'Shahs of Sunset' Stars on LA's Love and Hate Relationship With 'Persian Palaces'

Proving one man's dream is another's nightmare, real estate insiders from the Bravo show explain the manses' appeal -- even if Beverly Hills once tried curbing the over-the-top emigre architecture.
Jessica Chou

This story originally appeared in the April 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Of all the flashy excess on display on the highly controversial new Ryan Seacrest-produced Bravo series Shahs of Sunset, about a group of 90210-residing Iranian-Americans -- the clothing! the partying! the constant braggadocio about the clothing and the partying! -- it might just be the super-steroidal Beverly Hills architecture, known both pejoratively and admiringly as "Persian palaces," that hits closest to home for viewers who live on L.A.'s Westside.

Three castmembers of Shahs -- which has been criticized for allegedly perpetuating ethnic stereotypes (the West Hollywood City Council passed a resolution March 22 condemning the show) -- are employed in the local real estate game, often involved in selling and developing these boxy mansions. The houses, which tend to be built on sites after more modest abodes have been knocked down, have proliferated by the hundreds since the wealthy, primarily Jewish Iranian diaspora gravitated to the city following the 1979 revolution. Typically a blithely ahistorical mashup of Mediterranean influences, from Tuscan and French to Greek Revival, Persian palaces are known for ostentatious facades boasting soaring columns and detailed entablature, along with freestanding statues and urns. Exhibit A: 2229 Summitridge Drive, a 10,000-square-foot pile now on the market for $6.5 million, with requisite double-height entry and a swooping interior staircase.

How did the style evolve? "It's in our blood -- Cyrus the Great and things like that," says Mercedes Javid, a Keller Williams real estate agent and Shahs castmember. "Plus, it's practical, too." She's referring to the community's large extended-family celebrations, from Shabbat to birthdays. Explains Reza Farahan, Javid's colleague and co-star on the show: "Dynasty is the quintessential Persian lifestyle. Every Persian parent dreams of having a house the size of that mansion so all of their kids and grandchildren can live under one roof."

The first Persian palaces materialized in Beverly Hills' Trousdale Estates, an enclave of single-story Modernist homes that began development in 1954. The new homeowners loved the views and open floor plans but didn't appreciate the existing architecture, ornamenting work by Welton Becket and Cliff May with marble facades and Roman molding on the rooflines. But when the likes of Simon Cowell and Courteney Cox bought into the neighborhood with an interest in restoring the original midcentury designs, prompting prices to rise exponentially, many Iranian-Americans moved out.

"They realized: 'These houses that we paid six, seven, eight, $900,000 for? You want your midcentury modern? Take it,' " says Farahan. "You wave seven, eight, $9 million, and they're gone in a heartbeat." That led to a further increase in building in the Beverly Hills flats, where a good bit of the area's original architecture -- like George Gershwin's Spanish Colonial residence at 1019 N. Roxbury Drive -- had already been torn down or heavily modified in favor of the palace style. Traditionalist neighbors claimed the look was lacking in taste, while newcomers responded that such criticism was rooted in xenophobia. In 2004, the city's Design Review Commission effectively banned Persian palace construction by enforcing new restrictions on over-the-top ornamentation. "Now the ones from before are just more coveted," says Javid, who has seen strong resale value within the community.

As it happens, the restrictions took effect as a second generation of Iranian-Americans -- the first to grow up in L.A. -- began buying and building homes in Beverly Hills, where the Persian population is estimated at 20 percent, as well as farther west in Brentwood and Pacific Palisades. "Younger Iranian couples don't like their columns in the same way as their parents," says Sammy Younai, a residential developer and Shahs castmember whose projects have sold for as high as $10 million. Adds another real estate agent, Afa Shafa of Coldwell Banker: "Their tastes have become 100 times more Americanized. They are more interested in contemporary." (Farahan, for instance, whose favorite architect is Richard Neutra, specializes in contemporary showstopper listings.)

Those still devoted to building "classic" Persian palaces have, since 2004, drifted to an adjacent tract known as Beverly Hills Post Office, whose residents include Britney Spears and Demi Moore. Located in L.A. and thus outside the Design Review Commission's reach, it shares its neighbor's status-bestowing ZIP code. "In Post Office, there are very limited restrictions on design," says Hamid Omrani, a prolific palace developer who has built 30 of them in BHPO during the past decade. "You can do what you want and have a beautiful view."

As controversial as the style has been, it has defenders, including Los Angeles magazine's architecture writer Greg Goldin, who described the palaces as "a source of outsider cosmopolitanism" whose owners "want to enliven their surroundings by plucking familiar images from the glories of architectural history and turning them into a kind of gold-leafing." Farahan goes further: "The way people appreciate [architects] Hal Levitt and A. Quincy Jones, in 20, 30 years there is going to be a movement for Persian Jewish Renaissance Revival architecture." Not everyone's buying it. Counters Iranian-American architect Hamid Gabbay, who chaired the Design Review Commission in 2004: "It was always a hodgepodge. It never looked good. It's not a style that will be discovered again."

Nonetheless, there is one group, explains Younai, which in recent years has already discovered the pleasures of these houses: deep-pocketed Asian investors from overseas. "You know who loves those columns and that grandeur?" he says. "The Chinese and the Koreans!"

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ELEMENTS OF A STYLE

Classical Rooflines: Featuring friezes, parapets and cornice moldings. "This isn't something Persians invented when they got here. Think Persepolis, that use of stone," says Reza Farahan, a real estate agent at Keller Williams and star of Shahs of Sunset.

Greek Columns: Revivalist style, always. In the case of renovated houses, they are often added to the facade.

Double-Height-Entryways: A suitably august welcome, often leading into a grand double staircase, for the sheer awe factor.

Status Statues: Prominent displays of antique (or at least antiquity-referencing) figures that signify a direct link to a storied cultural past.

Ornate Gilded Gates: Not for protection, just ornamentation. "Let's be real -- it's Beverly Hills," says Farahan. "It's one of the safest neighborhoods in the world. But we Persians do love our decorative gold."

Maximized Size: The homes, typically built on property where much smaller residences once stood, often dwarf their older neighbors.

Mega Marble: It's essential on the houses' interior floors. But the truly bold go much further, taking it outside by cladding the facades.