November 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Two months into the massive repainting job at Castillo del Lago, all traces of Madonna have been removed from its exterior. Gone are the jaunty red ocher stripes; the new look is stark white with grassy green trim. The paint accomplishes the task of making a vast house look even bigger while illustrating the sobriquet white elephant. (But I’m sure Crosby Doe, the real estate agent and neighbor who has complained at length about Castillo del Lago’s previous incarnation, is delighted.)
The retaining wall is also white, a risky move in an area known for tagging. Fortunately, vines have been planted along its base; eventually, they will turn the wall into a giant topairy.
Over at Wolf’s Lair, the extensive repair work continues. The new owner, Moby, has undertaken the kind of crucial and costly structural work–reframing exterior walls, replacing windows–that most homeowners would skip altogether. While remaining faithful to the original design, he is essentially rebuilding an old estate. It must have needed it.
The John Lautner-designed guest house, now largely reframed, is being turned into a recording studio. This development probably would have pleased Lautner, a modernist who didn’t place form over function. You can see the before pictures here: http://la.curbed.com/archives/2010/04/tour_of_wolfs_lairs_lautner_guest_house_and_future_studio.php
Onward, toward the end of renovations–and two festive housewarming parties!
November 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
My search for native holly (toyon) has brought mixed results over the past five years. The year I moved to Beachwood was an exceedingly dry one, and the next fall saw very few berries. Without them, the toyon is unimpressive–just another tree along the trail. Then there’s the question of when the berries, if any, will turn red, an event of brief duration that is easily missed. Disappointingly, the berries seem to turn red well before Christmas–but again, it depends on rainfall.
So while hiking the trail between Castillo del Lago and Wolf’s Lair yesterday, I was surprised to come upon a riot of red berries on the trees there. The fact that it we’ve had four rainstorms since the beginning of October must be the cause: the trail is as lush as it normally is in January.
The tree pictured at top is enormous, a wall of green leaves and red berries.
September 22, 2010 § 1 Comment
Nothing endears a new homeowner to the neighborhood like an exterior renovation. I found this out in 2005 when, shortly after moving into my Beachwood Canyon house, I had the peeling garage and fence repainted. When I finally scraped up the money to repaint the house itself last summer, my neighbors were nearly as happy as I.
On a far grander scale, the exteriors of two famous Hollywoodland houses are being tranformed at the same moment. Castillo del Lago, which finally sold in July for $7 million (down from $14.95) is losing its terra cotta paint; the red ochre stripes on the retaining wall have been painted over. (I miss you already, striped wall!) At present, the new paint is pale yellow but that might be a base coat.
At the other end of the trail, Wolf’s Lair’s exterior transformation is much more ambitious. It has been re-roofed and is undergoing a partial reframing. Some of the turrets are being rebuilt, after which a massive re-stucco job will begin. There’s nothing better than a house-proud new owner!
September 20, 2010 § Leave a comment
Exactly nine months have passed since I posted “Lost (Mulholland) Highway: The Trail from the Madonna House to Wolf’s Lair.” http://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/12/20/lost-mulholland-highway-the-trail-from-the-madonna-house-to-wolfs-lair/ Hiking the trail today, I was struck by the seasonal difference: some of the green foliage in last year’s pictures is now brown and rust, giving the trail a distinctly autumnal appearance that to my mind is as beautiful.
What isn’t beautiful is the graffiti that mars the trail in places, most disturbingly on “Face Rock.” Apparently someone thought the rock needed a more permanent face than the one that passing hikers fashion daily from leaves, stones, flowers and branches. So he spray-painted one on it.
This happened a while ago, and though it’s not the first incident of tagging on the trail, it certainly followed my previous post. In the intervening months, I’ve wondered if, by writing about the rock, I may have indirectly caused it to be defaced. If so, I’m deeply sorry–but somehow I doubt the tagger in question read this blog. Whoever he is, I wish he hadn’t done it.
January 4, 2010 § 3 Comments
Chief among the misconceptions about Wolf’s Lair, the beautiful Loire-style castle on Durand Drive, is that its name has something to do with wolves; certainly the wolf’s head placard on the front gate implies it. Nevertheless, Wolf’s Lair was named not for the animal but the man who built it: Bud Wolf.
Wolf was a real estate developer; he also owned the Texaco station that stood on the site of Beachwood Market’s parking lot. As lord and master of Wolf’s Lair, he also may have been the archetypal early Hollywoodlander: an eccentric bon vivant. When not at home in his splendid turreted mansion with views of Lake Hollywood, the Hollywood Sign and the Observatory, Wolf enjoyed playing golf and driving his gull-wing Mercedes. He had a mistress named Diane. (His wife suffered from mental illness.) He employed the alcoholic former caretaker of the Hollywoodland Sign as a full-time handyman. He also kept an exotic pet: a gibbon whose howls ricocheted around the canyon. The gibbon lived in a tree during the day; at night he supposedly retired to a room in one of the turrets.
Wolf’s Lair is notable not only as a fine example of the French château architecture that was the rage in Hollywood during the 1920’s but as an example of mid-century architecture as well, as Wolf later commissioned a guest house by the architect John Lautner. Although the exterior resembles a plainer version of the main house, its interior is pure Lautner, with wood-beamed ceilings, stone pillars and lots of glass. The guest house is one of three commissions John Lautner designed in Beachwood Canyon, the most famous of which is the glass-fronted addition of Beachwood Market, built in 1952.
Until I went up to Wolf’s Lair the other day to take pictures of its neighbor, Castillo del Lago, I hadn’t realized it too was for sale. (How long has it been since both lakeside mansions were on the market simultaneously?) Price:$4.695 million, for 3.3 acres, 8 bedrooms, six baths, a pool and gardens. And the most enormous stone walls imaginable, from granite quarried in Bronson Canyon. (Agent: Ernie Carswell, Teles Properties)
Even by the fairytale standards set by Hollywoodland’s developers, Wolf’s Lair’s charm is exceptional. At once massive and delicate, it rises above Lake Hollywood like something out of a dream.
I am grateful to Harry Williams for biographical information about Bud Wolf.
January 1, 2010 § 16 Comments
The Mulholland Highway mansion known popularly as the Madonna House is actually called Castillo del Lago, a name that aptly describes its imposing size and spectacular vistas of Lake Hollywood. Its 300-degree view also features Los Angeles, the ocean and–on clear days–Catalina. Designed by John De Lario for the oilman Patrick Longdon, Castillo del Lago has been a landmark since its completion in 1926. And though Los Angeles has grown ten-fold since its construction, the house remains a stately, solitary presence, all but invisible from the trail that runs alongside its massive retaining wall.
The wall, concealing a steep driveway, has itself become a landmark since Madonna, after buying the house for $5 million in 1993, had it painted with cream and crimson stripes, an act that apparently outraged the neighbors. (Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother and former interior designer, says it was inspired by a church in Portofino.) Though now somewhat faded, it remains an arresting sight–if an ironic choice for a woman who complained the paparazzi were invading her privacy.
Castillo del Lago’s most visible feature is its tower, a multi-story affair that rises out of the Torrey pines that shroud the rest of the villa. A magnificent spiral staircase and an elevator connect the various levels, which contain 9 bedrooms and 6 baths, as well as a library, game room, wine cellar and a lounge that resembles an Ottoman tent. There are offices, storage areas and servants’ quarters. Outside are formal gardens, fountains and a pool.
At various times in its history, Castillo del Lago has been vacant, a white elephant during the Depression and beyond. Older adults who grew up in Beachwood tell stories of using it as a neighborhood clubhouse, entering through unlocked doors to play in the tower and on the stairs. Milt Entwistle, the younger brother of the actress Peg Entwistle, remembers that during the 1930’s the house had a modern stainless steel kitchen and walnut floors. As a boy he dreamed of buying the house, then priced at a stratospheric $20,000.
In the late 1930’s, a newcomer to Beachwood leased the house: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the gangster best known for spearheading the post-war casino boom in Las Vegas. Though he later took up residence in Beverly Hills, Siegel apparently lived in Castillo del Lago for a time while running it as an illegal casino. (It was not a speakeasy, as many people have claimed, as Prohibition was repealed in 1933.) It’s not hard to imagine, given Siegel’s criminality and the extra-legal goings on within, that Castillo del Lago was the scene of some unsavory acts, including murder.
Siegel moved on in the 1940’s, spending much of his time building the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. As depicted in the movie “Bugsy,” he died in hail of gunfire in his Beverly Hills living room in 1947. (The hit was ordered by Lucky Luciano, whom Siegel fleeced to build the Flamingo.) Meanwhile, Castillo del Lago changed hands several times, going through at least one other period of vacancy in the 1950’s.
In their 1994 book Hollywood Haunted (Angel City Press), Laurie Jacobson and Marc Wanamaker describe Castillo del Lago as a place of considerable paranormal activity whose visitors often” [felt] a deep sense of foreboding.” Tom Murray, a fashion photographer who shot there for three days in 1988, reported equipment malfunctions and a pervasive feeling of dread among his crew. “All the Polaroids I shot in the house came out black,” he said. “I tried different cameras, different film, everything. It was always the same. Everything I tried to photograph inside that house came out black.”
When Madonna bought the place in the 1993, she undertook a renovation that cost $3 million and transformed the house from Spanish Colonial to Italianate. (The renovation still irks her neighbors, who claimed she “ruined” the house by painting the wall and replacing the original tiles with cheaper ones.) Perhaps because of the extensive renovation, the mood of the house lifted somewhat, though strange things still happened. According to Jacobson and Wanamaker, “Madonna confided to a friend that on occasion she felt a force throughout the house, a force that was not safe.” Her caretaker reported that doors closed and locked behind him whenever he stepped outside it. And when he was alone there at night, he could hear a man calling his name.
In 1997, Madonna sold Castillo del Lago at a huge loss to Joe Pytka, the commercial director and restaurant owner (of Bastide, now defunct), who presumably gave any lingering ghosts the boot. (Disclosure: I was socially acquainted with Pytka in the early 1990’s, well before he bought the house.) Pytka, who bought the house for $5.3 million, listed it last year for $14.95 million after an extensive renovation of his own. (In addition to creating a new kitchen and master suite, he upgraded Madonna’s tilework.) Recently the price has been dropped to a relatively reasonable $9.99 million, so now’s the time to contact the agent (Benjamin Bacal/Keller Williams Realty Sunset) and make an offer.
December 20, 2009 § 4 Comments
Near the intersection of Mulholland Highway and Canyon Lake Drive, a mile-long trail runs from Castillo del Lago–a.k.a. the Madonna House, nicknamed for you-know-who, though she no longer lives there–to Wolf’s Lair, a sprawling white castle on Durand Drive. (More on both those landmarks in future posts.) The trail, which features spectacular views of Lake Hollywood, is a favorite of Beachwood Canyon hikers and their dogs.
It’s a magical spot, one of a handful in Los Angeles that makes people forget they’re living in a city. In springtime, wild grasses grow so luxuriantly that the trail seems new and untouched. During the summer the dense foliage turns brown, leaving the trail wildly unkempt and hard to navigate. In autumn the trail comes to life again, growing green after the first rains. And late in the year, there’s a surprise: red berries on the native holly trees (toyon) that grow alongside it.
The trail has landmarks: a huge California pepper tree, abused last year by vandals, flourishes near the striped retaining wall of the Madonna House. Closer to Wolf’s Lair there’s a large flat rock decorated with stones, flowers and branches to resemble a face. Constantly rearranged by passersby, the Face Rock is an almost human presence, marking both the seasons and one’s progress on the trail.
Looking down at Lake Hollywood, one can spot herons and other waterfowl that make their home there. Built at the same time as Hollywoodland (1923 to 1925), the Lake is the crown jewel of the water system built by William Mulholland, the chief engineer of Los Angeles.
After I moved to Hollywoodland in late 2005, I took to hiking the trail with my dog and wondered about its origins until my neighbor Anita Gordon (now sadly deceased) told me it was intended as an extension of Mulholland Highway. The evidence is clear: although for the most part packed dirt, there are paved sections that poke up at odd angles amid the grasses. The paving–concrete studded with pebbles– dates from Hollywoodland’s beginnings in the mid-1920’s. If fully paved, there would have been a drivable road to Toluca Lake.
Why did the paving stop? Perhaps the tract owners, along with developer S.H. Woodruff, decided Hollywoodland’s appeal depended on its isolation both from Hollywood and the Valley. By making the neighborhood accessible only via Beachwood Drive, the tract would maintain its tranquility and rural character–the very qualities promised by radio and print ads across the nation.
It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that Canyon Lake Drive was built, connecting Beachwood Canyon to Toluca Lake. Still, the route to the Valley remained relatively unknown until a 1989 book called LA Shortcuts revealed it; Beachwood Canyon has been plagued by commuter traffic ever since.