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Why Century City Ranks Among the Worst Real Estate Deals in Hollywood History

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Century City Aerial - H 2013

Fifty years ago, the ribbon was cut on the Gateway West Building, the culmination of a Hail Mary plan by 20th Century Fox to cover "Cleopatra's" runaway budget by selling its 260-acre backlot for $50 million -- land that's worth billions today.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Today, it is hard to imagine Los Angeles, and Hollywood in particular, without Century City. The town's apex of wheeling-and-dealing, the 260-acre area just east of the 405 is now home to the glittery headquarters of entertainment companies, from top agencies like CAA to A-list law firms such as Ziffren Brittenham.

PHOTOS: Century City at 50

But before the ribbon was cut on the first Century City tower 50 years ago on Sept. 25, it was all just fiction -- the harebrained idea of Fox studio executives who, cash-strapped during the runaway $44 million budget production of Cleopatra, set out to sell the studio's backlot to be redeveloped into a bold mix of retail, entertainment and residential buildings. At a total development cost of $300 million ($2.4 billion today), it would become the largest privately financed urban development in the nation at the time.

Amazingly, the real story of how Century City ultimately came to be is one little known in Hollywood history, and it began in 1956 with a nighttime phone call from then-Fox president Spyros Skouras, 63, to his nephew-in-law, Edmond Herrscher, 60, who had experience in commercial real estate and had just departed as head of the local Mayfair Market chain. On the phone, Skouras confided that he'd been thinking about developing Fox's backlot, which lay between Santa Monica and Pico boulevards, just west of the City of Beverly Hills boundary. The studio, founded in 1915, had purchased the Westside parcel three decades earlier for $1.5 million from cowboy actor Tom Mix, who'd used it as a ranch.

Skouras could use the cash (the business' consolidated net earnings that year, in that hobbled post-studio system era, were just slightly more than $6 million), and he was looking to jimmy up the value of the land. Herrscher had simple advice -- to think very, very big -- and Skouras asked him to come aboard immediately as the studio's director of property development. "This would be a good place," Herrscher thought to himself in accepting, "to start something to show the world that when a man reaches 60, he is not finished."

A lawyer in his youth who'd ballroom danced competitively against Fred Astaire and romanced socialite Peggy Guggenheim, Herrscher had a habit of finding his way into lucratively beneficial business arrangements through the happenstance of his successive wives. His first marriage brought about a stint running a family sugar plantation in Maui. The second, a high-end grocery store chain in the Bay Area. And the third saw him tying the knot with the younger Winnie Skouras, the favorite niece of the Fox boss. (It's perhaps not for nothing that he considered titling his never-completed memoir Intrepid Angler.)

The next day, Herrscher came to Skouras' expansive office on the first floor of the studio's Executive Building fronting Pico. Fueled by the region's 1950s-era boomtown ambition, the duo originally planned for Fox to develop Century City itself. Amid a discordant decor of midcentury Las Vegas furniture and Impressionist paintings, Herrscher pitched his new boss on an acquaintance, in-demand L.A. architect Welton Becket, as the master planner. Becket was hot off the Beverly Hilton and Capitol Records building. In those years, business clients loved him, while fellow architects considered him merely a corporate toady hopelessly devoid of an individual style. (Frank Lloyd Wright once sniffed, "I do not know Mr. Becket, but I do know of him -- and I wish something would happen to him soon.") Skouras was sold.

Becket cobbled together a $35,000 model of Century City, producing a mix of office towers, hotel rooms, skyscraping apartments and elevated public plazas. To those expressing skepticism over the project's ambitious scale, he noted that an astounding 30,000 new residents were streaming into Southern California each month. In Becket's early conception, Century City -- today regarded mostly as an architectural cipher -- split the difference between au courant modernist utopia and hard-nosed commercial investment.

STORY: CAA's Century City Office Building Listed for Sale (Exclusive)

The Brasilia-by-way-of-Stuyvesant Town aesthetic, which in Becket's telling was to include such midcentury staples of forward-thinking refinement as "subtropical landscaping" and "restaurants featuring a more or less international cuisine," would in time be punctuated with proposals of pure kitsch. These included an Arabian Nights-themed hotel featuring gondolas and colored water spouts as well as Herrscher's vision for a wide tree-lined thoroughfare, to be christened the Avenue of the Stars and studded with statues of such indigenous Fox lot mainstays as Will Rogers and Shirley Temple.

Herrscher soon installed Becket's gigantic model in his new wood-paneled Fox office, 10 feet from his kidney-shaped desk. For years, it was the sole physical manifestation of his quixotic quest as he struggled to assemble the needed financing for the gigantic development, mostly through such insurance companies as Equitable Life. Not that his top-level colleagues were in a rush to see him succeed. "Some of them were afraid if we sold the land, the studio would close and they'd all be without jobs," he would recall decades later. "So they weren't too anxious for me to get my job done."

Still, despite being seen as the distrusted non-industry outsider, he got a kick out of mingling with Fox's movie-men menagerie, particularly producer Darryl F. Zanuck. As Herrscher remembered, "He used to walk around his office there in his riding breeches with a riding crop."