How an architecture-loving couple in L.A. set out to restore pedigreed properties that once belonged to Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille

THIS IS NOT, STRICTLY SPEAKING, a Hollywood story, but like most narratives set in this part of the world, it has its share of big–screen touches. It begins with our principals meeting cute (as we say in film treatments). He was an art consultant and writer, she an art consultant and curator. Both were based in Minneapolis, although it was in New York that they were set up by a mutual friend—on the corner of Spring Street and West Broadway, to be specific. What their friend didn’t know was that they had more in common than art and the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Architecture, for starters.Lisa Lyons calls it a “disease.” Richard Grossman describes his affliction in terms of the houses he inhabited before he met Lisa: a “two–to three–hundred–year old” adobe outside Santa Fe, a turn–of–the–century Victorian in Minneapolis, a Tudor Revival “with walk-in fireplaces” in Berkeley. At the time of their introduction, he occupied an early Prairie School house in Minneapolis, a handsome compound of brick and stone that the couple happily settled into after they married in 1987.

“It was built by Kees and Colburn and influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright,” Lisa recalls fondly. “The rooms were beautifully proportioned.”

When Richard acquired the residence, some rooms were also tricked out in French provincial wallpaper and orange shag. “We peeled off layers of bad stuff and brought the house back to its best self,” he says. “I always get drunk on the spaces of houses, on that kind of pure architectural form. So if I’m in one house that’s really great, but then I see another place…”

But we’re getting ahead of our story. Suffice it to say, the process of renovation has become a necessary preoccupation for the house–besotted couple, who have gone on to remake five residences together. In 1989, Lisa was offered a job as director of art programs for the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, and she and Richard relinquished the Prairie School house to resettle in California. While renting near the beach, they started looking around for their own place. If “looking around” is the term. They took fourteen months and went through some three hundred houses before chancing on the Castillo del Lago. The castle, as it’s known is a Spanish Colonial Revival palace built in the 1920s, whose plumb lines and octagonal tower would look comfortable in 18th–century Bogotá but happen to grace a scrubby knoll above Lake Hollywood.

“As a piece of architecture, it was a work of genius,” says Lisa (now a consultant in contemporary art to the J. Paul Getty Trust), running a hand through her two–inch buzz cut. “Very severe but very romantic.” She is perpendicular on a canary yellow sofa in the modern family room of the couple’s current residence, four moves after the castle. Richard is perched on the other sofa with Floyd, the couple’s three–year–old Australian terrier. Attired in matching nubby brown polo shirt and slacks, he manages to project a mandarin air. (About a year after they acquired the castle, Richard began work on a trilogy of novels modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy; he is now completing the third installment.)

When Richard wasn’t writing and Lisa wasn’t visiting artists’ studios, they made their own contributions to the castle, rewiring, chasing leaks and generally looking after the place. Until 1993, that is, when a classic Spanish Revival down the hill came on the market. The house was designed in 1927 by Roland Coate, a California architect known for his graceful revival treatments. “It had a wonderful U–shaped courtyard,” remembers Richard, “with a colonnade and sunken fountain. And a pool that the pool man loved,” Lisa adds.

They made arrangements to sell the castle, which was promptly snapped up by a performer named Madonna. (This is a Los Angeles story, remember.) Madonna’s embellishments to the property would include red and ocher stripes around the octagonal tower and a high border of concertina wire, a defilement Lisa can only describe as “very sad for us.”

They had the distraction of their new residence, which bore its own scars. “An interior decorator had turned it into a French–Italian fantasy,” says Lisa. “He’d brought in a muralist who painted the floors, ceilings, every surface in the house. It looked like Like Brice Marden on psilocybin,” suggests Richard. “It was like a setting for an MTV video. Or a Victoria’s Secret catalogue-those lingerie colors,” Lisa offers.

They interviewed a number of architects for the rescue effort, but only two came recommended by several different sources. The partnership of Tichenor & Thorp had a firm grounding in both landscape design and restoration, having set to rights everything from the eccentric Capitol Records Building in Hollywood to Paul Williams’s historicist houses. “They clearly knew the architecture and loved it,” says Lisa. “And since the house had a very good lot, the notion that they also understood landscape was perfect. Brian Tichenor has an amazing depth of knowledge of historical architecture. He’s also an absolutely beautiful draftsman.” Tichenor’s wife and partner, Raun Thorp, supervised the interior architecture and detailing, down to the selection of lighting and hardware.

Tichenor and Thorp spent some three years applying chemical peels to the lingerie–colored surfaces, mending a remodeled wing and repairing the courtyard. Lisa and Richard, who lived in the house during the rescue effort, insist that the payoff outweighed the privation.

And yet, and yet…One day shortly after the renovation was completed, a girl in the neighborhood who was throwing a Roaring Twenties party at an old estate just up the street invited Richard to check out the place while she put up the decorations.

“Dick came back,” relates Lisa, almost in a whisper. “He said ‘It’s a great house.’”

A great pair of houses in fact, because the property comprised both a nearly 8,000–square–foot Italianate Revival mansion from 1914 that the director Cecil B. De Mille had lived in most of his life, and, linked to the house by a long breezeway, a significantly smaller northern Spanish Revival villa built at the same time and briefly inhabited by Charlie Chaplin. About a week after the party, the property was put up for sale.

“Our original intention was to live in the DeMille house and renovate the Chaplin house,” recounts Richard, the successful bidder. “Then move in to the Chaplin house and renovate the De Mille house and divest the Chaplin house.”

First things first. The Roland Coate house was sold to film director David Fincher. The couple moved into the De Mille house—camped out, really—and had the Chaplin house surveyed. Its wood casing had rotted so badly, they learned, that the building was being held up by its plaster. Tichenor & Thorp commenced a comprehensive rescue effort based on the plans of the original architect, William J. Dodd: the shell of the villa remained, but everything inside (the Hearstian Gothic living room, the crabbed servants’ kitchen) was taken apart and rebuilt. Outside the loggia was revived, a pool was installed and a specialist from the Getty Museum was brought in to restore an Italian festival mural. Two years later, the place was in move–in condition, except that Richard and Lisa never did.

Their interim research into the De Mille property revealed that it had originally included a parcel of adjacent land to the east, a parcel they felt would make a first–rate parking court but that belonged to another house, a vintage Sixties contemporary just down a gentle slope. “Dick approached the owners about acquiring the strip of land—“

“It never went anywhere,” Richard continues. “But then one morning I noticed a real estate agent at the gate …”

They bought the Sixties house that day. They sold the Chaplin house to television writer John Wells. The couple’s plans for their latest acquisition, a residence sheathed, at the time, in heavy stonework reminiscent of Mike Brady, were less definite. “At one point, we thought we’d just do a quick remodel and take the piece of land,” says Lisa. “Then we realized we could live in it while we were doing the De Mille—be literally next door, keep an eye on what was going on.”

Still squatting in the De Mille—“funky but we had all the rooms we needed”—they re-enlisted the services of Tichenor & Thorp for the Sixties house. Out with the Mr. Brady stonework, the jalousie windows, the jockey wallpaper (the legacy of onetime resident Lafitte Pincay). In with walls of glass, a new galley kitchen, terraced beds of sculptural, drought–resistant plants. “We weren’t planning on doing as much as we did…” Lisa scans the living room’s new floor–to–ceiling windows almost contritely; outside, the banks of orange cannas and bronze flax graze the sky like flames.

Just up the hill, the De Mille house commands a grassy two–acre knoll dotted with old oaks and olive trees. Introduced by an impressive portico and trimmed with arched windows and iron balconies, the mansion suggests “Midwestern Italianate Revival” to Brian Tichenor, its principal guardian. “From what we can tell, the whole upstairs was actually quite modest,” he says. “Funny to think of De Mille in a place like that. But you’ve got a guy coming from the Midwest and all of a sudden making big grandiose movies. De Mille didn’t necessarily have the experience of the finer stuff.”

In the wake of his first great success, Carmen, Cecil B. De Mille moved into the house with his wife and daughter in 1916. (The identity of the architect is unknown.) Chaplin and his 16–year–old bride, Mildred Harris, settled next door, but their marriage and residency lasted less than a year. De Mille augmented his holdings by acquiring the Chaplin house, building the breezeway connecting the two properties, and using Chaplin’s living room as an office and screening room. After De Mille’s death in 1959, his family maintained both houses precisely as he’d left them for some twenty–five years (in 1990 the entire property was purchased by a Japanese businessman).

Downstairs, at least, the finer stuff is intimated. The living room is not grand in scale, but even in their stripped state the room’s molded ceiling and Doric columns confer an easy elegance. The sun sweeping through the glassless windows spots a decorous oil painting inset in the wall above the mantel. “Some think it’s Saint Jerome and the Peasants,” Tichenor volunteers. “The De Mille Foundation says it’s a study for The King of Kings. If it’s removed, it becomes their property.” (The estate owns the original contents of the house, but the painting was deemed a part of the architecture.)

Raun Thorp lifts a curtain of plastic to reveal the mahogany–paneled dining room. A bar installed by the Japanese businessman has been half torn out; a fireplace containing a pair of Magic Logs stays. “The room never had a chimney,” explains Thorp. “Very movie–land–all illusion.”

A J–shaped staircase, sanded pale, curls up to the second floor. Empty windows frame views of the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Park observatory in the distance. Oaks and olives stipple the lawn below. “We’ll be regrading to bring back some of what I think was down there,” says Tichenor. “There were at lest three Lloyd Wright landscapes in the area, and I think there was something like that here, water stairs and lawns dropping down to De Mille’s studio for Richard where the stables once stood; a pool house and gym are also going in. The fate of the Sixties house has not yet been decided.

An electric saw suddenly whines, echoing through the skeletal rooms. “Most of the bedrooms were quite pedestrian and the bathroom space was startlingly small!” Tichenor shouts between blasts. “Lisa and Dick are real enthusiasts for the grand architecture of the Twenties, and we’re going to bring it up to that level.”

“Lisa and Dick always go the extra step!” Thorp chimes in. “You’re always held to a higher standard of authenticity!” The sawing subsides, and the architect elaborates on her clients’ perfectionism: “Instead of just replicating the door knobs, they’ll find out there were two kinds of knobs, and the second one was made by an apprentice.” The couples hash out such details every Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve had a running meeting with them for nine years,” says Thorp. “They’re sort of a part of our lives.” Will the meetings ever cease? “Let’s just hope the next house is a vacation place,” replies Tichenor.

Low late–afternoon sun drenches the Sixties house, gliding the Beuys Breeding–Energy–Mensch and the Baselitz Kleiner Adler, and warming Floyd, who has had his dinner and is rolling around on the walnut floors. Lisa is flipping through some archival material she’s gotten on the original De Mille landscaping. The couple are full of particulars about their own plans for the grounds (clusters of crape myrtle and jacaranda, a border of black acacia) but remain oddly ambiguous about the interiors of the mansion.

“We want to capture a certain point in the house’s life, without making it look like a stage set or Disneyland,” offers Lisa. “I kind of imagine the perfect owner of the house would have been a guy who lived there in the Thirties and had great taste. Comfortable, fun, not formal, with some—I don’t want to go that far.”

“You’ve got us forty years in the future,” says Richard returning to the living room with coffee. “We’ll have contemporary art in it…” Lisa adds hesitantly.

The pair are clearly much more comfortable describing the process of reclaiming a hypothetical residence. For Lisa, “doing a house is like [curating] a one–person show, where you’re always trying to find the essence of the artist’s work. And in a way it’s like a group show in that it’s an exercise in space; it’s about walking through space and having a new experience.” Richard equates his interest in architectural interiors with the “volumetric” quality of his fiction writing. “I try to create a kind of four-dimensional space in my novels. And one of the things that always interests me in houses is space. I love the notion of the bare–bones spatial characteristics.”

The literary scholar Marjorie Garber has suggested that we, as consumers, eroticize our houses. Lisa and Richard’s fixation would seem to be of a purer, more Platonic strain. Maybe whatever hesitations shadow the end of their current project have the same psychological underpinnings as their unhesitating embrace of every earlier one: they’re intent on notions as much as specifics, means as much as ends.

“There’s an ephemeral quality to renovation that’s actually really interesting,” says Richard. “When you do something and it lasts only as long as you have control of the property—it’s just the joy of creating something really beautiful. Especially with the decline of sensibility and taste in our culture. As a curator and a writer, Lisa and I have always worked to move in a contrary [cultural] direction. And renovation nowadays, especially renovation with some kind of an aesthetic ideal, is a contrary activity.”

Which brings up the question put to Brian Tichenor: will the De Mille be their last house?

“Yeah,” Richard and Lisa respond, without hesitation. “Not to say we wouldn’t be

interested in other renovations,” she adds. “The thing is, I think we found the house.”

A cinematic ending after all.