Lloyd Wright’s Samuel-Novarro House is back in the market, as per Curbed Los Angeles. Located in the Los Feliz Hills, the eastern section of the Hollywood Hills, the house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright in the late 1920s. In order to pay for Wright’s services, personal secretary Louis Samuel embezzled money from the financial holdings of his boss, Hollywood star Ramon Novarro (photo), to gamble in the stock market. Novarro had had such confidence in Samuel that he had given his former dance classmate/intimate companion power of attorney over his financial affairs. The market crash in late 1929 and the extended bear market that followed wiped out Samuel’s investments.
As I wrote in Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, upon discovering he didn’t have enough funds to buy a new car, “the star who had made $248,000 in 1928, $170,000 in 1929, and $125,000 for his latest picture [respectively, approx. $3.3 million, $2.2 million, and $1.6 million in 2011 dollars] immediately called his bank. He was informed he had a total of $160 in his account.”
Though devastated by Samuel’s betrayal, Novarro opted not to press charges. The star of Scaramouche, Ben-Hur, and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg was then at the height of his fame. Musicals were in vogue at the dawn of the talkie era, and Novarro had a pleasant singing voice; the last thing he needed was a potentially career-damaging scandal.
Instead, Novarro took over the Los Feliz Hills home. After some extensively remodeling – including some interior-decorating assistance from MGM’s Cedric Gibbons – he moved into the modernistic premises in 1932. That same year, Novarro received $30,000 from the Internal Revenue Service for “overassessment of income tax and interest” as a result of his embezzlement losses, but still refused to divulge Samuel’s name to the press.
Prior to moving to the Hollywood Hills, Novarro had mostly been living with his large – and quite traditional – Mexican family in the West Adams District, a couple of miles west of downtown Los Angeles. As Novarro explained at the time, “I had to get away from home, to live alone in a house of my own. I had to cater to whims and notions of my own that would be impossible for others to live with. For instance, I am frequently seized with a sudden desire to play my piano when I am somewhere en route between my bath and my bedroom, clad as God made me. Now, living alone, I can gratify this desire.”
Ramon Novarro swimming photo: Matias Bombal Collection.
When then-resident Christina Ricci, who reportedly had been living with Adam Goldberg, put the Samuel-Novarro House on the market in 2006, I posted a detailed description of its original setup, culled from Beyond Paradise.
Ramon Novarro (photo) continued to enjoy his nude piano playing until late 1938, when he traded the house for several lots in the San Fernando Valley. Six years later, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green rented the place, where they worked on the Broadway musical On the Town.
On July 17, 1974, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board declared the house a historic-cultural monument, officially naming it the Samuel-Novarro House. In the early 1990s, architect Josh Schweitzer extensively renovated it for Diane Keaton, who sold it in mid-decade. Ricci bought the house for $2.97 million in early 2005; she sold it about a year later for $2.8 million (her initial asking price was $3.1 million).
Shortly after the house went up for sale in early 2006, a Curbed Los Angeles writer described their experiences after visiting it:
I nearly cried at the open house Sunday. Once all white walls and concrete floors, letting green painted wood work and the hammered-cooper friezes and panels provide contrast and impact, the new owners had “remodeled” terribly, putting garish flocked wall paper on the master bedroom wall and painting everything else in dark, somber colors including blacks. It feels more drug den than architectural masterpiece.
The reason as to why the house was back on the market was explained as “the owners are separated and now need to sell.” Is it possible that one of those souls realized what was being done and bailed out of anger or embarrassment? [I’ve used italics to replace the original article’s bold font]
As per reports about the sale, the house has been “meticulously restored.”
In a curious coincidence, the Samuel-Novarro House was put on the market on Nov. 1 – 43 years and one day after Novarro’s bloodied body was found in his Laurel Canyon residence, in the western section of the Hollywood Hills. The following year, two young brothers, Tom and Paul Ferguson, were tried and convicted of his murder.
Lloyd Wright House photos: Courtesy of the Matias Bombal Collection