Samuel-Novarro House – Not So Secret Obsession

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I first saw photographs of this house years ago in the April 1994 Architectural Digest at the antique store where I worked.  I fell in love with it and it’s story.  I am pretty sure that is when I first realized that I was a hopeless architecture fanboy and real estate stalker.  It sold just recently and I hope it found another great caretaker.

Samuel-Novarro House
1928 – Lloyd Wright
5609 Valley Oak Drive – map
Declared Los Angeles City Landmark: 7/17/74

Designed by Lloyd Wright (that’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s son) in the late 1920s for MGM star Ramon Novarro’s then personal secretary, Louis Samuel, the unusual residence known as the Samuel-Novarro House is located in the Oaks neighborhood of the Los Feliz Hills, the eastern section of the Hollywood Hills.

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The Samuel-Novarro House was initially supposed to have been a small one-bedroom dwelling for Samuel — Novarro’s intimate companion in the late 1910s — but the layout was considerably expanded following Samuel’s marriage in 1929. In order to help pay for the mortgage, Samuel, relying on the assistance of an investor brother, embezzled money from Novarro’s holdings to gamble in the stock market. The market crash in late 1929 and the bear market that followed throughout much of 1930 wiped out Samuel’s investments.

Despite being devastated by Samuel’s betrayal, Novarro, who had been left with $160 on his bank account, opted not to press charges. The star of Ben-Hur and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg was then at the height of his fame. Musicals were in vogue at the dawn of the talkie era, and Novarro had a pleasant singing voice; the last thing he needed was a potentially career-damaging scandal.

samuel novarro 2Novarro did, however, take over the Los Feliz Hills home. After some extensively remodeling, he moved into the premises in 1932. The description below is from my Ramon Novarro bio Beyond Paradise:

samuel Novarro 4On the outside, the  Oak house was an imposing structure. Located on a slope overlooking one of the Hollywood Hills canyons, it extended from its lower level on [Valley] Oak Road to its uppermost level and main gateway on [Verde] Oak. The outside walls were white concrete partially shielded by patterned copper bands reminiscent of Mesoamerican temples, with a hollow block within the reinforced concrete that theoretically made the house earthquake-proof. From the gateway, a flight of Nile green steps led down the terraced gardens to a blue-toned guest room immediately above the main house, which could be reached by a further staircase.

samuel-Novarro 3With the assistance of MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, Novarro devised the modernistic (and gaudy) interior, most of it furnished with pieces from the luxurious Bullock’s Wilshire. The centrally located beige library boasted a panoramic view of the canyons and was used as a drawing room for cocktails served on metal tables set before futuristic loungers. The dining room, on a slightly lower level to one side of the library, had black walls which set off strands of dull silver chains; the dining table was of frosted metal with a black satin cover, an onyx-glass tabletop, and aluminum legs. To the other side of the library was the bedroom, with pale green walls and dark green furniture that included a built-in dressing table and desk. At the end of the room, French doors opened to a swimming pool lined with Nile green tiles and surrounded by white concrete walls.

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The music room, where Novarro sang accompanied by friends at the piano, was underneath the dining room. Dull gold and bronze furniture and walls were covered by a rose brocade with a design akin to the copper motif found on the outside walls. This color scheme was contrasted by the whiteness of a polar bear rug and several light-colored pieces of woodwork. Adjoining the music room was a cocktail bar, and on the same floor, but reached through a separate entrance, were the servant’s quarters and a passage leading down to the garage.

Novarro would sell the house in late 1938, when he traded it for several lots in the San Fernando Valley. In 1944, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green rented the Los Feliz Hills house, where they worked on the Broadway musical On the Town.

Thirty years later, on July 17, 1974, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board declared the house a historic-cultural monument. It became officially known as the Samuel-Novarro House. In the early 1990s, architect Josh Schweitzer extensively renovated the place for Diane Keaton. She sold it in mid-decade.

In 2005, Christina Ricci bought the property, but turned around and sold it the following year.

According to the property listing, the current owner has meticulously restored the residence to its former glory. The historic 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom home has concrete floors and dramatic windows and skylights. Part of the property’s allure is its exotic grounds, which include a partially covered pool, bamboo tree-lined sitting area and jasmine-covered walkway.

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