of Hollywood’s Golden Age

Chaplin HouseFor years it has been said in Hollywood that the first thing on actor does after he or she becomes successful is to buy on expensive house. Then maybe you bought a flashy car, and then, at least in Hollywood’s golden age, you probably bought a yacht. Among the first to do it all was the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

The house next door to DeMille’s, designed by a local architect named Clarence Dodd, was rented by a man who was already the most famous star in the world,  Charlie Chaplin. Then, after Chaplin moved in 1917, DeMille bought the house to serve as a 5,000-square-foot home office.

DeMille’s wife, Constance, was responsible for furnishing and running the first house and saw to it that heads of state and industry leaders were entertained royally. But it was from his office in the second house that, for more than forty years until his death in 1959, the director exercised his power and prerogatives as the uncrowned king of Hollywood. Occasionally, he even used the property as a location; a scene from his famous 1927 film King of Kings was shot in an olive grove on the grounds.

Walking into the beautifully restored living room of that house is a spine-tingling experience. There, in the large bay with its leaded glass windows, where a pair of comfortable chairs now sit, was the desk where DeMille developed most of his seventy films that are part of Hollywood history: The Ten Commandments (both the 1923 film and its 1956 remake, which would be DeMille’s final film); 1934’s Cleopatra with Claudette Colbert; Union Pacific (1939); Unconquered (1947); and 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth, the only film for which he won an Oscar™. From that desk, the director could gaze at his countless awards and Oscar™ displayed atop a large built-in bookcase, filled with history books like H.G. Wells’s History of the World.  For years after his death in January 1959, his secretary, who came in daily to attend to family business, would make certain that the desk calendar was turned to the proper date and that all the pencils were sharpened.

Today the desk and the bookcase are gone, but the bookcase remains in spirit. The original intricately carved mahogany columns that once defined its design have been integrated into a mahogany cabinet that hides modern electronics. But it was nearly lost. “When the previous owners bought it in the mid-1990s,” says the present owner (appropriately a film and television producer), who acquired the property in 1999, “it was in such bad repair they thought seriously of razing the house…there were actually coyotes living in the attic.”

Brian Tichenor, who, with his wife, runs Tichenor and Thorp, a Beverly Hills landscape and building architectural firm, spent the next eighteen months heading up a multimillion dollar restoration of the house. “The place was in very, very bad shape,” Tichenor says, “totally dilapidated…Actually words cannot describe how horrible it was. The only thing that was livable was the living room (DeMille’s office) which also served as a screening room, the rest of the place was nothing. In a day when home theater is a multibillion dollar industry, it comes as a bit of a shock that a ‘screening room’ in the early days was nothing more or less than a projector and a screen set up wherever you were—like showing movies in a fourth-grade class today.”

During the DeMille era, the director used the entire upstairs, a rabbit warren of small rooms, to store his papers; accordingly, Tichenor’s biggest challenge—more than clearing out the coyotes and cleaning the place up—“was to make the house coherent.” In addition to major work on the upstairs—during which a large, open master bedroom was created—a kitchen had to be carved out of several small rooms on the main floor. In the basement that was undeveloped, a maid’s room and gym were built. The mahogany-paneled stairwell was also in pieces, but luckily, there was enough left to copy for the restoration.

Because the breezeway that connected the DeMille residence next door and the house that served as his office had largely rotted away, it was removed. Tichenor came up against the frequently told story that the breezeway had been designed by the Bay Area architect Julia Morgan, famed for designing publisher William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate as well as Examiner building in Los Angeles. “I went into the matter thoroughly,” Tichenor says, “and it turns out that there is absolutely no evidence that she had anything to do with the design of the breezeway except that there is a record that she visited DeMille at one point and that some of the window treatments in what is left of the breezeway look something like her work in the Bay Area. She may have made a sketch on a napkin or something which DeMille could have given to a contractor.” It is fairly certain, however, that Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. [known as Lloyd] designed the leaded glass windows of the solarium of the living room and the front door of the house.

The film vault where DeMille stored his films was also beyond repair. The rebar reinforcement of the concrete structure had corroded and the roof had collapsed. It ahs been replaced with a greenhouse in which the present owner raises orchids. Tichenor also put in the new pool and gardens, and hired art restorers to replicate the wall decoration of the loggia from old photographs. He put a new roof on the house to which he later added solar panels for heating water.

“The house was mostly restored when we bought it,” says the new owner. “We completed the landscaping and some exterior hardscaping.” The previous owners made two larger bedrooms out of the four upstairs.  Because the bathrooms remained small, however, the new owners decided o move a closet into the sitting room off the master bedroom and enlarge the master bathroom to its present luxurious dimensions. The house no longer has the same floor plan, but thanks to a meticulous, historically respectful restoration, it does have the spirit of that time when Hollywood ruled world entertainment, and Cecil B. DeMille ruled Hollywood.


Born in 1890 in Indiana, architect Roland E. Coate Sr. arrived in Los Angeles in 1919 after working with one of Manhattan’s top commercial design firms and serving in France with the American Expeditionary Forces. Despite a thorough indoctrination in the baroque Beaux-Arts style then espoused at Cornell University’s School of Architecture (think New York’s Grand Central Station), Coate brought something unique too community whose architecture was characterized by fussiness-a spore simplicity that even eighty years later, looks freshly minted.

Although Coate also designed English Tudor and American Colonial Revival homes, his most popular designs were based on a Mediterranean idiom that, by the 1920s, was becoming intimately woven into the psychology of the population.  In partnership with the British émigré architect Gordon B. Kaufmann, Coate started designing buildings that honored but greatly simplified the traditional geometry of the Mediterranean style, thus achieving a rare elegance. This was recognized in an October 1939 issue of Pencil Points, which described his designs as, “central in the development of ht einformal, comfortable and open style house…regarded by many as the finest expression of California residential work.” Among Coate’s well-known clients were the director Frank Capra, producer David O. Selznick, and stars such as Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, and Barbara Stanwyck. Howard Hughes once bough a Coate house although it had not been designed for him. (Kaufmann’s work would evolve in the next decade from the Mediterranean into Art Deco, expressed in such design triumphs as the Los Angeles Times building.)

The most familiar of Coate’s contributions is Beverly Hills’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, designed in 1924, which, with its unadorned façade, simplifies Mediterranean style to an extreme. Another less radical approach was the home he designed for the president of the California Petroleum Corporation, Jacques Vinmont, the next year.

Located at the edge of Hollywood’s exclusive Laughlin Park enclave, the Vinmont house was recognized as a masterpiece from the day it was finished. Pacific Coast Record featured photographs and floor plans of the house in its March 1927, issue; two months later The Architectural Record did the same. Located on a one-acre lot, with the garage and pool, the 7,000-square-foot house cost $77,492.17 to build, a huge sum when most tract-type homes could be bought for a twentieth of that sum.

The Vinmonts got their money’s worth: a Mediterranean-style mansion, L-shaped (allowing a sheltered garden) with a hipped tile roof. The two-story entrance hall featured a sweeping stair; a large living room measuring 22 x 30 feet (with 12-foot ceilings) was anchored on a giant, 7-foot Italian carved marble fireplace (its off-center alignment was dictated by the then-ubiquitous grand piano); and a dining room and library boasted coffered, stenciled ceilings. Off the living room was a patio and loggia, situated around a fountain and surrounded by a lovely arcade. In an homage to early filmmaking, the patio was sheltered from the sun by canvas sheets suspended on wires, in exactly the same way sunlight was earlier controlled on Hollywood’s outdoor sets. There was a three-car garage, over which was a four-room apartment and, somewhat unusually for the era, a large (18 x 30 feet, with a depth of 10 feet), swimming pool.

The Vinmonts sold the house in March 1939 to a designer of theater organs, and following his death, the house was bought by Bernard Flynn, president of the Pacific Soap Company, in 1956. He and his wife lived there for thirty-two years, during which they walled the property and enlarged the kichen (they raised twelve children in the house). Everything else remained as it was until 1993, when new owners embarked on a complete, multimillion dollar restoration of the house, which took two and a half years.

Brian Tichenor whose Tichenor-Thorp firm did the restoration recalls that the house was “totally beat to hell. But Roland Coate was so accomplished as an architect,” he adds, “all we had to do was look carefully, and we knew what to do.” In addition to the expected restoration challenges (like dry rot, repairing the roof, insulating rood and walls, and replacing the plumbing and wiring), there were some surprises. Among them, he says, was the use of oddly chosen wood here and there. “The stair hall was alder which makes no sense at all (because of its light color).” The biggest change was the kitchen, today an amalgam of the original kitchen and several small rooms. A maid’s room was later converted into a gym for the present owners, a film director and his wife, who bought the place in 1996.

New grilles for the added air-conditioning openings were designed to be compatible with the rest of the house; so, too, the tiles and hardware chosen for the new bathrooms. “At one time,” the present owners laugh, “a decorator bomb went off; some of the ceilings were painted orange, and there were murals painted on the floors.” It was apparently the same decorator who was responsible for the loss of a lot of the house’s original furniture. The furnishings picked by the present owners are an eclectic combination of modern and 1940s pieces. It all works well, especially impressive are the large sofas in the living room upholstered in greenish-gray silk and set on a gray silk rug.

The conservation habits of the early twentieth century provided another surprise: the water in the patio fountain was not recirculated but just overflowed into the city sewer system. Today the fountain has been restored to working order, but it has not been reworked to conserve water and is rarely used. The couple has replaced the original canvas sheets that sheltered the patio.

The use of the bedrooms has been changed into what is now a three-bedroom, four-bath home. One bedroom was situation off the living room following the tradition of past years, when parents, who might not easily negotiate stairs, lived with their children; it has been converted into a TV room. And recently the couple just completed restoring the swimming pool, pulling off all the old tile so that earthquake cracks could be repaired, and installing a medium blue-colored glass tile, which now covers the entire interior.

There is the saying “God is in the details,” says Tichenor. “And it’s especially true in restoring one of these wonderful houses…their life and character lives in such details as the moldings and tile and hardware.”