January 1, 2010 § 20 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 (It was not a speakeasy, as many people have claimed, as Prohibition was repealed in 1933.)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.