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The Height of Spanish Style

A vintage Wallace Neff estate is restored to its original state of opulence in the hands of a Beverly Hills couple.

Bruce Stuart and his partner, Billy Kolber-Stuart, have what can only be described as an enviable domestic setup. On one rainy fall day, Kolber-Stuart, a screenwriter and travel guide publisher, whips up a fluffy coconut cake and baked ziti for a visiting photographer and crew. And Stuart, who has spent the morning in his detached backyard art studio, emerges to deliver wry one-liners about his good fortune and a wealth of historic and architectural details of the couple’s grand 1926 Wallace Neff house in the flats of Beverly Hills.

Neff, the famed Los Angeles architect who hit his prime in the 1920s, is revered for designing what’s now referred to as Spanish Revival homes. In 1929 alone, he built more than a dozen houses for prominent families with names like Chandler, Doheny and Gillette. More than the occasional movie star has inhabited a Neff house, including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and their modern-day counterparts Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (who have put the home they once shared on the market for a reported $28 million). Louis B. Mayer commissioned Neff to build a home for his daughter as a wedding present. And Neff’s own grandfather was Andrew McNally, founder of Rand McNally, so designing properties for families with a taste for grandeur was second nature to the architect.

The Stuarts, then, are ideal Neff owners, since Stuart’s grandfather, E.A. Stuart, founded Carnation Milk at the turn of the last century. He is one of the rare Southland residents who can claim fourth-generation Angeleno status. “My family has been here since 1885,” he says. “I’ve lived in the Palisades, Bel-Air, Hollywood, West Hollywood. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know the Valley existed. And where we live now, these houses in the flats were considered ‘starter homes’ for young families.”

Not so anymore. Examples of L.A.’s diverse architecture dot the wide, tree-lined streets. “People pick on L.A. because you’ve got Spanish Gothic, English Tudor and bungalows all right next to each other, next to French country, next to Italianate, next to a huge Persian palace,” says Stuart. “But there’s some great architecture here. I wanted a Spanish home that hadn’t been messed with—as close to the original condition as possible. And this was the second one we saw.”

At one point, Stuart entertained the idea of becoming an architect himself, but he “didn’t want to sit and draw nuts and bolts.” So he’s taken up the task of finding architectural gems and renovating them, and his number of completed “projects” is now up to ten.

When the couple first saw this house in 1999, it had only had two previous owners. Lawrence McNeil, who owned a concrete factory and provided all of the cement for the Hoover Dam, built the house. Stuart jokes that at least two of the trucks bound for the dam must have been diverted to Beverly Hills. “When we bought it, all of the tile was backed by three inches of concrete. We replaced nearly every surface in the house, but we did try to stay true to the period and his design as much as possible,” he says. The addition of the Moroccan and Andalusian tile is fairly seamless, adding richness and depth to floors, walls and ceilings.

“You can still see McNeil’s name in the zodiac mural painted by Richard Wyatt, who did downtown’s Union Station mural, on the ceiling of the entryway. That’s classic Neff,” says Stuart. “McNeil lived here for 40 years. The lady I got it from bought it in the ’60s and raised three kids here. I had her over after we finished the renovation, and as we were walking up the central staircase, I asked her if she couldn’t remember how many stairs there were. Without a beat, she said, ‘19.’ She had climbed them countless times.”

Despite being comparatively in­con­­spicuous from the street, the property sprawls impressively into a yard large enough to accommodate a rose garden, a vegetable garden with heirloom tomato vines, nearly a dozen fountains, a small citrus orchard, a sizable greenhouse, an art studio and a recently built two-bedroom guesthouse. The entire plot is less than an acre, but since the buildings are positioned at the corners of the property, it seems like much more space.

“I’d rather have a garden than a tennis court,” says Stuart, who is particularly fond of succulents and had the greenhouse built to indulge his hobby. “My favorite thing is my dolly, which I use to move things around the property. I could spend the whole weekend rearranging things out there.”

As for the interiors, the Stuarts also have a keen eye for art, furniture and design. Each room is so rich with detail that the pair typed up a three-paged, single-spaced, self-guided tour of the house. Yes, the portraits on the wall are all family members, each with its own story. The one truly incongruous element in the house may be the home gym, located adjacent to the master bedroom upstairs. And judging by the looks of the Stuarts, the facility is very well used. Of course, if Neff were alive today, he’d know that modern Californians like their workouts, and he might even design one with a mural on the ceiling and a roundel window thrown in for good measure.

Written and edited by Christine Lennon.
Photographed by Lisa Romerein.

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