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Cape Cod on Mulholland

`Dreamgirls' producer Laurence Mark's Georgian Colonial home, with its East Coast vibe, is a far cry from the Modernist designs that define one of L.A.'s most iconic roads. That's just the way he likes it.

January 18, 2007|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

MULHOLLAND DRIVE, that rope of road winding through Hollywood and the Santa Monica Mountains, is famous for the cantilevered Modernist dwellings that hug the hills. For the last six decades, R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra and other architects embracing the barebones International Style were drawn to this storied thoroughfare, so close to the stars. Here they built their glass houses, transparent and expansive -- visions of the future delivered for the present.

But then one comes to a flat lot where a new Georgian Colonial house sits, as if teleported from Connecticut, gables and all.

Leave it to "Dreamgirls" producer Laurence Mark to reinterpret the Mulholland fantasy. He bought the one-acre property with an aging ranch-style house for around $1.6 million in 1999. He liked the address ("Mulholland is easy to remember"), the location ("It's as far away from civilization as you can get while still being practical") and the hint of the East Coast, where he grew up (the original house's exterior was Cape Cod blue).

At first he thought he would remodel it, but then he and Santa Monica interior designer Michael S. Smith -- two traditionalists with an informal bent -- hatched the idea to erect a new Connecticut-style house inspired by the one Katharine Hepburn lived in with her pet leopard in the 1938 comedy "Bringing Up Baby."

The home is easy to miss from the street. Only a small sign with an address, barely visible among the scrappy trees, signals the turn up a strip of asphalt to the ridge of a canyon. Pull up to the front of the house -- gray brick with small-paned windows and wood shutters -- and the buttoned-up facade gives no hint of the views behind it. Looking out at the protected slopes from his covered backyard porch, Mark boasts: "I see Mother Nature, not one of those stilt houses."

At the end of his workdays keeping budgets and production of his movies on track, Mark wants to escape Hollywood. He doesn't even want to see a palm tree. He retreats to what he calls his country home. "I'm not completely isolated but I feel that way here. It just gives me a feeling that I'm combining the best of California with the East Coast."

MULHOLLAND today is lined with new, maxed-out Mediterraneans and Moderns with front-to-back views, says architect Brad Clark, who designed Mark's house. "Left to our own devices, we'd be doing contemporary," he says of his Los Angeles firm, Kovac Architects. "Larry's house with a colonial New England look is unusual for us and for that area."

Homes along Mulholland have long been defined by the surrounding sawtooth topography. In the 1920s, developers pushed to have the hilltops paved and soon private lanes were springing from the two-lane road leading past overgrown shrubs to odd-sized lots. Small cottages came first, followed by Spanish-style mini-mansions, ranch-style houses and then soaring glass-and-steel pads.

"Mulholland Drive is mythic," says Kevin Starr, a USC professor of history and the author of a series of books on the California dream. "Drive up the hill. Come into this enchanted place, with hidden gardens, hidden homes. The people who live there can be in their Hollywood-style residences, overlooking their audience, consumers who are happily in tract homes watching their work on DVD. By just being up there, it tells them who they are in case they happen to forget that day."

Marlon Brando hid away for years in a compound here, thankful that his staff could drive down to fetch whatever he needed. Jack Nicholson still lives here. But few would know it. Privacy is created by gates and landscape, and in some canyons, down-sloping lots conceal caissoned cliff-hanging houses.

It was only natural that multilevel houses would be adopted in this unlevel land, says architect Ted Wells, who is on the advisory board of the Southern California chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

"The terrain doesn't lend itself to historically flat architectural styles like a Georgian Colonial," he says. "It wasn't a big leap to adopt Mediterranean styles on Mulholland Drive that were designed to step up Italian and Spanish hillsides. The Modern style worked on multilevels too. John Lautner designed his Chemosphere house off Mulholland to sit on a single column that raised the house so as not to disturb the sloping lot. Function and expense drove these solutions."

Blame director David Lynch's edgy movie "Mulholland Drive" if our image of twisted Mulholland does not embrace a house like Mark built with pitched roof and dormers, a style first popularized on the East Coast centuries ago by wealthy colonists.

"That would be a distinctive approach for a new home there," says social historian Starr after being told of Mark's house. "This just shows the power of architecture to suggest and create place, especially for someone who grew up in the East Coast. Your home tells the story you want to tell."

MARK'S 5,179-square-foot house with a two-car garage could have been larger.

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