The House That Oscar Built
The Villa Vallombrosa looks like it was built a century or three ago. Designed in the Tuscan Rural style by architect Nathan Coleman, this mini palazzo with an enclosed courtyard and fountain is decorated with French and Italian furniture and feels like a. retreat for a 19th Century scholar or artist. The small, dark rooms have a crypt-like dull to them, and there's even a heady old European smell coming off the vintage upholstery and clothbound books.
Was it just a coincidence that everyone who lived at Villa Vallombrosa went on to win an Academy Award?
But pull back a little bit. We are not in Italy, but perched just above the Kodak Theatre in the lush Hollywood Hills. The closest thing to Italy around here is the Italian-American neighbor, the young director Roman Coppola. Villa Vallombrosa was actually built in 1929 as part of a special new community bordering the nascent Hollywood studios. The neighborhood, Whitley Heights, was then--as now--peopled by arty industry types: screenwriters, producers, actors and cinematographers.
"All of the houses had to be built in a Mediterranean style," says Annie Kelly, an interior designer who lives in Villa Vallombrosa now with her husband, celebrity photographer Tim Street-Porter. Looking out, they can glimpse Mediterranean mini-mansions of a more Spanish style. "When they first built this house, some people thought it looked phony, like a stage set. But time has given it character and an authenticity."
Because Vallombrosa was so different from Hollywood's ranch houses and cottages, it attracted an impressive roster of discerning Hollywood residents. In fact, simply crossing the threshold here somehow seemed to magically help people win Oscars. Screenwriter Ben Hecht (Academy Awards for Underworld and The Scoundrel) holed up here to pound out scripts. Three-time Oscar-winner Greta Garbo came here for dinner at the invitation of her image-maker, the gown designer Adrian. (Though Adrian clothed some 230 films and was chief costume designer at MGM in the '30s, he never won an Academy Award--but that is because Oscars weren't awarded for costumes until the late '40s.) It is rumored that Adrian's lover, actress and three-time Oscar winner Janet Gaynor, lived herewith him prior to their marriage, but they kept it a secret--shacking up was considered inappropriate back then. And while Leonard Bernstein--who lived here while conducting at the Hollywood Bowl for a season--never won an Oscar, he was nominated for one, for 1954's On the Waterfront.
Coincidentally, three unrelated tenants of Villa Vallombrosa wound up working on the same film; on the original 1937 version of A Star is Born, Ben Hecht was among the writers, Janet Gaynor starred and Omar Kiam designed the costumes. The film itself was nominated for eight Academy Awards and took home two.
Vallombrosa seems to have fashion in its bones as well; besides Adrian and Omar Kiam (who designed the costumes in Wuthering Heights, Stella Dallas and Barbary Coast), other chic residents included Baron Adolf Gayne de Meyer, a fashion photographer working for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and even Mario Thomas, aka '60s style icon "That Girl."
Unlike the stars themselves, Vallombrosa only gets better with age. Photographers have hired it out to shoot Catherine Zeta-Jones, Diane Lane and Seal. And Street-Porter and Kelly keep the celebrity salon atmosphere alive when they host annual "Art of the Palate" charity dinners for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Diane Keaton was their most recent guest of honor).
"The strange thing about the architecture," Kelly says, "is that it's got a great big living room and then a lot of small rooms around it. It's sort of out of proportion, but clearly this place was made for entertaining." And also for nudging people towards the podium at the Kodak Theatre.
Three unrelated tenants of Villa Vallombrosa wound up working on the same film; on the original 1937 version of A Star is Born, Ben Hecht was among the writers, Janet Gaynor starred and Omar Kiam designed the costumes. The film itself was nominated for eight Academy Awards and took home two.