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Is Bigger Really Better in Land of Conspicuous Consumption?

May 16, 1988

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) _ In a money-is-no-object land rush, big egos and bigger bucks are tearing down grand but aging estates on the world’s highest-priced real estate to make room for lavish super-shrines.

The wealthy so-called Golden Triangle area - Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Brentwood - roars and rumbles and rings with the din of bulldozers and power saws.

Some residents consider the new megamansions architectural obscenities. The enormous $12 million palace under construction for television mogul Aaron Spelling is bigger than the White House and has been dubbed ″The Hilton″ by disgusted neighbors.

″Our peaceful neighborhood has been shattered,″ said one, J.P. Guerin.

″It’s ostentatious and over-consumption,″ added another, Audrey Irmas, who won a court injunction limiting construction hours and the number of trucks permitted at the site. ″The Spellings are very self-centered to come in and destroy a neighborhood like this.″

Mrs. Irmas called the mansion, which includes a bowling alley and an entire floor of closets, ″the mental institution, because you’d have to be crazy to build something like that.″

″That’s nothing,″ said Elaine Young of the real estate firm Alvarez, Hyland and Young. ″The biggest monument is going to be by the Sultan of Brunei behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. He’s torn down five houses for a palace.″

One was the estate of actor James Coburn, she said, adding: ″He (the sultan) paid full price, $5 million, and it’s a teardown.″

Sentiment or nostalgia hold no sway in high-stakes real estate. Homes once owned by James Cagney, Bing Crosby and others have crumbled beneath bulldozer treads. Crosby’s estate was just part of the property Spelling leveled for his project.

″Everything is emotional. They want it, they buy it,″ said Ms. Young. ″Nobody does a square footage cost on properties here anymore.″

Beverly Hills, where property value within the 5.6-square-mile city limits is estimated at more than $5 billion, issued permits for 28 teardown projects in 1985, 43 in 1986 and 51 last year, said city spokesman Fred Cunningham. Fourteen have been granted so far this year.

The trend is to buy a ″bargain basement″ house for $1 million or more, raze it and build a grand, gated kingdom.

″They are buying these charming homes and ripping them down and building these things,″ said Mrs. Irmas.

A new law allows a structure to occupy a maximum 55 percent of the property. ″Some of these were really out of scale in the neighborhood and we put in an emergency ordinance to stop it,″ Cunningham said.

Architect Cliff May, father of the California ranch-style house, is a critic of the huge projects.

″Good architecture is something that fits in the neighborhood, but nowadays, many architects are building monuments to their clients and the homes look like castles and mausoleums,″ May said.

Talk show host and producer Merv Griffin has also plowed money into real estate. A few years ago he spent $5 million, modest by Beverly Hills standards, on a four-acre stone mansion and completely refurbished it.

Now he’s carving out a homesite on 150 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains near the Benedict Canyon homes of Ann-Margret and Cher. Earth-moving equipment is readying a 16-acre plateau for a Palladian villa.

Author Sidney Sheldon bought a Sunset Boulevard teardown for his future mansion, to be called Rose Hill.

The megamansion brouhaha is not confined to the Golden Triangle. On the exclusive Palos Verdes peninsula overlooking the Pacific, the 49-room Via Visalia estate owned by Dennis and Mary Ellen Hardin has provoked interest in an ordinance to limit structure size. The home has been dubbed the ″Visalia Sheraton″ by angry neighbors.

″I enjoyed not looking at all this,″ said neighbor Beth Pinkley, who complains the house, with turrets, pillars and an ornate brick and stone wall is an eyesore. It lures unsavory ″looky-loos,″ she said. ″It puts us at risk.″

Elsewhere in Southern California, refurbishing old mansions - as opposed to tearing them down - remains in vogue, particularly those with plenty of square footage to knock around in. Examples include The Knoll, a 35,000-square-foot estate remodeled by Kenny Rogers and sold for $22 million to oilman Marvin Davis, and the Kirkeby, the old ″Beverly Hillbillies″ estate undergoing extensive remodeling by TV producer Jerry Perenchio.

″He stole that place for $13.5 million. It was the best buy in town and will be worth $25 million when he’s finished,″ Ms. Young said of the Kirkeby.

In the shadow of the Kirkeby is the modest $2.5 million home where President and Mrs. Reagan will likely spend their post-White House years. The value of the properly alone is estimated at almost $3 million.

Ms. Young said investors from all over the country are showing up ″with suitcases full of money.″

″They don’t even haggle over price,″ she said. ″You’ve got a lot of people who have made money and this is a place to dispose of it. Homes are much more important here than they are in New York, and here people are much more into show.

″This is a definite show town. Everybody is trying to outdo their neighbor, from cars to houses to designers to everything.″

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