Iconic Friars Club of Beverly Hills Building Being Razed

 Chris Godley

The iconic building that once housed the Friars Club of Beverly Hills is being torn down.

Demolition of the building at 9900 Santa Monica Blvd., which housed the club until a 2007 lawsuit by the New York Friars forced the private Beverly Hills group to change its name, began this week and continued Thursday.

Milton Berle founded the club in 1947 as a West Coast outpost of the New York club. It became a showbiz hotspot, and members included Al Jolson, Jack Benny and the Rat Pack. In 1961, the Friars moved into the distinctive Santa Monica Boulevard building, known for its windowless facade.

"It's very sad, it was a wonderful place to meet and have dinner with fellow performers," said comedian Mel Brooks, who was not a member of the Friars Club but attended roughly a dozen events there over the years. "What I loved about it was the bizarre architecture -- it just looked like it was in an Ed Wood movie."

Little is known about the current owner of the property, which records indicate is Chartwell Sports Llc., a Beverly Hills official said. But that limited liability company does not appear on the California Secretary of State's online business database. According to Jonathan Lait, assistant director of community development for the city, the owner has not filed plans to replace the club's building. Chartwell could not be reached for comment.

The Friars Club -- but not the property -- was purchased in 2004 by businessman Darren Schaeffer, who planned to modernize it. According to a 2004 Los Angeles Business Journal story, Schaeffer signed a 10-year lease for use of the building. Soon after, the New York Friars sued, alleging that under Schaeffer, the club morphed from a nonprofit to a commercial enterprise that was exploiting the Friars name. The New York group won and the club's name was changed to Club 9900 in 2008, then shuttered soon thereafter. It is unclear if Schaeffer is still involved with the property; he also could not be reached comment.

Unlike the city of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills does not have an ordinance that protects historic buildings from being demolished or significantly altered. Lait said that the building had been cataloged by the city as part of a historic resources inventory, but Beverly Hills' review power over the property extends only to instances in which a new development would replace the building, and not demolition.

"The property owners filed for a demolition permit, and there is no discretionary judgment used in issuing the permit," Lait said. "We certainly did talk with representatives of the property owner when they came in; we said, 'Hey, it's on this inventory.' We asked if they were thinking about (developing) a project, they said, 'We don't have anything.' "

Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, said the Friars Club building is significant for its Hollywood history and its architectural pedigree. It was designed by Sidney Eisenshtat, the late Los Angeles architect known for the design of several landmark synagogues in the area.

"The idea of the Friars Club is very unique itself, and when you put it in the larger landscape, it makes it such a significant loss because it's such an L.A. institution," Fine said.

While Los Angeles is not without a private club that caters to the Hollywood crowd -- an outpost of the well-known SoHo House opened in West Hollywood last year -- Brooks said the Friars Club was a different sort of place. "We just don't have it (anymore)," the 84-year-old director, screenwriter and producer said. "Where am I going to go tonight where I'd be assured of running into Don Rickles?"

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