Star properties

In a real estate market of Spanish turrets, silver screening rooms and secret gardens, O.J.'s Brentwood pad is just another hot number.

Published November 21, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

What do people in Hollywood want in their homes today? They want gleaming, brushed-steel Viking ranges and sub-zero refrigerators and down-on-the-farm dining tables that cost $3,000. They want soundproofed windows. They want -- they all want -- family rooms off the kitchen, even if they don't have a family, and his-and-her bathrooms off the master bedroom.

They especially want original, classic Spanish-style architecture from the '20s and '30s. Juliette Lewis replaced the French Normandy roof on her Hollywood house with red tile because it was more in keeping with the building's Spanish architecture. Kevin Costner bought a 9,000-square-foot Spanish hacienda on the Westside last year for around $3 million. Penny Negron, a top Fred Sands realtor on the Westside, says a day doesn't go by without a call from someone looking for a vintage Spanish house.

Major players want l-o-n-g gated private driveways that take half a city block to reach the front door and that say to strangers, "Keep Out!" A cable TV show called "Driveways of the Rich and Famous" once spotlighted Barbra Streisand's interesting gated driveway, which is bordered by a fence topped with shards of broken Michelob bottles.

Outside the house they want land. This brings us to Southern California's most famous new listing, the O.J. Simpson estate. Fred Sands agents began showing the property last month to qualified buyers, after brightening up its rather gloomy Country English interior. At one full acre -- an unusually large lot for that part of Brentwood -- the Simpson place is remarkably spacious.

Those involved feel the Simpson house will have no trouble selling for at least its $3.95 million asking price, despite its notoriety. Besides, says Jody Fine, one of the three listing agents: "I have a client on Rockingham and he tells me the looky-loos have dropped to almost nothing" since Simpson lost the house to foreclosure and moved out.

Such confidence is just another sign of how heated up the market is now for the high-end Southern California real estate favored by the entertainment industry. Nowhere is this truer than the Golden Triangle of Brentwood/Pacific Palisades/Santa Monica, the new neighborhoods of choice for young Hollywood.

Fine says that "because they're young and family-oriented" this new crop of buyers sees the Golden Triangle as "less pretentious than Bel-Air or Beverly Hills." Plus, the air is better.

After a long, depressing slump, houses in this area are now practically selling themselves. One example: a small two-bedroom Pacific Palisades home that sold a few weeks ago for $100,000 over its $425,000 asking price. On the Westside, that's considered a starter home for a couple in their 20s.

Move up a few years (and dollars) and you get to the vast mid-range of this market. A typical Westside sale -- for, say, $1 million -- is made to one of the bazillions of young writers who've made their fortunes in sitcoms after graduating from the Ivy League. On Sundays they invite their friends over, sit around the pool (heated luxuriously to the temperature of an amniotic sac) and complain that Los Angeles isn't more like Boston.

So I wasn't surprised when veteran Realtor June Scott told me that "clients in the $3 (million) to $6 million market are now 31 to 42 years old. Before, people were in their 60s before they could afford a house like that."

But with a changed market comes changed tastes. The monstrous manor manqué squeezed to the limits of its lot is passé. No one wants to be compared to Candy Spelling, with her infamous rec-room-sized closets and separate gift-wrapping room. "I have a house now that's 11,000 square feet, and the broker tells me to say it's 9,000 ... plus the screening room," says an agent. "Because who wants an '80s
home? 11,000 feet is too ostentatious."

Since their home is their base when they're not on the set, those in the Industry want everything close at hand. They want home offices. They want home security systems. They want state-of-the-art home screening rooms filled with jars of candy and cookies that will be worked off later in the home gym, and if not that, at least a home media room. They want ...

Wait a minute. Don't they want ... a pool? Please. Ask that question and you can practically hear the realtors-to-the-stars roll their eyes, over the phone. This is Hollywood. A pool is a given. Oh. Like tennis courts? No (sigh), not like tennis courts. Tennis courts are just not that important anymore. Tennis courts are for people who don't have friends with tennis courts who invite them over to play.

Better to have a charming, sprawling garden, with a tasteful secret garden hidden somewhere on the grounds. That's what "Terminator" producer Gale Anne Hurd insisted on when she moved into her Beverly Hills house with her small daughter. But for some reason the child ignores the secret garden and spends all her time playing on the tennis court. Go figure.

What don't Hollywood house hunters want? They don't want noise. They don't want traffic. They don't want to be near you -- not if you're not like them. That's why they don't want the Beverly Hills flats below Sunset anymore, or (even worse) below Wilshire. Too accessible, too touristy, too ...

Well, here's how the wife of one TV writer puts it: "To tell you the truth, I get the creeps in the flats. You think Zsa Zsa. You think orthodontists. You think Iranians. Not that I've got anything against Iranians -- I love the guy who did my root canal -- but ..." Her voice trails off. The couple eventually bought in Brentwood.

The fine, free Beverly Hills schools are no longer an attraction to the Hollywood crowd, who generally prefer exclusive private schools anyway. Once upon a time Beverly Hills High was good enough for Frank Sinatra's children. No longer. It's the "I" word again. Go to any Westside gathering and you'll hear it as soon as the subject turns to schools. Ask what's wrong with classes filled with students known for straight A's and high SAT scores and you'll just get blank stares.

Especially prized, particularly among celebrities, is the "safe room," a secret little cranny off a closet or bathroom with extra-strong locks and a phone. The optimistic idea is that when the crazed fan (or run-of-the-mill robber) breaks in, the homeowner can run to the safe room and call the police. "It's kind of kept quiet," says one realtor about requests for houses with these secret rooms, "but people want them."

Screening rooms have become such a necessary status symbol that some buyers are willing to give up almost everything else in order to have one. A couple of years ago, producer Sherry Lansing and her husband, director William Friedkin, fell in love with a magnificent, chateau-like house. It was like a five-star hotel in the south of France, conveniently located in the hills above Sunset Boulevard.

But the deal-breaker was that there was no room for a screening room. (The rules for building a screening room to code are rather stringent: You need a 32-foot throw, a dedicated bathroom, etc.)

Sharon Stone recently built a screening room (with the help of a Ralph Lauren design team) for her new house in the hills near Mulholland Drive. The inspiration: a favorite vintage '30s dress. The space is an homage to the silver screen, with walls lined with gleaming pewter silk charmeuse and upholstery modeled after Christopher Walken's reception area in "Batman Returns."

Since the powder room was meant for gossip (think of the classic 1939 film "The Women"), it has no sink. (So does this mean people don't wash their hands there after using the toilet? Is there even a toilet? Just asking.) The most striking touch is the polished ebony floor, a tribute to the glistening dance surface in Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. Screening rooms normally are carpeted for sound quality, but Stone was willing to give up some of that for her Hollywood fantasy.

All this is a far cry from Hollywood at home in the old days. An old picture I saw in the same Architectural Digest Hollywood issue that featured Stone's screening room also showed '30s star Wallace Beery relaxing with what passed for a screening room then: a portable square screen on a tripod.

Even amid the splendor of the yellow onyx bathrooms and Olympic-sized pools and glittering pink palaces that Golden Era stars enjoyed, there are touches that seem oddly stuffy and unluxurious to the modern eye: the fussily matched lamps on twin end tables, the cramped desks, the formal furniture arranged with frozen bourgeois gentility on endless vistas of wall-to-wall carpeting.

But now and then I come across an old picture of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward from the '50s. He's scrambling eggs at the stove and she's playing with their dog. I'm always transfixed by this shot, and I finally figured out why: Those cramped quarters, that old tile, the skimpy counter space ... Hey, basically, that's my kitchen! And it seems to suit these movie stars just fine. How far we've come since those days. But what have we lost?

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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