Over the last few years a virtual river of virtual ink has been spilled over the sale, or lack thereof, of the gargantuan “Manor” of the late Aaron Spelling and his wife Candy in Holmby Hills, which continues to languish on the market at the unrelentingly high price of $150,000,000. While the prices of other similarly extravagant estates continue to crash all around her, the Widow Spelling blithely maintains her steadfast refusal to come down from the stratosphere by even one red cent, a “let them eat cake” attitude that has kept celebrity real estate watchers tongues in a perpetual state of wag. Controversy, of course, is nothing new to the Spelling Manor. It has swirled around the 123-room mega-mansion like so many birds of prey from its very inception in the excess-filled 1980′s all the way through to today and is likely to continue so long as the Manor maintains its monolithic hold over its 4.5 acre plot at Mapleton and Club View Drives.
Completed at great cost amid much Sturm and Drang among the neighbors over a four-year period between 1986 and 1990, the Manor took its place in the Los Angeles real estate book of records by coming in, at some 52,000 square feet, as the single largest single family residence in the entire Los Angeles area, eclipsing the long-held record of 46,000 feet of E.L. Doheny Jr.’s mammoth Greystone estate of 1928. The besting of Greystone by the Manor held something of an irony in that Greystone had been designed by the noted Gordon B. Kaufmann and the house torn down to make way for the Manor had also been designed by Kaufmann. The loss of this beautifully proportioned and skillfully designed estate for what some consider to be the ultimate “McMansion” was particularly galling to fans of good architecture who believed the original house to be far superior in every way to its hulking successor. The complaints, however justifiable as they may be, are nonetheless moot. The house is gone and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put it back together again. Except in memory.
Although commonly remembered as the “Bing Crosby Estate,” after its long-term residence by the “Groaner” between 1943-1964, the original house at 594 South Mapleton Drive had been built for prominent Los Angeles businessman Malcolm McNaghten in 1932 on a sightly hilltop knoll in the ultra-prestigious Holmby Hills. The choice of locations was hardly a coincidence, McNaghten was president of the popular Broadway Department Store, which had been founded by Arthur Letts Sr., who not only once owned the entirety of the Holmby Hills where the estate was built, he was also McNaghten’s father-in-law. Cementing the McNaghten/Holmby Hills relationship was the fact that his wife’s sister was married to Harold Janss, one of the owner/subdividers of the Holmby Hills. As such, there is little doubt that McNaghten must have gotten a very good deal on his prime acreage there.
In 1932, with the world in the throes of the Great Depression, the construction of what was considered a mega-mansion of its day, at 15,000 square-feet, must have raised a few eyebrows, but rather than see it as a monument to excess at a time of great suffering, most cheered the estate’s construction as both a hopeful sign of economic upturn and for the badly needed jobs it provided. McNaghten certainly had his pick of the very best designers, craftspeople and artists and he fully availed himself of this exceptional pool of talent in the construction of his new mansion starting with Gordon B. Kaufmann. The McNaghtens had been fans of the prominent architect for some time and had engaged him on several occasions starting in 1924 when he designed some alterations to their home at 2 Oak Knoll Terrace in Pasadena and later a vacation house for them up in tony Pebble Beach.
In his design of the estate, Kaufmann carefully considered its knolltop setting and arranged the house in such a way so as to capitalize on the exceptional views the site offered while at the same time affording it a maximum amount of privacy through a series of sheltering walled courts and protective landscaping, which was arranged by the noted Edward Huntsman-Trout. It appears that Kaufmann did not wish the McNaghten house to be a textbook example of any particular style and it isn’t easy to pin it down stylistically. From its front facade, the first impression is French Norman, with its handsome conical stair tower and rough stone exterior. But the delicately lacy metalwork of the entrance portico seems more reminiscent of New Orleans and the white clapboard sheathing on part of the second story brings to mind Colonial. The rear facade looks more Mediterranean and the second story balcony opening off one of the home’s four bedrooms is decidedly Monterey. This sort of mishmash of such disparate styles could easily have been a train wreck, but in the hands of a master like Kaufmann, everything flowed together harmoniously and seamlessly. As California Arts & Architecture was to write in 1934, “the architect has achieved a happy result – a large house, but not pretentious, all within good scale,” back in the days when scale and proportion in architecture actually meant something.
The interiors were handled in a similar fashion with “no particular period” followed by designer Charles Ray Glass. As California Arts & Architecture further stated, “comfort and homelike surroundings were more the object inasmuch as a great many pieces had been in the family for a number of years.” Yes, homelike for someone with millions of dollars. Yet, in looking at the photographs, the interiors do have a certain warmth not always evident in homes of such grand scale.
The McNaghtens remained at 594 South Mapleton until 1943 when the home was hurriedly taken over by Bing Crosby and his family after they had been burned out of house and home by the family Christmas tree, the story of which can be found in my previous post here. For more than twenty years, the house at Mapleton and Club View remained the Bing Crosby family base, seeing significant moments in both his professional and personal life including an Oscar win and two other nominations, the untimely death of Dixie Lee Crosby at age 40 in 1952 and the first years of his highly satisfying second marriage to Kathryn Grant in 1957 along with the birth of their three children. One amusing sidelight to Crosby’s time on Mapleton was that it was said that he kept a monkey cage on the rear of the property and that if any intruder appeared on the grounds the monkeys would screech so loudly the intruder would undoubtably hightail it back to wherever they came from, a primitive but highly effective form of home security.
In 1964, the Crosbys sold their longtime Holmby Hills mansion to Patrick J. Frawley, president of the Schick Safety Razor Company for a reported $350,000. According to Hedda Hopper, when Crosby departed he left behind a keg of red wine in the home’s basement. A few months later, Frawley checked himself into the Schadel Hospital to cure himself of alcoholism. Coincidence? Hmmm. Frawley’s ultimately successful treatment led him to buy Schadel Hospital and open up a series Schick Alcoholic Treatment centers. So shouldn’t Bing be thanked for that?
Like Crosby, Frawley remained in the mansion for about twenty years before selling the property to famed television producer Aaron Spelling and his wife, Candy in 1983 for $10,250,000. And the rest, as the old saying goes, is history. There is one final sidelight to the saga of the old Crosby Mansion though. In 1984, with its demolition imminent, Eugene Kilmer, father of Val, tried to step in and buy the house and move it lock, stock and barrel all the way out to his 500-acre spread in Chatsworth, and make it the centerpiece of a new real estate subdivision called Indian Springs Estates. Unfortunately, the logistics of such a massive move ultimately made it unfeasible, but how incredible would it have been for the classic old estate to have a new life out in the San Fernando Valley? Instead, it unceremoniously fell to the wrecker’s ball, replaced by a behemoth mega-mansion that one disgruntled neighbor declared to be “look-at-me-I’m-rich architecture.” Of course, one never knows. Years from now perhaps, architecture buffs may beoan the demolition of the “historic” Spelling Manor to make way for an even more gargantuan palace. As John Huston as “Noah Cross” in Chinatown said, “Whores, politicians and ugly buildings all get respectable if they hang around long enough.”