Rediscovering Robert Finkelhor, Architect

Rediscovering Robert Finkelhor, Architect

by Mark Morrison

Current Photographs by Erik Grammer unless otherwise noted

“At first glance, the stately Spanish Revival home on this winding West Hollywood road doesn’t look like much. The white stucco Mediterranean sits low on a hillside above Sunset Strip, half-hidden behind wrought-iron railing, its top floor and red-tile roof poking into sight above the front walk. Surrounded by flashier, sleeker, grander homes, this 1926 relic would be easy to overlook. But walk down a flight of concrete stairs to a cozy courtyard for a closer peek at its two-story turret entry, deep-set arching doorway, ornamental iron work, upstairs balcony with French doors and breathtaking skyline-to-coastline views, and you know you are in the presence of something special.

“It is a little unassuming from the street,” admits its current owner, architectural historian, preservationist and writer Beth Harris. “But the contrast between that and the experience when you go through it is kind of nice. It creates a bit of a surprise when you walk in the front door and immediately look out the back and there’s a sweeping view of Los Angeles. That’s part of its appeal.”

Indeed. Here on this steep slope above Sunset Boulevard, the three-story, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath house seems to cling to the hillside—an otherwise seemingly standard-issue Mediterranean that Harris bought in 2008 and restored in 2009 to reflect the dreamy romanticism of the post-war 1920s and the fancy-free escapism of the Hollywood dream machine. “It was a pre-modern period,” says Harris, who ought to know — twenty years ago, she (along with her then-husband) hired young L.A. architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner to help them bring Richard Neutra’s iconic, but neglected, Kaufmann House in Palm Springs back to life (which was so painstakingly executed and subsequently widely published that it put the sleepy desert community back on the map as a mecca for mid-century modern aficionados and sun worshippers alike). The couple went on to renovate modern homes by Morphosis in Hermosa Beach, Carlton Winslow Jr. in Palos Verdes, William Lescaze in New York; Harris also spent the past three years restoring a 1947 concrete block house by John Churchill in Martha’s Vineyard and owns a vintage Donald Wexler-designed condo in Palm Springs.

“There hasn’t been as much written on the romantic architects of the ‘20s and ‘30s as on the modern architects,” Harris says. “But the overriding desire [in that decade] was for historicism and romanticism. And I would posit that a lot of that was driven by the film industry. People wanted to live these sort of fantasy lifestyles on a daily basis. If you look at Paul Williams’ body of work, there’s a whole variety of revivalist styles. Architects had to work in these different genres — whether a Normandy tower in the Hollywood Hills or Smoketree Ranch in Palm Springs.” At the time, Los Angeles was exploding in every direction.

Between 1920 and 1930, the population had grown from 576,673 to more than 1.2 million, creating a historic boom for Southern California real estate.

In 1924, in the midst of it all, a young architect named Robert Finkelhor, who was born in Jeanette, Pennsylvania in 1898 and received his degree from the school of architecture at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), moved to L.A. and worked for local builder Paul C. Whitice. Records from 1925 show that a 10-room house in the hills above the nascent Sunset Strip was proposed by Finkelhor and Whitice for a cost of $21,000. The owner’s name was G. W. Price.

Little is known about any of these men. But it’s clear that Finklehor, like Paul Williams (who designed homes for the rich and famous, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and Humphrey Bogart), was soon working for himself in a variety of styles ranging from American Colonial to Mediterranean Revival, commonly incorporating motifs such as stone veneer walls, false half timbering, multiple gabled rooflines and wood shake roofs.

Over the ensuing years, four of his homes were featured in Architectural Digest—including residences for such Hollywood players as screenwriter Norman Krasna (who penned such popular films as “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and “Let’s Make Love” with Marilyn Monroe) and producer David L. Loew, who along with twin brother Arthur was the son of MGM founder Marcus Loew, and who resigned from the board of directors of Loew’s Inc. to form various production companies with director Stanley Kramer and actor John Garfield. Finkelhor also designed an estate on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills for MGM executive Hunt Stromberg that was inspired by anEnglish farmhouse (1932); a home for Harpo Marx at 701 N. Canon Drive in Beverly Hills (1938) and a Cape Cod-style residence in Bel-Air for MGM writer Irving Brecher (1941). Other homes designed as English country estates included the residence of motion picture executive Henry Ginsberg at 918 Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills, and an 18-room showplace across the street from Harris’ West Hollywoodhouse that was once home to Liberace.

Curiously, Finkelhor is also listed as an architect for Alan Ladd’s Los Feliz home, though he seems to share credit with the more famous Gerard Colcord on the house (meanwhile, an April 1950 House Beautiful article about Ladd’s kitchen names Finkelhor as architect).

Perhaps most auspiciously, Finkelhor designed the storied Bob Hope estate built in 1939 in suburban Toluca Lake. Most recently, the late comedy legend’s rambling 15,000-square-foot mansion on 5.21-acre property with one-hole golf course has been on the market for $12 million—reduced from $23 million. Yet again, the architect often credited for the classic Hollywood home is architect-to-the-stars John Elgin Woolf, who reportedly only redesigned the living room in his signature Hollywood Regency style during the 1950s.

This kind of specious reporting seems to have plagued Finkelhor’s career. Another instance of such credit-robbing involves a pair of stellar 1937 commissions — adjacent San Fernando Valley properties for Barbara Stanwyck and Zeppo Marx — and this time sources credit the design to the more prestigious Paul Williams. Stanwyck, who was then riding high following her first Oscar nomination for “Stella Dallas,” had become business partners with her then-agent Zeppo Marx, who had dropped out of the Marx Brothers movies in 1933 to pursue careers as an engineer and theatrical agent.

Together, they turned 130 prime acres in Northridge into a ranch for breeding, boarding and training thoroughbred horses. They aptly named it “Marwyck” and each commissioned Finkelhor to build large Hollywood-style ranch houses on adjoining 10-acre parcels at the northern edge of the horse property. Built on a knoll overlooking the 130-acre horse ranch, Stanwyck’s 6,500-square-foot two-story stone-veneer home with a multiple gabled roofline had five bedrooms, eight bathrooms, four fireplaces, a three-car garage, tennis court and large swimming pool.

But in 1940, after marrying Robert Taylor, she sold her share in Marwyck to Marx and sold the house to comic character actor Jack Oakie who renamed it Oakridge. Though the surrounding neighborhood has since been developed, the Stanwyck-Oakie house remains there today on 9.47 acres with restoration plans in progress. And while Finkelhor’s name is listed as architect of record on the original building permit filed with the City of Los Angeles, Mrs. Oakie had the property declared a historic monument in 1990 when she was a widow, naming the ever-popular Williams as architect. Which seems to have stuck.

It is suspected that Williams may have created designs for proposed renovations and additions to the property. Friends of Oakridge, a volunteer group that helps manage the property, which is officially controlled by the L.A. City Recreation and Parks Department, has tried to verify the home’s actual architectural pedigree – without success. Since Finkelhor had no children, there was no family to protect his legacy. And after he died in 1957, his widow moved to Europe. So the residence remains the subject of a historic preservation dispute, its provenance shrouded in mystery – not unlike Finkelhor himself. Despite his low profile today, the architect was once the winner of the Beaux Arts Award, a yearly prize given by the Beaux Arts Institute of Design honoring fine examples of architectural work done in traditional styles. Leo Marmol, like most modern architects, had never heard of Finkelhor before Harris again reached out to him and Radziner to help her complete the renovation of her hillside home. “The corollary [to Finkelhor] is Paul Williams,” he says. “They were both working with a socialite client base in a number of stylistic languages — they didn’t focus on one particular period. And a lot of that I’m sure came from the client. He was open to their particular desire — if they wanted a Spanish Mediterranean home, they would get it. But, for whatever reasons, Finkelhor didn’t have that kind of [lasting] impact on the architectural hierarchy [like Williams].”

Yet, his work is equally refined. Step through the front doorway into the majestic rotunda of the hillside Mediterranean and you are instantly transported to another time — the sweeping stairway, the original wrought iron railing and hexagonal chandelier, the archways and wooden moldings, the strips of stained glass window with touches of purple, gold and white that flood the entry with light, the domed ceiling and gracious wraparound landing above. The elegance and allure does not stop there. Picture windows with the original old glass frame 180-degree views of the L.A. basin. “On a clear day you can see from the ocean and Palos Verdes to downtown, the Griffith Observatory and the mountains that run along Claremont,” says Harris. On the east side of the 4,332 square-foot house, on both stories — i.e., in the spacious living room and huge master bedroom — Finkelhor created adjacent step-down sunrooms with picture windows framing dramatic views on three sides (Harris used one as an office and one as a library). “You sit in those little rooms and it’s like [being in] a little fish bowl hanging on top of the world. [The windows are] also a good way to get really great ventilation.”

“It’s a very effective use of the hillside,” Marmol says of Finkelhor’s overall design. “All of the major rooms have a great relationship to the view, which is extremely powerful. That is its greatest strength. It is a very vertical house but it took a very modern planning perspective. And the house is low enough on the hillside that you really feel a part of the city — you feel like you’re in the city even though you’re hovering above it. You’re not way up high, you’re down a bit so you feel more connected to the city.” Also, despite the power of its setting, the house is still modest in scale — which is another part of its appeal. According to Harris, Finkelhor designed it as a guest house for a larger estate house that sat at the base of the hill where the Andaz Hotel is today; the space in between was presumably gardens with a pathway connecting the two properties. “Clearly what he did was maximize the views and create interesting spaces,” she says. “The ceilings are coved, nothing’s particularly typical. And even though the spaces are large, they have a kind of intimacy.”

One of the other key things that sold Harris on the house was that “it was amazingly intact.” After years of tackling major restorations elsewhere, she needed a break; by contrast, she considers her main challenges here to have involved mostly “minor stuff”. For instance, though more than a dozen wrought-iron sconces once graced the walls, there were only four hanging; but she found the rest in the basement, had them reconditioned, rewired and re-installed. For added authenticity, she replaced plastic light switches with vintage push button plates. And she brought back the original oak floors, removing Saltillo tiles that covered certain areas, replacing or restoring wood as needed.

Outside, she also removed Saltillo tiles on the front courtyard and back terrace and opted for patterned concrete which she deemed truer to Mediterranean style. She wrapped the entire house in gardens so you see less of the neighbors while capturing all of the view. But the most dramatic change she made was adding a stunning city-view swimming pool (designed by William Kopelk of Palm Springs), which meant sinking 13 steel pylons into the hillside, extending the terrace, and shoring up the foundation. It was then Marmol Radziner’s job to design a music room beneath the pool and integrated the entire addition into the hillside.

“Our main role was the swimming pool [addition] and garden,” says Marmol. “We executed the design — just because Beth asked us to do it.” Reconsidering the Finkelhor property now, he says, “There’s elegance, drama, and more than anything, it’s very smart from a planning perspective. I was surprised and not surprised when Beth bought it. Surprised because it’s so traditional, knowing Beth. But not surprised in that it’s just a good house.” Which echoes Harris’ sentiments exactly. “My philosophy has always been I just want a good house,” she says. “Style is not as important to me as quality and livability. There are a lot of windows and openness between the rooms. It flows really well and still has that beautiful courtyard. I loved the way it cascaded down the side of the hill. All of the qualities that you might like about a modern house exist in this house.”
And no house could have a better friend than Harris, whose commitment to any renovation project is absolute. When she discovered that a closet that had been added in the master bedroom was hiding a transom window, there was no doubt in her mind which was more important: she knocked out the closet. “I would rather get rid of my clothes than not have an extra window,” she says. “I wanted to see the house as it was originally built.”
Somewhere, hopefully, Finkelhor is smiling.

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