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A museum that'll stay in move-in condition

January 28, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

FRED WEISMAN couldn't help it. He just had to buy all that art and stuff it into his house and gardens.

During a decade of residence at his Mediterranean-style estate in Holmby Hills, he put Modern classics in the living room, Surrealist paintings in the dining room and an eclectic array of high-spirited contemporary art everywhere else.

A giant cat by Fernando Botero stands by the swimming pool. Pop paintings by Roy Lichtenstein grace the lanai. A sculpture of a sexy nude woman by John d'Andrea perches on a bedroom sofa. Startlingly realistic life-size figures by Duane Hanson -- a woman with a vacuum cleaner, a dozing old man and likenesses of Weisman's parents -- pop up in various settings. Even the mailbox is a work of art, a sculpture of a hand and forearm by Frank Fleming.

When Weisman ran out of space, he covered windows, mounted paintings on ceilings and built a spacious modern annex to display more art. At his death in 1994, he had amassed a 1,500-piece collection and installed about 500 of those objects in and around his home.

The point of collecting art, Weisman thought, was to enjoy it, live with it and share it -- forever. His will decreed that the art-filled property be kept intact and maintained as a museum.

"He wanted this to be an example of living with art in the late 20th century," says his second wife, art conservator Billie Milam Weisman. She directs the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, overseeing the art holdings and lending works to museums worldwide. At the moment, a Weisman painting by Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a 125-piece show from the collection is at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.

Many people have seen the fruits of Weisman's collecting, at his house and elsewhere -- the foundation has quietly conducted tours of the highly unusual estate since his death. But now Weisman's wish is an officially sanctioned reality. The foundation has the approval of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission to operate the house as a museum in a single-family residential neighborhood.

"Fred thought people were intimidated by art in museums, but less so when it is in homes," Billie Weisman says. "We are making Fred proud by continuing to operate the way he wanted it."

The museum is open free, by appointment only, Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The first tour begins at 10:30 a.m., the last one at 2 p.m. Operating on a highly restricted basis, the foundation is prohibited from publishing its address or street name. Prospective visitors gain access by making reservations via e-mail at or by telephone (310) 277-5321. Guests must park their cars inside the walled compound.

Fortunate turn of events

THE job of turning the Weisman estate into a museum fell to attorney Elizabeth Watson of Greenberg Glusker LLP. The impetus was a complaint to the city Department of Building and Safety from an unidentified neighbor, Watson says. When city officials followed up with a visit to the house, they informed the foundation that it must stop operating the museum or get the necessary approval.

"What's fortunate in this case is that the city of Los Angeles actually has a very special provision for what they call 'public benefit projects,' " Watson says. "It hasn't been in place very long, and it's been used primarily for city projects, municipal buildings. We utilized that section of the code which allows public benefit projects like museums and libraries in any zone in the city if you meet certain requirements. It allows the city to impose special conditions to be sure the use is compatible with the neighborhood.

"The other aspect that worked strongly in our favor," she says, "was that the foundation was using an existing single-family home, so the appearance of the building and grounds are entirely consistent with the neighborhood. We weren't building something that looked different. And, of course, that's really the essence of the Weisman museum. It's first and foremost a single-family estate. The core mission of the foundation -- to preserve Fred Weisman's home as he lived in it with his art -- was very consistent with the values in the city zoning code."

Nonetheless, the approval process took about a year to complete. The foundation needed discretionary special approvals from the city, including a public benefit project approval and variances on parking and the height of the wall and hedge along the front of the property.

Watson also worked with the foundation to get community support, including an endorsement from the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, and negotiated operating conditions with abutting neighbors.

Steve Twining, president of the council, says the museum got the group's enthusiastic support.

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