A sketch of the “The Witch’s House” by Charles Owens from “Nuestro Pueblo,” courtesy of Mary Mallory
Once upon a time, home design and architecture saluted fantasy and make-believe, and not just in fiction. Bilbo Baggins and lucky leprechauns resided in twee little bungalows, short, off-kilter, hutch-like, but so did imaginative and childlike Los Angeles residents of the 1920s. Storybook architecture, dreamed up and promoted by film industry veterans, flourished near movie studios, magical little Brigadoon-like structures.
A strong proponent of storybook design was Hollywood art director Harry Oliver. Noted for his work as art director on films “7th Heaven” (1927) and “Street Angel” (1928). Oliver merrily dreamed up colorful structures on the side, like the famous Van de Kamp’s windmills and Los Feliz’s Tam-o-Shanter restaurant. Another whimsical structure, however, remains his most famous design, the Witch’s House in Beverly Hills.
A postcard of the “Witch’s House” is listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $10.97.
Oliver began working as a printer’s devil as a child and came to California as a theatrical scenery painter in 1908. By 1919, he was working for film director Irvin Willat as a technical director. Starting as a cameraman in New York’s fledgling film industry in 1908, Willat moved from studio to studio until he ended up as an integral lenser for producer Thomas Ince, especially on films like “Civilization” (1916) and “False Faces” (1919). Willat shot atmospheric films and devised intricate visual effects for the times as well, and sometimes edited the pictures on which he worked.
Willat directed the film, “Behind the Door” in 1919, on which Oliver served as technical director. Admiring Oliver’s work, Willat employed him as technical director on two more pictures that year, “Below the Surface” and “Down Home.”
When it came time to design an administration building for his new Irvin Willat Productions in February 1920, the director turned again to Oliver. Oliver’s playful design appeared on the March 1920 cover for the Home Designer magazine, a gabled, angular cottage with thatched roof straight out of “Snow White” or “Hansel and Gretel.” By April 15, 1921, the studio was virtually completed, and the dreamy building appeared as a set in the film “The Face of the World,” starring Barbara Bedford and Edward Hearn.
Unfortunately, Willat quickly ran into financial problems and by 1922 folded his company. The sweet structure was employed as a set for several years, until journeyman film director/producer Ward Lascelle purchased it. Lascelle, who entered the film business working for Fine Arts Studio and D.W. Griffith, acquired property in Beverly Hills at Carmelita Drive and Walden Drive in 1925, and realized that the colorful building would draw attention as his personal residence.
The March 1925 Photoplay magazine called the building, “An artistic structure, one might say, almost futuristic, all gables and gables and gables.” The magazine related that Lascelle bought a lot in Beverly Hills, and “he went to Willat and purchased his studio’s main administration building. He moved it gables and all…” to his property.
New Movie Magazine featured the house in its September 1930 issue, describing it as a “Witch’s House,” and giving a little history. “A strange Mother Goose creation of broken roof lines and eerie windows, this house was the studio of Irwin (sic) Willat. When he abandoned picture production, the structure was moved to Beverly Hills, where it is now the residence of Ward Lascelles (sic), another picture executive.”
The Green family and others owned it over the years, and by 1980, the home contained 12 rooms in 3,700 square feet, including wet bar, wine cellar, three fireplaces, maid’s quarters, three bedrooms, and four bathrooms. The home also appeared in at least two other films, “The Loved One,” and “Clueless.”
A popular tourist attraction today, “The Witch’s House” represents the perfect whimsical and spooky Halloween residence, a proper abode for such popular culture witches as Witch Hazel or Wicked Witch of the West.