Cats have nine lives. People often experience second or third acts in their lives or careers. Some homes have multiple lives as well, like Villa Aurora, which has experienced three diverse lives, bringing knowledge and refuge to those who come through its doors. Opened in 1928, the Villa began life as a Los Angeles Times Demonstration Home, later housed German Jewish expatriates Lion and Maria Feuchtwanger, and now serves as residence for fellowship artists from around the world to freely create new works.
In the Oct. 1, 1926, Los Angeles Times, Santa Monica Judge Arthur A. Weber, George W. Ley, Edward Haas, and other investors announced they had spent $3 million to acquire 847 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean over what was then called Beverly Boulevard (now Sunset Boulevard), not far from Ocean Highway, to establish Miramar Estates. Their development would offer homes reminiscent of the Mediterranean because of the property’s gorgeous panoramic views that resembled those of Naples or Nice. Mark Daniels, former assistant secretary of in the Interior, superintendent of national parks, and renowned Los Angeles architect of what is now Hotel Bel-Air, the clubhouse of Hollywood Riviera Beach Club, and many Bel-Air homes, was hired to design homes in the development.
While MGM director Robert Z. Leonard bought one of the $10,000 lots and constructed a home in Miramar, homes were slow to sell. In the summer of 1927, the developers persuaded the Los Angeles Times to come in with them and build a gorgeous $100,000, 6,700-square-foot demonstration home in the development, one to show off elegant Mediterranean/Spanish architecture and luxurious furnishings provided by local designers and businesses, to lure visitors and buyers to the area. In effect, The Times would provide more than nine months advertorial space to promote the beauty and exclusiveness of Miramar Estates to its readers, pushing the comfort, elegance, beauty, decoration, harmony and character of the building and site.
Elaborate groundbreaking ceremonies were held Aug. 28, 1927, with speakers like Seward Simons of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, acting Los Angeles Mayor William Bonelli, Santa Monica Mayor Herman Michel, Irving Smith, Los Angeles Times advertising manager, representatives from the Los Angeles Realty Board, and Pacific Electric, along with special performances by local music hall performers and Spanish dancers.
The Times announced that the purpose of the demonstration home was “to embody in every detail and appointment the best in material and workmanship that human ingenuity and artistic sense have been able to devise…. It will be a master dwelling especially adapted to the Southern California climate to California conditions and will be built on a typical California site.”
The paper began running weekly stories detailing the construction process of the 520 Paseo Miramar home, managed by contractor Ley Constructors, Inc.: reporting on everything from receiving permits, grading, laying foundations, raising the frame, adding sewers, electricity, painting, furnishings, etc. Besides updates in the paper, visitors could tour the site every Sunday during construction. The occasionally pretentious stories promoted the professional work by each vendor, designer, or provider, noting how middle-class readers could adopt or adapt each of these steps in construction of their own dream homes.
The double-thick walled house contained many elaborate and unique features: a “burglar-proof, insect-proof, fireproof vault” for furs, electric dishwasher and refrigerator, incinerator, three-car garage with an automatic door that could be opened inside the home as well as outside, and a $15,000 pipe organ built by Artcraft Organ Co. of Santa Monica with an echo unit across the living room. As The Times called it, “an ideal dwelling of pleasant surprises.”
Many of the rooms possessed original and distinctive painted wood ceilings copying those of chapels and cathedrals of Spain, overlaid with gold leaf and hand-applied colors. Handmade tiles and mosaics decorated outdoor walls and baths.
After construction was completed, developers opened the home for daily tours from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., on April 29, 1928, for three weeks, extended for a fortnight more. The home was filled with antiques provided by Beaux Art Antiques Shop, hand-carved furniture from Jack Rennick, paintings from the New House galleries, food in the pantry provided by Safeway Stores, and Cadillac-provided cars sitting in the garage. Visitors came from all 48 states, Paris, London and Vienna, totaling almost 100,000 in all. Special experts provided daily talks on decoration, landscaping, furnishings, etc., led by architect Daniels.
Unfortunately, after all the hype, hyperbole, and tours, no one stepped forward to buy the home. It sat empty during the Depression, before developer Weber finally stepped forward to purchase it in 1934. The family lived there for several years, before financial problems hit them in 1939.
Illustrated advertisements in the Jan. 21, 1940, Los Angeles Times trumpeted, “It is one of the showplaces of the Palisades” in announcing the Jan. 22 and 23, 1940, auction of the $125,000 furnished home. Everything was for sale: home, Persian carpets, sterling, bronzes, furniture, the organ, a library of several hundred volumes and a large stamp collection – to cover encumbrances of $10,000. Mr. and Mrs. Morris Kaplan won the auction, but were forced to put it up for auction again on July 1 and 2 of that year, once again to pay the encumbrance. No one bid, and the house stood empty. Villa Aurora’s second life began when rescuing angels Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger stepped forward in 1943 to purchase it as their refuge from Nazi Germany.
Feuchtwanger, the son of a Jewish factory owner, had earned his doctorate before establishing the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1908. On the side, he wrote theater reviews, plays, and novels, becoming one of Weimar Germany’s most prominent intellectuals and prominent critics of Nazism. Nazis burned his home and confiscated manuscripts in 1933 while the author lectured in the United States. Unbowed, the Feuchtwangers moved to Southern France, where the Nazis caught up with them again in 1940, sending them to French concentration camps. Lion and Marta escaped from their separate prisons and were reunited in Marseille, from which they walked through the Spanish Pyrenees to Portugal, boarding a ship bound for America. The Feuchtwangers arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 and rented rooms until they acquired the lovely home in 1943.
After cleanup and renovations, the couple moved in, turning the property into a refuge for other German Jewish intellectuals, with Thomas Mann calling it “a true castle by the sea.” Such prominent artists as Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler, and Hollywood people like Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin regularly attended salons at the home. Feuchtwanger acquired another large library. Upon his death in 1958, Marta established a trust giving the home and library to USC, but allowing her to live on the property until her death at age 94 on Oct. 25, 1987.
USC professor Harold von Hofe contacted German journalists Volker Skerka and Ludwig Marcuse about organizing a drive to save the home when it appeared that USC wanted to sell it later that year. In an early form of Kickstarter, many prominent German elites and politicians joined the campaign. In 1988, the group merged with Tagesspiegel Federation in Berlin to preserve the home by founding the nonprofit group “Friends and Supporters of Villa Aurora, “ buying the home and restoring it with funds from the German Lottery Foundation and the Foreign Office. Later that year, the home earned a Cultural Heritage Landmark from the city of Los Angeles.
Villa Aurora started its third life in 1995, when it began serving as an artists’ residence for composers, writers, filmmakers and journalists on fellowship for several months’ duration. Journalists and writers threatened and forbidden freedom of expression in their own countries also won the opportunity to come practice their craft. More than 250 people have created works of art here, inspired by the gorgeous views of the Pacific and Los Angeles’ coast.
From time to time, the organization opens the home for special chamber concerts, poetry readings and film screenings, like the recently concluded Silents Salon co-sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Villa Aurora still radiates charm and beauty 85 years after construction, a refuge and inspiration for all who walk through its doors.