King Camp Gillette dies at the age of 77 in 1932. He gave architect Wallace Neff free rein to built an expansive ranch in Calabasas, but only lived there for a few years before his death.
Tennessean Clarence Brown reigned as one of MGM’s top directors in the early 1930s, directing everything from Greta Garbo star vehicles to Joan Crawford Pre-Codes to Clark Gable romantic comedies. Looking for a ranch at which he could spread his wings, literally and figuratively, Brown purchased the lush King Gillette Ranch out in Calabasas, fit for any pasha. Brown enjoyed his little slice of paradise, helping preserve its unique character.
A bucolic wonderland in the 1920s, far from the city, Calabasas and the surrounding area of the Santa Monica Mountains lured the elite westward for rural rest and relaxation. Razor king King C. Gillette fell under the area’s spell in 1928, purchasing 640 acres on which to erect a grand hacienda by the popular architect Wallace Neff.
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Neff could be called the architect to the stars during the 1920s for his work designing elaborate mansions, many in what could be called California style, for the likes of director King Vidor, writer Frances Marion and her husband, cowboy star Fred Thomson, superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Claudette Colbert and Cary Grant.
Bon vivant Gillette enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle, thanks to his invention and manufacture of the first disposable razor blades, which went on sale in 1903. Traveling the world and dreaming of an utopian paradise that he called the “People’s Corporation,” Gillette moved to Southern California to join up with the state’s political avant-garde and socialist leader Upton Sinclair and began buying properties. Within a few years, Gillette owned a luxurious mansion near the Beverly Hills Hotel, a ranch out near a fledgling Palm Springs, a vast ranch in Tulare County and a seaside retreat in Newport Harbor before purchasing his Calabasas property.
Commissioning the refined and elegant Neff to design a stunning estate in the Spanish Colonial style, Gillette and his wife began a world cruise in 1928, leaving Neff to his own devices in designing and constructing a lavish retreat that followed his plans to the Nth degree. Six draftsmen labored six months crafting elaborate plot, furnishings and floor plans, down to the smallest detail, all fit for a king.
Neff began construction by excavating the pond, employing the dirt removed from the hole to create adobe-like brick blocks on site with which to build the home. Neff designed what author Diane Kanner calls a “picturesque version of an Andalusian village – a rural walled compound that included a master’s residence, an overseer’s quarters, stables and cellars, with eucalyptus trees flanking the entry road and ponds, weeping willows and native oak on the horizon.”
The King Gillette – Clarence Brown Home, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
This quintessential Spanish Colonial design followed some of the same elements as found in the beautiful Enchanted Hill Neff created for Marion and Thomson. Patios, loggias and porches surrounded the home, with an oval opening through a wing allowing entrance to the motor court at the rear of the home. A long, dramatic driveway with eucalyptus trees flanking it led from Mulholland Highway, past the stable/bunkhouse near the entrance, picturesque pond and outbuildings to a home featuring a tower resembling a campanile The home’s layout on the property echoed that of the Santa Monica Mountains behind it.
The thirty-room house contained walls over 2 feet thick, 113 doors carved in over 19 styles, top grade tile on the floors and in baths, an oversize tub for the large Gillette, black tile in his master bath and elegant continental furnishings. The house was built on a somewhat irregular shape resembling a W, with the open motor court on the east and a semi-enclosed patio with fountain was situated on the west side of the home with a fountain and view of the mountains.
The patio of the ranch, via Photoplay, 1937.
Gillette had little time to enjoy his hacienda when he arrived in the United States in 1929 after becoming ill on the cruise. The former razor magnate died in the home Saturday, July 9, 1932, of an intestinal illness. Thanks to arguments over Gillette’s estate and the repressed financial situation in the country, the vast acreage failed to sell until May 20, 1935 (recorded September 7), when newspapers reported that rugged director Clarence Brown had purchased the property and 360 surrounding acres during an auction. The September 10 Los Angeles Times reported the sales price as $500,000 for what many described as a horse breeding facility for the director, but the historic survey by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy lists a price of only $38,250.00. The purchase included billiard table, pipe organ, and outbuildings. Brown hired Neff and Viennese architect Paul Laszlo to modify the interior furnishings, adding a screening room as well. A tennis court, swimming pool, and airstrip and hanger were also new additions. A visiting journalist described the home as “Spanish Renaissance in motif, spacious and beautifully paneled rooms led to a sunlit patio, where tall, graceful arches framed a picture of acres and acres of trees and lawn, rolling to a rambling lake below, while beyond were deep blue mountains.”
Over the next 17 years, entertainment magazines featured some layouts of the home as architectural ones had done upon completion of construction in the late 1920s. Photos by MGM portrait photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull revealed the mansion’s simple but elegant layout and beauty. Other images showcased gentleman farmer and he man Brown working his property, doing everything from repairing his barbecue, trimming trees, changing locks, planting crops, making repairs, checking his horses and chickens, or even flying in and out in his private airplane. In 1939, Brown updated his hanger to a more modern concrete and steel facility, while adding a bomb shelter in the basement.
Several images displayed Brown in his favorite pastime, barbecuing with his giant grill, which he often did for cast parties as well as elaborate July 4 birthday celebrations for MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. Proud Tennessean Brown also hosted the Tennessee Volunteers football team to an outdoor cookout on December 26, 1939 as they prepared for that year’s Rose Bowl. The July 13, 1941 Los Angeles Times even featured barbecue recipes from the famed director.
Besides entertaining, Brown also occasionally employed his ranch as a shooting location, filming scenes from such films as “Edison the Man” here.
The grounds of the King Gillette-Clarence Brown ranch offered sweeping views of the mountains, as shown in a photo from Architectural Digest, 1928.
After divorcing his wife, the former silent film actress Alice Joyce, in 1945, Brown spent less and less time in Calabasas as he and his new wife retired and purchased property near Palm Desert. In 1952, Brown sold the ranch to the Claretian order (Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Rome), which created the Claretville Seminary to train missionaries, adding a large training facility in 1954. They added a building containing library and dormitory in 1961, along with a large addition to the house as well.
In 1971 St. Thomas Aquinas College opened on the property when the school leased space from the seminary. The Claretian Order attempted to sell the property in 1972, and finally found a buyer in 1977 when Elizabeth Clair’s Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant purchased the tract and later opened their own college. They sold to Soka University in 1986, who operated their own facility here until 2007 when the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy finally purchased the acreage, which they had considered for years. It now serves as offices for the group, which employs the original stable as their visitors’ center. They allow filming on the property, and for several years the show “the Biggest Loser” has shot at a facility on the grounds.
Still as gorgeous and regal as ever, what was formerly King Gillette and Clarence Brown’s Spanish Colonial fiefdom is now public property as part of Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, offering an area at which to picnic or hike. The estate hearkens back to the romantic days of California’s Spanish past, a gorgeous oasis of beauty and peace.