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Castle had a large family life before Spector

A French American sheepherder wanted a chateau-like home for all his relatives. Then the Depression hit.

April 08, 2007|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Alhambra's storybook fortress on a hill evokes a Pyrenees chateau -- which was, in fact, the builder's inspiration.

For nearly 80 years, this reinforced concrete castle near Fremont Avenue and Valley Boulevard remained relatively unknown -- even after it was purchased by rock 'n' roll producer Phil Spector in 1998. But when actress Lana Clarkson was shot to death in the foyer in February 2003, notoriety replaced anonymity.

(Spector is charged with murder in Clarkson's death; he contends that she committed suicide.)

Until then, little excitement had penetrated the chateau's 3-foot-thick walls, hidden in the massive Himalayan deodar cedars, pine, palm and avocado trees on the property.

The mansion, with more than 30 rooms, was completed in 1927 by a French American sheepherder named Sylvester Dupuy. Locals called it "the castle." But the Dupuy family thought that "sounded too pretentious," like a feudal lord to the serfs.

"So we called it 'The House on the Hill' or just 'The Hill,' " said Dupuy's grandson, Frank Dupuy, 83, of Altadena.

"My grandfather envisioned us all living together like the 1980s TV program 'Dallas,' " Dupuy said in an interview. And that's just what they did for nearly two decades.

"My father helped build it. The women of the family prepared French meals, and everyone pitched in to make wine," the grandson said.

The Dupuys' celebrations included entertaining French athletes during the 1932 Olympics, held in Los Angeles.

But the family's penchant for privacy fueled rumors that the castle served as a hide-out for gangsters and ghosts. In 1939, The Times described it as having all the "glamour of a nudist colony without a knothole."

In a way, the mansion's origins date to the late 1870s, when Sylvester Dupuy was born in his uncle's ranch house adobe. A few years earlier, his parents, Marie and Raymond, had emigrated from the town of Pau in the French Pyrenees. They joined family and a thriving French community in Los Angeles, where they helped transform a tumbleweed wasteland into a thriving sheep ranch.

But within two years, Marie died giving birth to twin boys. Raymond returned to France with Sylvester and his three other children.

While growing up, Sylvester dreamed big, promising himself that he would one day build his own chateau like the ones that covered the French hillsides. When he turned 14, he returned to Los Angeles to herd sheep for his uncle.

Four years later, his uncle turned over the running of the ranch to him and returned to France. In a few years, Sylvester Dupuy leased adjoining land, which extended from what is now the Long Beach Freeway to the San Gabriel River and from Monterey Park to East Los Angeles. He grew barley and oats and let sheep graze on the stubble after the harvest.

Before the turn of the 20th century, he met and married a young Frenchwoman named Anna Candelot. The newlyweds settled down in the ranch house.

"It was there, in 1900, my father Frank Sr. was born -- in that same adobe as his father," Frank Dupuy said. "It's long gone now."

The ranch was once part of a Mexican land grant known as Rancho Rosa Castilla -- named for the wild rose that grew there. These days, the property encompasses the Cal State L.A. campus and the University Hills community.

A year later, the family moved to a house on Edith Street in Alhambra. That home included an enormous barn that Sylvester Dupuy turned into his ranch headquarters.

He invested ranching profits in land and oil. By the early 1920s, he began subdividing San Gabriel Valley property, including the town that would become known as Temple City. It was named for his longtime business partner, Walter Paul Temple, of Los Angeles' famous pioneer family.

"Dupuy was too hard to pronounce," Frank Dupuy said. A Temple City street received the challenging moniker, which is pronounced Doo-pwee. But Dupuy Street eventually was renamed Primrose, he said.

Temple and Sylvester Dupuy persuaded Pacific Electric Railway to extend its Red Car line from Alhambra to their new town. "But in the end that wasn't enough" to make the subdivision a success, Frank Dupuy said. "When the Depression hit, my grandfather lost his shirt."

In 1924, Sylvester began to build his dream castle. He hired local architect John Walker Smart, who had designed several buildings in town, including ones for the post office, hospital and newspaper. Smart loosely modeled the castle after chateaus that had caught Dupuy's eye in France.

The castle included turrets, a red tile roof, secret passages and about 8,600 square feet, with 10 bedrooms and 8 1/2 baths. From its many windows and balconies, Dupuy could look out at his birthplace and the lush land that had made him rich.

"My grandfather paid $500,000 cash to build it," Frank Dupuy said. "He installed Italian marble in the entry and Holland tile on the roof."

He imported wood paneling from Central America, replete with tiny beetles. "We could hear the beetles chewing" until the house was fumigated, the grandson said.

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