Hollywood's hottest property

Brad and Jen's marital home is on the market. But it's not the cachet of its owners that will have buyers fighting over this property - it's the architect. Andrew Buncombe finds out why everyone wants a piece of Wallace Neff
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The Independent US

Should you happen to be in Beverly Hills and passing by the imposing property at 1026 Ridgedale Drive, it may be worth your time to pause a while and linger. If the heavy gates are not closed - and you should be warned that for the past four years the gates have been closed most of the time - you will be able to admire its "French Norman" architecture, its perfect proportions, its well-tended gardens.

Should you happen to be in Beverly Hills and passing by the imposing property at 1026 Ridgedale Drive, it may be worth your time to pause a while and linger. If the heavy gates are not closed - and you should be warned that for the past four years the gates have been closed most of the time - you will be able to admire its "French Norman" architecture, its perfect proportions, its well-tended gardens.

Even if the gates are shut it should still be possible to rise on one's toes to catch a little glimpse of the house behind the walls - and a sense of what it is and what it represents. The 12,000sq ft property is a delight, even in the rarefied elegance of Beverly Hills - the Los Angeles suburb that carries the sought-after postcodes of 90210, 90211 and 90212. With neighbours that include Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, it is a home that anyone would want.

Anyone, that is, apart from Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston, the recently separated Hollywood golden couple. The pair have reportedly decided to put this house on the market for $20m (£10.5m). When they bought it four years ago, they paid around $13.5m and then spent a further two years refurbishing it to their taste. The house features an octagonal dovecote tower, a screening room, a wine cellar and his-and-her living-rooms; and Pitt - an architecture aficionado who once received a two-hour tutorial from the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas - was said to have been fastidious in getting what he wanted.

The price being sought by the soon-to-be-divorced couple might seem steep, but there is little doubt the property will sell. And it is not simply the cachet of its most recent owners that will help push the sale along. Rather, the attraction is as much the cachet associated with the man who built the property back in 1933 - Wallace Neff, the architect to the stars of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s.

Neff was a genius, a man of quiet manners and explosive creativity. He saw opportunity where others saw challenge, he chose theatrical elegance where others may have opted for a more utilitarian approach. Today, more than two decades after his death in 1982, the homes of Wallace Neff remain as sought after and cherished as they were when he designed and built them for an earlier generation of Hollywood pin-ups.

Pitt and Anniston's house at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac, for instance, was originally built for Fredric March, the twice Oscar-winning actor, and his wife and fellow actor Florence Eldridge. (Ironically enough it was March's lead role in the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday that Pitt recreated in Meet Joe Black.)

Neff also built Pickfair, the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and homes for Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. John Gilbert and Greta Garbo were among his clients too - earning him the sobriquet "Architect of Hollywood's Golden Age".

The late actor and producer Douglas Fairbanks Jnr once wrote that when he and his wife were looking for someone to refurbish and redesign their house, he immediately decided to recruit the man who had built a house for his father. "It didn't take us more than a moment to decide that Wallace Neff and only Wallace Neff would do the job," he said.

If it was the stars of the 1920s and 1930s who were Neff's original clients, it is the current crop of names who are now occupying the properties that he built in the sun-licked hills above Hollywood. Several years ago Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie bought a Neff property from actress Diane Keaton - one of a handful of Neff houses Madonna has owned over the years. The television actress Jenna Elfman owns a Neff property as does the producer Jon Peters and record company executive Jimmy Iovine. Rupert Murdoch owns a Neff property that was formerly the home of Katharine Hepburn.

"They were built with a lot of flair, a lot of theatricality and [this was the focus] of the entertainment industry," explains Barry Sloane of Sotheby's International Realty in Beverly Hills. "Neff was also a charming man and they liked him. His rooms were fabulous, they had great scale. Madonna's old house ... when you came in it was startling. There was an axis and a narrow corridor with rooms leading off it. Wonderful style."

He believes another reason for Neff's enduring popularity is that the current generation of Hollywood stars has a sense of nostalgia for the industry's golden age. "Another thing is that there are really not that many properties out there that have a sufficient number of rooms and closet space and bathrooms that are needed for the retinue as well as the security. That is why most movie stars' homes get sold to other movie stars."

Wallace Neff was born in La Mirada, California, in 1895. His grandfather was Andrew McNally, founder of the map and guidebook company Rand McNally, who had moved to California just a few years earlier. In his teens, Neff spent more than five years studying and travelling in Europe and developing his interest in architecture. It was on his return to California that he started building houses for a number of prominent and well-to-do families in Pasadena and San Marino. In 1924 he built the Ojai Valley Country Club.

It was his popularity with the established Californian families of older wealth that first led the new stars of Hollywood to turn to Neff to help them create the sort of stylish homes that they believed would provide them with a social standing to match their wealth. One of his first clients from the film industry was Frances Marion, a woman scriptwriter and twice Oscar winner, and her husband Fred Thomson, a popular cowboy star of the 1920s.

Neff built them a huge house on a 20-acre plot they bought not far from where Rudolph Valentino used to ride his horses. In her memoir of 1920s Hollywood, Marion wrote: "High on hilltops, overlooking the Pacific that is rarely pacific, rose the temples of Mammon, those houses of bastardised architecture built by the motion picture rich ... I must confess with embarrassment that Fred Thomson and I built the largest house on the highest hill in Beverly Hills."

That such houses today remain sought after is no surprise to the man who probably knew Neff as well as anyone - his son, Wallace Neff Jnr. Neff, 75, has written a study of his father's work and continues to collect details on the more than 500 houses he built in California. His father kept no proper records, so, even today, Neff Jnr is making new discoveries. "Just last week I was contacted by someone who is refurbishing a house that my father built," he reports. "They want me to go over and take a look at it."

Neff has not seen inside Pitt and Anniston's house since they bought it but he says it "reeks of beauty and elegance ... It was built for Fredric March and his wife and they loved it. They lived there until they died. To me, it's about the most beautiful house ... father was so talented, nothing would surprise me but that house is low-key magnificence... I have heard that Jennifer Anniston may keep it."

Neff says his father was a quiet and reserved man - he routinely dressed in black wing-tip shoes, a black suit, white shirt and an unpatterned black tie - but was blessed with tremendous imagination and vision. He was also very popular with the people he was building homes for. "He just cleaned up," he says.

Crosby Doe, an expert on Neff's work and a partner of Mossler, Deasy & Doe real estate, another firm in Beverly Hills, says that Neff's houses - the one on Ridgedale Drive included - have a sense of humanity about them. "The reason they are so popular today is the creativity and quality involved - they were the high water-mark," he says. "At least in California terms they represented a style of living which is still very much sought after and cannot be replicated."

Neff, he says, was a master not only of design but also at choosing a site for a property - one that afforded wonderful views or offered its owners the privacy they craved. "They were the best sites to build on and they are no longer available. He did beautiful site plans," he says. "He was one of the best at siting a property. All the best land was gone 50 years ago and that is one of the reasons why so many of his houses remain and that they have not been knocked down and replaced with something "better"."

As an architect Neff was not only interested in building houses for the rich and famous. In the 1940s and 1950s he turned his attention to prefabricated homes and developing "balloon homes" for the government which involved pouring concrete over a large industrial strength balloon and then deflating the balloon once the concrete had set. The idea was to produce affordable and practical homes as demand for housing soared after the Second World War.

These balloon homes were also built in South Africa, Pakistan, West Africa and Brazil. A small community of these homes was also built at Falls Church, Virginia, close to Washington DC, where they were built to house defence workers. His aim, Neff once said, was to "resolve the dilemma of being an architect close to affluent clients and a designer for a mass of anonymous clients with low budgets".

Indeed when he died in 1982, Neff was living in a balloon house in Pasadena he had originally designed for his brother. The current owners, Steve and Sari Roden, bought the house and with it a cache of furniture and other belongings of Neff. They have been told that Elvis and Gandhi were among the visitors to the house. "There are so many stories. This place is such a novelty," said Roden.

But it will be for the earlier work, the designs that mixed Italian, French and even Moorish styles, for which Neff will be best remembered and which remain the most sought after. It was perhaps those homes too, of which Neff was most proud himself.

His structural engineer for many years, George Brandon, once recalled how Neff was in the habit of driving around Beverly Hills with friends and acquaintances, suddenly stopping the car and declaring, "That's one of my houses. Do you want to see it?" He would then proceed to knock on the door whether he knew the owner or not, introduce himself and explain his interest.

Given the difficult circumstances Pitt and Anniston are currently in, quite how such an approach would go down today at 1026 Ridgedale Drive is unclear.