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Frances Lasker Brody's house previews for architectural aficionados

The 1951 Holmby Hills house by A. Quincy Jones and Billy Haines was home to masterpieces of modern art. It's listed at $24.9 million.

August 21, 2010|By Charlotte Stoudt, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Realtor Jade Mills calls it "Disneyland for adults," and the Holmby Hills home of art maven Frances Lasker Brody is something of a magic kingdom.

The midcentury glass-walled temple of modernism is virtually unchanged since its completion in 1951 by architect A. Quincy Jones and decorator William "Billy" Haines.

After a recent sale fell through, Coldwell Banker agents Mills and Linda May re-staged the house and Thursday night held an elegant invitation-only preview for architectural aficionados.

"Frances had the courage to resist redoing the house," said May, who has listed it at $24.9 million. "She never gave in to trends."

It was Brody herself who set trends, with an uncanny eye that ran in the family: Her father, Albert D. Lasker, was an original Mad Man — an advertising genius who saved the American orange industry by convincing consumers they needed a glass of juice every morning.

After husband Sidney put a Henry Moore sculpture under their Christmas tree one year, Frances discovered a deep passion for modern art that helped transform the L.A. art scene.

Brody died last year at 93. An unspecified amount from the sale of the Brodys' celebrated art collection and the home itself will be donated to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, likely to be the largest bequest in the institution's history. Huntington President Steven S. Koblik says the full value of the gift will not be known until at least November. "The trustee is working his way through the entire estate. These things take time," he said.

Now a handful of high-quality reproductions hang in place of the multimillion-dollar Derains and Braques — a substitution suggested by Christie's and the trustees when the house first went up for sale. The originals were too priceless to protect.

But even without the frisson of eight-figure art on the wall, the architecture still enthralls. "When I first walked in, I was speechless," says Deborah Fabricant, who staged the property, which had faded during Brody's final years. "I just worked my way through the house in silence, absorbing it. I felt like I could turn the corner and find Frank Sinatra sitting in the living room. How often do you see a home that has this kind of emotional impact?"

To convey a sense of the home's original aura, Fabricant had the family's collection of museum posters framed and hung around the house. She replaced old pillows, adhering to the look of the Haines fabrics. And after finding old drapes sitting on a sawhorse in the dining room, she bought a set of West Elm chairs and used the curtain fabric for new cushions.

With 11,500 square feet of living space, floor-to-ceiling windows and a master bedroom suite that would bring even "Mad Men's" Roger Sterling to tears, the house is a breathtaking sequence of shifting views, a sleek collage of glass, warm wood and black lacquer. As red-carpeted cork stairs float upward from the entrance hall, another staircase leads down to the house's centerpiece: an atrium sheltered by a towering but graceful tree. A stone fireplace floats next to a fountain. Call it the love child of Bauhaus rigor and Beverly Hills élan.

Gone from the adjacent wall, however, is the massive tile cutout by Matisse, "La Gerbe," that adorned the main wall of the atrium. Donated to LACMA, the museum says it will be on view in mid-September. A crane was required to lift the Matisse out of its oasis, a reminder of the hidden strength behind the estate's supreme elegance. Like Sleeping Beauty encased in glass, the tranquility of the house belies the drama behind it. "A strong mind is required to achieve a beauty this serene," observes Steve Oney, a writer and friend of Brody, sipping a cocktail. "Francie was a force to be reckoned with."

Koblik agrees. "Everything was orchestrated," he remembers, noting that Brody even specified the flowers to be displayed at her memorial service.

But even Brody couldn't pick her neighbors. Ironically, the house on South Mapleton sits next to a home that represents a different kind of female power: the Playboy Mansion.

In some ways, the Brodys — with their fortune built on advertising and with faultless taste in modern art — are a high-end mirror to the populist Hefner, himself a midcentury icon who revolutionized America's sense of self. Still, says Robert Ritchie, head of research at the Huntington, "Frances didn't like having Hefner as a neighbor."

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