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The ultimate cliffhanger

Hillsides are giving way to lavish swimming holes.

August 16, 2007|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Buried deep into a slope in the Hollywood Hills are concrete-and-steel columns that prop up a glass-edged pool, creating a backyard where there was none. Tons of rock and dirt were blasted away in Hidden Hills to make room for a $3-million pool that is shaded by two man-made caves. And jutting out of houses on graded cliffs in Newport Beach are swimming channels that extend into thin air.

The quest to squeeze the ultimate novelty on hilly property is driving some homeowners "to rip up the world for a trophy pool," says builder Don Goldstone, who is finishing three such extreme pools. "Many insanely rich people live on expensive lots that are cramped and not flat, but they still want the California dream of a pool in the backyard."

Altering hillsides to install a pool is peculiar to Southern California, says Donald Burns of California Spa and Pool Industry Education Council, a nonprofit trade group based in Sacramento. "I haven't heard of people cutting into mountains to make room for a pool, but that only means no one has complained about it yet," he says. "These innovations start in Southern California, then spread."

Jay Elbettar, director of the Newport Beach Building Department, says aggressive pool building on hills is such a recent phenomenon that his office has received few complaints.

Occasionally a neighbor may voice concern to him about a view being impaired or the possibility of a pool leaking water and compromising the hillside. But strict requirements by the California Coastal Commission and city building departments keep these issues in check, he says, adding, "Our job is to make sure that despite any slope movement, the pool and the water in it stays in place. These supports may even end up helping secure the hillside."

Lee Feldman's property in the Hollywood Hills drops straight down the back of his house. He hired Goldstone to build a 40-foot-long platform for an infinity pool, 10-person spa, travertine deck and strip of lawn.

Workmen toiled two years, sometimes dangling off the side, to install caissons and retaining walls.

"It was scary to watch the work being done," says Feldman, an attorney who endured rejections from many pool builders who wouldn't even bid on the job. He received calls from his downhill neighbors worried that drilling rigs and 3-foot-wide steel supports would belly-flop onto their roofs.

Now, after spending $500,000 for the pool, he and his wife, Gina Browne, can cool off and entertain friends.

"The difference was not a backyard versus a backyard with a pool," Feldman says. "It was a place with no outside area that became one with several thousand square feet. My new backyard is the coolest thing I've ever seen."

Underneath the pool is an enclosed screening room with a downtown skyline view. Feldman jokes that guests with vertigo are a little shaky at first, but then they focus on the city lights below and "it's hard to get them to leave."

Builder Goldstone is a week away from putting 100,000 gallons of water into a pool carved out of the hillside underneath a bridle trail in Hidden Hills.

"My client, a Ferrari-driving restaurateur, didn't want a regular pool," says Goldstone of Ultimate Water Creations in Bel-Air. "He wanted a blockbuster. That takes space that he didn't have."

The rock-laden pool, which looks like Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain, has a 100-foot-long water slide that traverses from the top to the bottom, a swim-up blackjack table with a raised platform for a croupier to deal cards, and a garage-door-size water screen so dense a movie can be projected onto it.

For a TV producer, Goldstone's crew has spent eight years cutting into a mountain in Benedict Canyon to make way for a 200-foot-long pool with waterfalls and a glass-enclosed steam room.

Elbettar in Newport Beach is seeing more houses without backyards using living rooms as springboards for swimming pools. Concrete troughs are attached to houses that cantilever over the bay or ocean. A serpentine-shaped pool extends the property line over the ledge of a Corona del Mar beach house by 18 feet.

Playa del Rey architect Helena Arahuete worked with Skip Phillips of Questar Pools and Spas in Escondido to transport the idea up north: a 50-foot-long lap pool starts in the living room and projects out over a canyon near the Napa wine country. Tempered glass panels can be removed to wade out in the open.

"There was no room on the mountain top for a separate pool, so I designed it to be an integral part of the house," says Arahuete of Lautner Associates-Helena Arahuete Architect, a firm started by late architect John Lautner. His modern houses often were ribboned with water channels.

Arahuete continues that tradition, pushing the boundaries of pools, she says, because it's "a way of creating a sense of infinite space."


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