Villa Leon – A Seaside Dream Realized

(Vintage Photography: Padilla Company)

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.

An elaborately embellished architrave leads from the living room to the 67-foot high marble-staired entry hall.

The intricately designed wrought-iron stair rail was executed by craftsman James C. Kubic who incorporated rams heads as a witty reference to the owner’s wool manufacturing business.

A 35-Foot High hand-stenciled ceiling was a feature of the Villa's enormous living room.

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.

Sitting Room.

Dining Room.

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.

A pair of elegantly carved and gilded antique beds purchased by the Kauffmans in Europe highlights the paneled master suite.

Daughter's Bedroom.

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.

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43 Responses to Villa Leon – A Seaside Dream Realized

  1. Jim lewis says:

    Wonderful post. What a difference between the black and white photos (that make the house look so dark) and the recent color pictures that show just how open and bright the house really is. Imagine a wonderful summer afternoon, with all the french doors open to the sea breeze and light, sitting in that huge living room and enjoying the day.
    Incidentally, Kauffman had a home previous to Villa Leon, located in the Wilshire district, an area quite popular in the 1910-30 era.

    • Steve says:

      Jim, always a pleasure to hear from you and enjoy your perceptive comments. It’s true! Many of the old photos of these places give the false impression they were darker than they actually were. It’s interesting to see an interior similar to the way it orginally was and just how bright it was. And you are also right about the earlier Kauffman house. It was at the southeast corner of Wilshire and Wilton at, I believe 3986 Wilshire. Long gone, of course. I wish I could find a picture. Thanks again!

  2. TheArtist says:

    Thank you so much for this, I have always wondered what the interior looked like!

  3. Steven Price says:

    I’ve ALWAYS loved this house, growing up as I did in Brentwood and Malibu. For years, we mistakenly thought it was the Getty Residence (long before the Getty Museum was built), but the Getty Ranch House was further up the canyon, past where the museum is now, and still serves as admin offices for the Getty Villa.

    For more photos, I offer this fantastic gallery:

    The mansion was also used as one of the two locations for Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” music video…primarily at the start and finish. The middle section was filmed at a horrendous house in Bel-Air that also must be seen to be believed…but that’s not in a good way, LOL.

  4. Allison A. says:

    Wow so great to finally know the history of this incredible mysterious LA landmark. In the mid 1970s my mother was working at UCLA in the school of engineering. One of the students working in the office with my mom told her she and a group of friends, all college students, had put all their money together and bought the house for $100,000. The album cover for Procol Harum’s “Grand Hotel” was shot there, and the girl brought the LP in to show my mom and said, “This is my new house!” Months later the girl said they were still finding new rooms, and eventually said they even found an entire FLOOR they hadn’t realized existed that were intended as maids quarters. We have always been enchanted with this story and wondered if the students had continued to live there or what became of their adventure.

  5. Zellez says:

    What a precious series of images, a precious art deco, moorish style why not, and the last image that so much reminds me of my dear Spain. Sad to know that they did enjoy little years in this wonderful villa.

  6. MLM says:

    As always – great story & photos. Did anyone else notice original living room photos show organ console next to gilded wrought iron doors? Modern living room photos show same doors but no organ and assume staircase hall wall piercing for organ pipes.

    Third house of this era I know of that had organs which didn’t survive changing tastes to modern era. Only one remaining, in unrestored condition, is at the Lionel Feuchtwanger home (Villa Aurora) also in the Palisades. Was told cost prohibitive at $200 K back in the late 80’s. Still, can only imagine the music emanating from a 60 foot marble hall throughout the house.

    Quite a while back saw some postcards/photos of the house pre Roosevelt Highway (PHC). If I’m not mistaken the original “front yard” ran all the way down to the ocean & there was even some sort of hillside trolly from the house to the beach.

  7. Logan says:

    They also shot most of Foster the People’s “Call it What You Want” here.

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  9. AitchCS says:

    Who lives here now?!

  10. Allan says:

    Very nice. Thanks for posting this

  11. Cinde says:

    I believe doctor or dentist now owns the villa. The pictures do not give the true beauty of the Villa de Leon. I have stayed many times in this villa years ago, and it is exceptional. The views of the ocean are spectacular.

    There is a terrace overlooking the ocean which did at one time have stairs that lead down to the beach. The coast highway was expanded over the years and the stairs were cut off. Eventually, I believe in the early 1980’s, the hillside slid onto the Coast highway, due to a heavy El Niño year. There was a gorgeous garden beneath the terrace that was surrounded by a high wall, which you can now see the remnants of from PCH.
    The main entry has a marble spiral staircase, with a black and gold leaf wrought iron and wood railing. There is an elevator off the main entry, that accesses all levels of the Villa. To the right of the elevator is the library, which has a larger ornate mantle and beautiful inland bookshelves. The main salon is also accessed through the entryway with double gold leaf wrougth iron ornate doors. The main salon walls and floor are checker board style. There was an organ at one time, but not when I was there.
    There is a spacious round room off the main salon which has unparalleled views of the ocean from several high arching windows that can open. This round room is next to a vey exceptionally large kitchen, which has a separate large walk-in pantry and a separate storage room for refrigerators.

    Off the the kitchen is a back stairwell up to housekeeping rooms with their own baths. One can continue up the stairwell to the expansive master bedroom. The master bedroom has a valet area next to the beautifully tiled master bath . On the other side of the master bedroom is a large walk in closet with drawers. There are views of the ocean and hills from this room.
    Down the hall is another guest room overlooking the ocean. Painted ceilings of a subtle blue, with gold accents. Again with beautifully tiled bath. Across are additional guest rooms. At the end of the hallway you are at the elevator and the spiral staircase which leads to the main entry.

    The lower levels are additional butler and/or chauffeur rooms, a vault, a playroom and there is also a large old style sheet cleaning and press. From this area of the villa, there is access to a very spacious 7 or more car garage. The garage entrance is adjacent to the gated circular drive

    Needless to say, the Villa de Leon is a special place. I would have loved to seen the original stairway and trolly which went to the ocean. I shall always treasure the years I had visited this home. It shall be in my mind for years to come.

    • AitchCS says:

      Incredible! thanks for the info. You were so lucky to visit and experience!

    • Steven Price says:

      Cinde — it being owned by a doctor or dentist correllates with what i have been told as well. actually, my friend (who was Budget Director at the Getty Villa) told me it was a consortium of them, like a partnership of 5.

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  13. titian52 says:

    Villa Aurora has been bought by the german government fr around 3mio $. i visited martha feuchtwanger in the 80s. told us about their weekend gatherings of the famous: peter lorre, charly chaplin, thomas mann, etc..

  14. Steve says:

    Owned by Dr. Anna Fuchs (Beverly Hills urologist) and Jan Rosciszewski….public record.

  15. James says:

    Thanks for this info Steve! Just completed a photo shoot for Casablanca Bridal at the house last week. (This is their 2nd at the house following a shoot in 2010) What a glorious experience to enjoy three days in the home with beautiful weather, models, gowns and a great crew! The owner is gradually restoring the home with euro antique furnishings, (not my taste), and has completed a two year legal battle with city/state to rebuild the hill below which was washed out as a result of road repairs. She plans on building a spectacular pool overlooking the Pacific! For pictures of the photo shoot visit Facebook page: Casablanca Bridal Flagship .

  16. Cinde says:

    Thank you GW for your history on the the Kauffman family. It. I much appreciated your linked. Thank again. Cinde

  17. Richard Feasel says:

    I lived for the first time in Beveraly Hills and fell in love with the home in the mid 70s. At that time it was vacant and two of us went over the fence. We toured the home as we found an open door.
    I understood that it was currently not occupied. Is this true because of the slide area?

    • Cinde says:

      The house was purchased around 1971 or 1972. I have pictures of my parents and others touring the villa at the time of purchase. I know there were residents living in the home, as it was a type of born again Christian cult. I was only 10 or 11 at the time. Unfortunately, my parents sold their home and gave their money to this man to purchase the home. My fathers name was on the title. I only found this information out as it was published in the Palisades Post a few years ago, and a friend of mine ask me if that was my father.

      I talk about this because it was told to everyone in the cult to not talk about. Even for gatherings, they would pick everyone up in the same type of car, near the fire station on Sunset Blvd. this was supposed to fool the neighbors that there were not a lot of people living there or gathering there.

      I was lucky, I left the cult just after I turned 20 and never returned. Others who lived there and were part of this cult, still to this day do not believe it was NOT a cult. They thought this man was the one who spoke from God and told us all how to act, through all night meetings on the bible.

      I know how cults work, it took me a while after I left, but through help of others I made it through. Cults are usually ran by one charismatic person, they first want to separate you from the rest of your family. Then then ask for money. This guy did like the Mormons a “Tithers” club, which if were not a part of, you missed out on their private meetings. This happened many times over in many different ways, i.e. boats, apartments in New York, etc. This is how they keep you, they make you feel special in a certain way and then if you don’t have the money for the next item have he wants, you’re not part of that new special group. This happened over and over again, to the point where people were 2-3 maybe 4 jobs to pay for this and their own rent and food at home.
      Funny enough, this is actually how Scientology works, except for purchasing homes you purchase levels of knowledge of their type of whatever.

      The man who ran the cult passed away in the 1990’s, and all the in fighting started. I knew this would happen, because everything in the end is always about money. They had verbal agreements with each other to split the proceeds equally to all who paid on the original loan back in the early 1970’s. Of course, that did not happen, as I found from another kid who always raised in the cult and left a few years after me. He lived in that house from around the age of 10 and moved out around the age of 21.

      Now, back to the Villa De Leon. I was there in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I know about the hillside, as I was the one who was chosen to locate information with the city on the land. The land is on a very old landslide area. (When the hillside fell in very early 1980’s, I remember being up all night getting sand bags to help support the rest of the home.). I did find out back in the early 1980’s that the city wanted 100′ pile lines put in the support an y changes to the land hillside. I assume that is what the new owners are fighting with the city on. I do know the machine that drills the holes costs $50,000 a day to rent. They would also have to shut down part of PCH to do this. I believe this why the will have a huge issue with the city. When the hillside orginally fell, some people were hurt on PCH. The owner(s) of the home, the city and the state were all sued. They individual won, even against the state, because if the state had never cut into the hillside the way they did without checking into the old landslides, there would have been different way to enlarge PCH.

      This is far as my knowledge goes, except from what o previously posted about the inside of the home. i don’t believe in any type of secrets any longer, so that is why I mentioned my story above.

      I was the lucky one, I got out young and became very successful in my field of work.

  18. Judy Kessler says:

    In 1972 the Villa Leon was purchased by a group of men in the Estate Jewelry business. It was purchased for cash. All of the interior items were sold at auction and the property itself sold separately. I worked for two of the men in question. It was a beautiful and elegant place. I heard a movie was filmed there in 1968, called “Rachel Rachel” .

    • Cas says:

      The house was purchased under 3 men’s names, one of which was my father. The Villa belong to a born again Christian cult type of people in which my parents sold their home to help with the down payment for the Villa de Leon.

      Yes, the furniture was sold separately from the home.

    • Cinde says:

      See above post. The property was purchased by 3 men for a foreign doctor. My parents sold their home to help assit in purchasing the Villa for Leonin 1971 or 1972. Only the home was purchased not the interior assets.

    • Steven Price says:

      the film was “Sweet Rachel” and i remember the house in it vividly, especially that wonderful front stair hall. There’s very little about the film online that i can find, but here’s a still or production promo.

  19. Amy says:

    My great grand father was the artist that created the Four Seasons statues of the four ladies at the front of the house. I wonder, are they still there?

  20. philip k osterloh says:

    All these stories are wonderful!! It would be a dream to go inside.This is a great home like The Carolands in Hillsborough, Greystone in Beverly Hills or the Kirkeby Estate.

  21. sal a chillemi says:

    I worked on this house doing restoration back in the 80’s . I also got to live there for a month. I left in 86′ suffocated by the so called group. Doc passed away in 93. I am glad the villa is still intact.

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  23. Sunny says:

    As a child growing up down the street in the 1950’s I loved looking down into the garden at the lifelike bronze statues of deer. But then a woman and her daughter lived there. I recall trick or treating there. Thank you for posing this! I am enjoying a trip down memory lane.

  24. George Webb says:

    I lived up the street on lawnwood been to this house many of times i bought the library of 5000 books have no idea what i did with the all

  25. Lived 2 blocks from here in high school, down the hill was J. Paul Gettilys house even though he actually lived in England at the time

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