Sierra Towers: The Secrets of L.A.'s Strange, Sexy Celebrity Condo Building
From mainstays like Elton John, Cher and Joan Collins to newbie Lily Collins, the famous (and infamous) have loved and lived in one of L.A.'s most expensive properties.
The way real estate agent Russ Filice remembers it, one day in the early 2000s, he gave a tour of a Sierra Towers condominium to Eddie Fisher, the former teen idol and singer, and his daughters Tricia Leigh Fisher and Joely Fisher. The late entertainer's brood wanted him to move into the 31-story West Hollywood high-rise, and the visit brought back memories for Fisher, former husband to both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, then in his 70s. "When we were touring him with his daughters, he said, 'Oh, I used to party here all the time with Yul Brynner, doing cocaine.' And they said, 'We know, Dad, we know,' " Filice recalls. "I thought, 'How interesting.' If these walls could talk."
Indeed, Sierra Towers -- long the choice of Hollywood stars, rock 'n' roll gods and showbiz moguls alike -- is brimming with colorful tales that have only added to its appeal and mystique. There is no other residential building in Los Angeles that has housed such a diverse and large group of notables: former residents include David Geffen, Sidney Poitier and Lindsay Lohan (see chart below). Cher, Elton John and Joan Collins are current residents, and THR has learned that Courteney Cox recently bought a two-bedroom, upper-floor unit at the 9255 Doheny Road tower. They've all flocked to a building that is known for its jaw-dropping views, sharp midcentury architecture, discreet staff and prime location on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills at the base of the Hollywood Hills (Sierra Towers is around the corner from Soho House). The building is effectively irreplaceable because current zoning restrictions would make it difficult to build such a tower in West Hollywood, where it is the tallest building. These factors have made Sierra Towers one of L.A.'s most expensive high-rises and helped fuel an explosion in prices and interest there ever since the boom of the mid-2000s. It is one of only a handful of L.A. condo buildings where units routinely sell for more than $1,000 per square foot, an industry benchmark.
And though Fisher never wound up buying at Sierra Towers, his interest in it is illustrative: The 146-unit property appeals to all generations -- it is a place where starlet Lily Collins could share a dip in the pool or an elevator ride with Joan Collins or her Dynasty nemesis, Diahann Carroll. "You have to be in full makeup at all times when you get in the elevator -- you never know who you are going to run into," says Nikki Haskell, the StarShape diet and fitness guru and a Sierra Towers resident since 1990. She is testing the waters and has put her two-bedroom unit on the market for $3.2 million. Still, Haskell says selling it "would totally break my heart."
There are several apocryphal tales about the building's early days that only add to its legend. Residents say that the site for Sierra Towers was originally situated in Beverly Hills, but when that city balked at the proposed height, the property was annexed by Los Angeles County, which then allowed construction to move forward. There are also tales of payoffs by organized crime to neighbors in nearby buildings and houses who grumbled about their views being ruined; another story involves Frank Sinatra helping to get the building completed after construction stalled because he wanted a place for his mother to live. The building is also said to get its plural name from scuttled original plans to build a second tower. (The cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood as well as the Los Angeles Conservancy have no records or information that validate these stories.)
What is known about the building's history is much more straightforward. Sierra Towers was developed for $12 million by Walter and Leo Minskoff, whose family firm also built New York's Minskoff Theatre. The building opened in 1966, just as the adjacent Sunset Strip was roaring to life, and became the tallest residential structure in Los Angeles. The architect, Jack A. Charney, who studied under Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, said in a 1965 Los Angeles Times article that he designed the building "to take maximum advantage of views of city, mountains and ocean." To that end, units in the building, which includes one-, two- and three-bedroom residences, feature true floor-to-ceiling windows and expansive terraces.
Sierra Towers was first operated as a rental property, but following its purchase by New York real estate investor Helmsley Spear Inc., the building was converted to condominiums in 1974. Back then, a one-bedroom condo could be had for $70,500 and a three-bedroom unit for $152,500, according to a 1974 Los Angeles Times story. The building drew actors, socialites and singers; The Fugitive star David Janssen settled in, as did star jockey Willie Shoemaker and later, Tawny Kitaen.
These days, Sierra Towers condos routinely fetch prices typically reserved for houses in Beverly Hills or Brentwood. This fall, for example, Matthew Perry unloaded a two-bedroom unit for slightly less than $3 million; he had bought it from John in 2005 for $3.2 million. According to data from the Multiple Listing Service, 10 units have been sold in 2011, with an average price of $2.1 million ($1,080 per square foot). That's up from 2010, when eight were sold for an average price of $1.6 million ($850 per square foot). Still, prices are down from the boom years, when units sold for more than $2,000 per square foot; and at the height of the recession in 2009, only one unit traded hands. But Filice cautions that recent sales figures don't tell the whole story because some deals are conducted off the market and don't appear in sales databases. He said there have been three such sales this year.
Filice knows the building well. A San Francisco transplant, he bought a unit in January 2002 for $725,000 after being captivated by the views, locale and -- perhaps most of all -- an opportunity. The Sotheby's International Realty agent felt that the building, which at the time had fallen out of favor with the celebrity set, could be repositioned to a new generation of Hollywood players. He says that his grassroots advertising campaign brought a slew of new residents to the tower, transforming it into a hotspot for young Hollywood. During the past decade, Lohan and Rachel Zoe moved in, among others. In the boom years, some flippers -- including Vincent Gallo -- made a fortune, turning units quickly for profits in the millions.
Residents say that the building functions as a true community: A-listers are friendly in the hallways, quick to offer a smile or hold the elevator. "Everybody in the building has a tremendous amount of privacy -- it's not every man for himself," Haskell says. But the building's array of outsize personalities has produced memorable moments for some residents. A handful of stories, in fact, revolve around the building's elevators, of which there are just two -- an oversight by the developer that, Kitaen says, made it cumbersome to remodel her many residences (she lived in five units from the early 1980s to 2008). With only two elevators, strange trips can occur. Filice, for example, recalls one ride he took that ended with the doors opening on Lohan, clothed only in an unbuttoned men's dress shirt, in the midst of an argument with then-boyfriend Scott Storch, a record producer. (Filice, who says he has sold more than 100 units at the building, no longer lives there.) One former resident recalls working out in the gym and expecting to see a "catfight between Alex Carrington and Dominique Deveraux" -- the Dynasty characters portrayed by Collins and Carroll, respectively. (It didn't happen.)
Through the years, owners have taken advantage of the building's design to re-imagine their units. Because Sierra Towers was built with crawl space between floors, owners are afforded great flexibility in rerouting plumbing and other systems to different places in units. Among those who've put their own stamp on things: Charles S. Cohen, owner of the Pacific Design Center, who has combined three units. Cher's unit is the only two-story condo in the building -- it was previously owned by Gallo and earlier, Geffen. For his part, John has created a residence for his 10-month-old son, Zachary, that is adjacent to the singer's pad.
Kitaen, Haskell and others say the building's staff of 37 -- which includes security personnel, porters and 11 valets, distinguishes it from other high-end condo properties, including Wilshire Corridor mainstays such as the Blair House and new additions like The Century. That sentiment is echoed by Sotheby's agent Josh Greer, also a resident. "There are newer, glossier, flashier buildings on the Corridor, but they are dime-a-dozen," says Greer, who has owned several units in the tower over the years and sold seven there in the past six months. "I come home and they hand me my FedEx packages and take my car, which is perfectly washed by the valets. I am never going to leave." Of course, homeowner association dues are dear: A fee of roughly $1.20 per square foot per month means that the owner of a 2,100-square-foot, three-bedroom unit forks over about $2,520 per month. Greer likens Sierra Towers to a top-tier New York co-op, such as the Dakota. But unlike Manhattan, where there are several residential towers favored by that city's elite, in L.A., a confluence of timing, location and Hollywood glamour has allowed Sierra Towers to stand alone.
News that five units are now on the market -- including a $9.5 million penthouse -- excites Kitaen, who wishes she could return to the building she long called home. The onetime Whitesnake music video star longingly recounts her days at Sierra Towers, saying she wakes up "thinking about it every morning, going 'Goddamn it, why did I sell my place?'"
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