Commanding a high eminence above the breakers of the blue Pacific, the Villa Leon has been a Southern California landmark ever since its completion some eighty-five years ago, an edifice so stately and dramatic it is frequently confused for the nearby Getty Museum, which lies directly to its north. Named after its original builder, Austrian native Leon Kauffman, the Villa Leon was the result of a longstanding promise Kauffman had made to his wife Clemence that, if he ever had the money, he would build for her a dream castle by the sea. A fortune made in the wool processing business in California during the First World War allowed Kauffman to make good on his promise and, after purchasing an impressive six-lot parcel above the famous Castle and Haystack Rock formations, Kauffman began construction of his $1,000,000 dream house in 1926.
In his design of the Villa Leon, prominent Los Angeles architect Kenneth A. MacDonald, Jr., made the most of the site’s awe-inspiring vistas, orienting the home so that nearly all of its thirty-five rooms had a stunning view of the ocean, the surrounding mountains or a combination of both. Stylistically, MacDonald dressed a classic Beaux Arts structure with warm Mediterranean accents, creating a pleasing combination that evoked comparisons to the grand villas that dotted the Italian coastline during the heyday of Rome’s Imperial majesty.
Numerous terraces and formal gardens, including an intricately laid out Chinese garden, added to the overall effect. The interior spaces of the Villa Leon were equally impressive and provided a fitting showcase for the fine collection of antique furniture, sculptures and paintings the Kauffmans acquired through the years on their frequent sojourns to Europe.
The Kauffmans were to enjoy their fabulous seaside villa for but a few short years, with Clemence dying in 1933 followed by her husband just two years later. For nearly twenty years, the grand villa and its numerous art treasures sat unoccupied, save for a solitary caretaker who roamed the marble halls accompanied only by his pet dog.
During this period, several attempts to sell the house were made, most notably in 1949 when the Aly Kahn considered it as a honeymoon home for himself and his new bride Rita Hayworth; however this, like the others, did not come to pass. When it was finally put up for auction in 1952, the Villa Leon, which cost a reputed million dollars to build, sold, exclusive of furnishings, for a mere $71,000. Fortunately for the Villa Leon, its new owners, as well as those who followed, treasured it as much as Leon Kauffman had and, in spite of the loss of much of its terraced gardens through landslides in the ensuing years, the Villa Leon remains today one of the most distinctive landmarks for travelers making their way up and down the Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Monica and Malibu. When it was last put up for sale in the mid-2000s, the recently restored Villa Leon was listed for $14,500,000. The following photographs were “Internet finds” from its time for sale.