New Life for a 1930s Hollywood Classic

“This is a house for a young family,” declares decorator Michael Smith, touring the Brentwood Park, California, home that his clients Gary and Maria Mancuso Gersh share with their two small children, Noah and Emma-Louise, an elderly Labrador retriever called Rasta, and a rotating cast of houseguests. “It’s a sophisticated, elegant house,” Smith continues.
“But it wasn’t built for a footman kind of life.” With a jungle gym on the lawn, purple Hot Wheels parked next to a row of Hepplewhite–style side chairs in the dining room, and the thump of a bouncing basketball resounding from somewhere near the kitchen, it’s clearly remained footman –free.The house, designed by Los Angeles architect Paul R. Williams, was built in 1936 for ZaSu Pitts, an actress famous for her portrayals of flustered spinsters. Included in Williams’s original plans was a secret staircase, entered through a bookcase in the wood–paneled library and leading up to the master bedroom. Was that secret staircase installed with gentlemen callers in mind? Did a discreet butler show a romantic swain to the library, offer a brandy, suggest a perusable title (the exact book set to trigger the hidden door), and leave the guest alone to his “reading” and a clandestine visit to the lady’s boudoir? It’s a wonderfully screwball detail, worthy of a Philo Vance mystery and indicative of the playfulness that courses through this rather grand neo–Georgian–via–Hollywood country house.

“I’m a big fan of architecture,” Gary Gersh enthuses. When he was appointed president and CEO of Capitol Records in 1993, Gary—working with Smith as decorator, along with the husband–and–wife architectural firm of M. Brian Tichenor and Raun Thorp—directed a major renovation of the company’s executive suites (located in Capitol’s 1954 landmark building, a fourteen–story circular tower reminiscent of a stack of 45s). “Gary’s office is now very cool,” Smith riffs merrily, “like Darrin’s office in Bewitched. It’s a juxtaposition of natty and hip. And definitely nonresidential.”

“When Maria and I began to look for a house, it was really a question of finding not only a certain style but a certain feeling,”  Gary recalls. Although his impressive music career has been built on a talent for signing such cutting–edge acts as Sonic Youth and Nirvana, when Gary turned to house–hunting, he focused on southern California’s architectural classics—the sublime Craftsman bungalows of Greene and Greene, or Cliff May’s rambling ranch houses. “And, of course, we knew about Paul Williams.”

Paul R. Williams, the first African–American member and fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), designed over three thousand projects during his more than fifty–year career. Among his many movie–star clients were Barbara Stanwyck, William “Bojangles” Robinson, Tyrone Power, and Frank Sinatra, a who’s who of Photoplay magazine. Michael Smith describes Williams’s ‘30s style—with its arched doorways, fluted columns, theatrical passageways, and oval windows—as “everything that was romantic and picturesque in Georgian and Regency architecture, viewed through an Art Deco eye.”

“Almost every house that Williams built had a veranda,” Gary points out. “There’s usually a big entrance hall and a dramatically curved staircase.” Williams wrote that the entrance hall was the “room that speaks out the welcome.” In Brentwood Park, when Gary and Maria Gersh walked into “this radiant environment,” as the architect liked to call it, they knew they had found their home.

“I also realized right away that this house was going to be a very big project,” admits Maria, a designer and fashion historian. Moving from an American country cottage in Malibu, they decided to keep little more than an Amish quilt collection and a few pieces of folk art; everything for the new house would have to be acquired. “Working with a decorator, I really wanted to find someone I could pal around with and share my opinions,” she explains. “I didn’t want to live in a museum. I didn’t want to be intimidated by someone thirty years old than I am, who was going to tell me how my house should look.”

For years, the couple had saved magazine photographs of interiors they liked. Upon first meeting with Michael Smith, they discovered not only that he and Maria were about the same age but also that Smith—whose client list includes Cindy Crawford, Dawn Steel, and Rob Reiner—was the decorator behind 40 percent of the rooms in their extensive picture file.

“The way I work is very collaborative,” says Smith. Plans for the house evolved through a series of meetings—with the new homeowners, Smith, Tichenor, and Thorp all participating in the decision making. “We contributed our opinions on everything and agreed to take the house back to the way it was intended to be originally,” notes Gary, wincing at the memory of earlier tenants’ renovations: a California rock pool had been dug into the verdant front lawn; a pop singer with a penchant for Victoriana had smothered Williams’s pure lines with a heavy application of ornate moldings and plaster cupids. In the spirit of Paul Williams, Tichenor and Thorp constructed new moldings, removed a fake fireplace, and restored original paneling. Existing rosebushes were incorporated into an entirely new landscaping scheme: the backyard hillside was terraced, descending from an outdoor dining area with a fireplace to a lap pool and pool house/gym. At the bottom tier of terraces, a vegetable garden was planted; while at the very top, the veteran roses bloomed. “For me, working on this house is a lot like making records,” Gary observes. “I am able to come in, work with people who have ideas, develop a vision, and see it realized.”

In the house, Smith introduced furniture with strong, sculptural lines: a 1940s French center table; a Regency mahogany cabinet decorated with a stars–and–arrow motif; an Adams–style sofa upholstered in beige–and–cream ticking; an enormous Anglo–Indian–style dining table newly made in California. “Michael has pushed us to consider things that we might not have considered before—very serious, purebred pieces,” remarks Maria appreciatively. “But when I saw that these pieces could be played with, used in a way that was youthful and whimsical, I understood, because that’s how I play with fashion.”

The master bedroom is like a Syrie Maugham suite, lushly done up in shades of white and silver. There’s the slightest tint of lavender to the white walls; white curtains and window shades are made of sheer Irish handkerchief linen. “Linen actually woven for handkerchiefs,” Smith stresses, indicating the windowpane pattern running through the fabric. “I wanted the bedroom to look like an out–of–focus black–and–white photograph,” Maria says, her conjured image stunningly realized.

Downstairs, the garden room, says Smith, is the space that has been most closely restored to its original appearance. A telephone bid to an auction in a distant town produced the Zuber wall–paper that Smith and Maria had been hoping for. “This is a Zuber pattern dating from the early 1800s; it probably took over four hundred wood blocks to produce,” Smith explains. “This lot was printed in the 1930s. I read in the newspaper that twenty panels had been removed from somebody’s dining room and were being sold.” In this small, bright room at the heart of the vast house, the walls are covered in the muted scenes of an El Dorado dreamscape—peacocks, heavy roses, and pyramids. “The entranceway is still my favorite part of the house because you experience the garden room and the garden beyond,” says Maria. “I know this is a serious house, with incredible architectural integrity and great expensive pieces. And we can have fun in it.”