansard, and something he aptly called a "branch bank Parthenon," a superlative Mulholland Drive house with a front portico formed by eight rectangular double-height columns supporting a perfectly flat roof lined with tiny dentil moldings. A smoked-glass entry, worthy of BofA, fused the image.

Before there was the Persian Palace, there was the Hollywood Regency, a style that exploded in the early 1950s, when, as West Hollywood's urban designer John Chase notes, "a mania for transforming . . . Spanish Colonial Revival mutts into French mansarded pedigreed poodles swept into West Hollywood." Inspired by the Beverly Hills houses of John Woolf--his most famous, owned by the rakish Hollywood producer Bob Evans, has a demi lunette entrance portico supported by chopstick-thin colonettes and flanked by urns set in oval niches--this fad affected a mannered elegance. Front doors crashed through rooflines, striped awnings with castellated fringe plunged into windowsills, and "mammoth false-front mansards were . . . used to make the little West Hollywood cottages into miniature mansions," Chase observes.

Like Daydream Houses and Hollywood Regency homes, Persian Palaces are meant to please the eye. You can begin to grasp this fact from the sidewalk on Alpine Drive, one block away from the ur-Palace on Rexford. The corner house is entirely concerned with the application of decorative details foraged from the architectural past--or the house around the block. The entry spans two floors and is surrounded by stacked, precast concrete blocks designed to look like carved stone--a rusticated motif freely lifted from Andrea Palladio, the great Italian Renaissance architect. This frames a Beaux Arts glass door, with grillework overlay as feathery as a peacock. To either side of the doorway, pairs of windows, upstairs and downstairs, consume the remaining wall space. Thick ogee moldings and cornices surround the windows, while another set of precast cyma recta and cavetto moldings form a skyline frieze and cornice that almost squish the windows back into the ground. It looks as if someone screwed one course of a classical roof onto a modest two-story Venetian home, causing the windows to burst out of the stucco facade. So much of this side of the house is taken up with the windows and doors and moldings that there is almost no wall space left to offer some relief from these overpowering elements.

So it goes. As the house turns the corner, the upper frieze and cornice follow a zigzag setback, creating an iambic meter of light and shadow that makes the house seem to skip down the block. Distorted sufficiently through a squint, the sideyard divisions begin to look like row houses on a movie lot. The back of the house is no less fanciful. An enormous curving balcony projects into the yard, as voluptuous as a Francois Boucher derriere.

Don't try to assemble these parts into a comprehensible whole. You cannot. At least not in conventional architectural terms. The owners of Persian Palaces aren't striving to keep to formal rules of architecture--not Classical order, Renaissance perspective, Baroque composition or Beaux Arts historicism. There are no hidden symbols in their design choices, either. Nor do many of the owners mean to announce class status by deploying all those columns and balustrades. They merely want to enliven the street, and their own surroundings, by plucking familiar images from the glories of architectural history and turning them into a kind of gold-leafing.

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