It’s been a busy 12 months for Wallace Neff trading. In June, designer Serge Azria plunked down $16.5 million for a 1920s Spanish home in Bel Air co-designed by Neff and John Byers and once owned by Diane Keaton. In May, Ry Cooder paid $2.5 million ($300,000 above asking) for another Spanish home built by the architect-to-the-stars of Hollywood’s golden age. In 2019, Bill Bell, an heir to the Another World soap opera fortune, and wife Maria sold a Bel Air estate, built in the 1930s for producer Sol Wurtzel, for $31 million.
Born into one of the families that founded map publishers Rand McNally, Neff, who died in 1982 at 87, is known as a creator of what’s called the California style, a mix of Spanish and broadly Mediterranean influences. Neff’s most famous commission was renovating Pickfair for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. into a grand Tudor estate.
Now, a new book, Wallace Neff (Angel City Press, $60) — written by real estate agent Bret Parsons, architect Marc Appleton and design expert Eleanor Schrader — includes the original Architectural Digest stories that ran when 28 Neff homes were built. “Neff was sublime at buildings that appear to organically emerge from the earth. He liberally used adobe, plaster, beams and tile floors, all made from ingredients available locally,” says Parsons, executive director of the architectural division at Compass Beverly Hills. The book offers peeks inside estates built for the likes of King Vidor and director Fred Niblo and houses later owned by Reese Witherspoon, James Murdoch and Madonna. It is part of a series, Master Architects of Southern California, that began with a tome on Gordon Kaufmann in 2016 (the Hancock Park house of Netflix’s Ted Sarandos was on the cover) and will continue this fall with a volume on Paul Williams, the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects.
There are two Neffs now on the market, a 1934 home (listed for $44.5 million) built for actor Fredric March and later owned by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, and a 1929 residence ($15 million) in Beverly Hills that was significantly enlarged. Parsons’ one plea to potential buyers: “If you are going to tear them down, go buy something else.” He laments the destruction of Neff homes over the years, including Pickfair (almost entirely torn down by Meshulam Riklis in 1990) and houses demolished by Jon Peters (the Vidor residence) and Paul Allen, who in 2000 took down a Beverly Hills estate called Enchanted Hill built for Hollywood couple Frances Marion and Fred Thomson in the 1920s. Says Parsons, “It was like destroying a Picasso.”
This story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.