UNUSUAL homes often inspire wonder, but for residents of L.A.'s Beverly Crest neighborhood, the 1927 house has long seemed particularly curious, hidden behind a two-story, reddish wall that runs the length of the lot. "Every time someone from the neighborhood finds out that I own the property," Eugene Leoni said, "they're always dying to know: What's behind that wall?"
Behind the wall, it turns out, is a fountain that may have been designed by the late Luis Barragan, often regarded as Mexico's greatest architect. Though the house had been a popular party spot for movie stars, musicians, artists, even royalty 40 years ago, today the property's greater claim to fame is a 5,000-square-foot swimming pool graced with a towering stone fountain. Records show that Barragan designed the fountain -- a surprise even to some Barragan experts who have long insisted that his only U.S. project was his consultation on Louis Kahn's plaza for the Salk Institute in La Jolla.
The history of the fountain's construction and recent rehabilitation -- an epic tale of money, lawsuits and suicide -- is important not only for those who believe that Barragan did guide the creation of this little-known landmark. As Southern California's architecture gets older and the region's appreciation of significant homes grows, the fountain also represents the rising importance of provenance -- the ability of homeowners to trace the pedigree of a house or garden much as an art collector might authenticate a painting.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 07, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Barragan fountain: A July 24 article in the Home section about a Los Angeles house with a fountain credited to Luis Barragan misstated the size of the fountain and accompanying pool as 5,000 square feet. They cover about 1,000 square feet.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 09, 2008 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Barragan fountain: A July 24 article about a Los Angeles house with a fountain credited to Luis Barragan misstated the size of the fountain and accompanying pool as 5,000 square feet. They cover about 1,000 square feet.
For Leoni and his business partner, Anthony Brent, the story starts three years ago, when they bought the site, including its 4,900-square-foot house, primarily to use as offices for their real estate projects and, eventually, to sell.
"We initially thought that we'd put $200,000 into it," Brent said. "But the longer we stayed here, the more we realized that it had great potential for an architecturally significant home."
Thanks to designer Tim Campbell, the remodeled house -- four bedrooms and six baths in 5,500 square feet -- respectfully acknowledges Barragan's style without aping it. Campbell and his clients knew the house would be a challenge, but it was nothing compared with the story of the fountain.
The home's previous owner, Douglas Argyle Campbell (no relation to Tim), hired the landscape firm LRM of Culver City to renovate the courtyard in 1987. That's when LRM partner David Larkins suggested to his client that they involve Barragan.
"When I said 'Barragan,' his eyes lit up," Larkins said. "He came back five minutes later with a stack of books on Barragan and said, 'I'm just going to go hire him.' "
LRM partner Larry Reed Moline said his client wanted to enlarge the existing pool, but then it would have been too big. "So he said, 'Well, how about a swimming pool that we could empty when we needed to throw a party?' And that's just what Barragan did: He created a fountain that still works when you drain the pool. That way, it becomes an additional patio."
Barragan died the following year, so his business partner, Raul Ferrera, took over and worked with LRM on construction. The original design called for colored concrete, but Douglas Campbell insisted on stone. Obtaining a suitable material from a quarry in Queretaro, Mexico, was difficult and costly (about $1 million, Leoni said).
"The stone was so hard that it was destroying all their equipment," Larkins said. "And as soon as they found a vein, they'd run out. So they had to search everywhere for it, often in places that had never been mined before. But then the color wouldn't be right or they couldn't get enough of it. And this dragged on for a couple of years."
That was only the start of Ferrera's problems. After Barragan's death, projects fell through and Ferrera was forced to sue clients for outstanding invoices. On April 24, 1993, he killed himself.
LRM completed the fountain in 1996, and that same year Douglas Campbell applied for historic landmark status, stating that the design was a contribution to the civic landscape. "In a city who's Mexican population is significant and growing," he wrote, "it seems of the premier importance to honor an outstanding example of this culture."
The fountain, officially Campbell Divertimento Fountain, remains Historic-Cultural Monument No. 637, thanks to a 1997 ruling by L.A.'s Cultural Heritage Commission. Though the design is described as "Mayan-inspired" and Barragan rarely used such fussy vernacular, the commission declared the fountain "a signature project of Barragan, an architect of international fame and an architect of great importance to contemporary Mexican culture."
Few have questioned Barragan's role in the project. After all, the names Barragan and Ferrera are clearly stamped on the blueprints dated 1987. Only Ferrara signed them, but that was common for the period. Leoni and Brent also have correspondence between Barragan's office and Douglas Campbell, who died this year.