Paradise above the Sea: Villa Leon

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
Photos by Douglas Hill Photography

In 1974, inspired by the Villa dei Papyri at Herculaneum, J. Paul Getty commissioned the opulent Getty Villa to house his museum, only to die without ever seeing it in person.

Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, through his folly, expedient ambition and lavish spend- ing on the Villa d’Este in Italy, never fully settled in his 16th-century masterpiece.

Throughout history, we’ve had examples like this, where various circumstances, such as time, illness, money and political winds, undercut grandiose plans.

Exterior view of the Villa de Leon and the coastline of Pacific Palisades, Topanga and beyond from Porto Marina Way. The cover features an ocean view from the Villa Leon.

Such was the case with the Villa (de) Leon, the Italianate palace that towers above Pacific Coast Highway, commissioned by Austrian native Leon Kauffman, but who enjoyed only a few scant years before he died.

Palisadians will have a rare opportunity to visit Kauffman’s magnificent villa that has long been the source of myth and murmur on Nov. 12, when the Pacific Palisades Woman’s Club hosts its annual Holiday Home Tour and Boutique.

Kauffman made good on a promise he made to his wife, Clemence, that if he ever had the money he would build her a dream castle by the sea. The businessman and industrial magnate had made a fortune in the wool processing business during the First World War and was able to nurture his opulent taste for antiquities of all kinds.

The entryway of the Italianate villa is framed by nude statues on tall pillars. To the left is a paved terrace with a stairway down to a terraced garden overlooking the ocean.

He hired Los Angeles architect Kenneth A. MacDonald, Jr., known for several Beaux Arts buildings in downtown L.A., to design a house on the six-lot parcel above the famous Castle and Haystack Rock formations on the coast that would take in both the ocean and surrounding mountain views.

Construction began in 1926 and took five years to complete at a cost of $1 million. Each of the 35 rooms within the 10,277- sq.-ft. residence was designed to frame a spectacular view.

MacDonald fashioned the Beaux Arts design after the grand villas that dotted the Italian coast during the height of Imperial Rome. In fact, the Villa de Leon has been erroneously identified as the Getty Villa, the first-century AD replica, which is situated north and out of sight from PCH.

MacDonald enhanced the complex with terraces and formal gardens, including a classic Chinese garden. Originally, a staircase and trolley led down to the beach, but these were cut off by the extension of PCH into Malibu.

The Kauffmans decorated the interior spaces with their collection of antique furniture, sculpture and paintings, which they had amassed on their frequent trips to Europe.

Sadly, their enjoyment of the seaside villa lasted just a few short years. Clemence died in 1933 and Leon in 1935.

At that point, the Villa remained unocc pied for nearly two decades, its numerous treasures overseen by a caretaker, accompanied by his pet dog.

This 35-ft.-high, hand-stenciled ceiling is a feature of the Villa’s enormous living room.

During this time, there were several attempts to sell the house, most notably in 1949 when Prince Aly Kahn considered it for himself and his new bride, Rita Hayworth.

In 1952, the Villa was put up for auction and sold for $71,000.

Twenty years later, the house was once again occupied, this time by a born-again Christian cult, whose members were required to contribute to the service of the mortgage. All the interior items had been sold at auction.

The cult leader died in the 1990s, leaving the house once again on the market.

For the current owners Dr. Anna Fuchs, a urologist, and her father Jan Rosciszewski, purchasing the villa was kismet.

“The house had been an obsession for me from the time I was in residency at UCLA Medical School,” Fuchs says.

“We had looked in Pacific Palisades and saw the palace and I thought, ‘That’s the house for me.’ I had no idea who owned it, but when I bought it finally in 2007, eight couples had owned it. There was no furniture, just empty mattresses on the floor, no couch in the library, not even a book.”

The main room.

The Getty Trust was going to buy it, and had extensive landscaping plans, but pulled back after the protracted legal challenges to its Villa renovation, Fuchs recalls. “Even Brad Pitt was going to expand the place and rip out the old tiles.”

The Villa Leon apparently sold for $10 million in 2007.

“I didn’t have the money,” Fuchs says, “but my father said, ‘This is your destiny; buy the palace in L.A., it replaces the house we lost in World War II.’” Her father was a physicist who has made money in real estate.

A primary concern for Fuchs has been instability of the hillside the villa sits atop— a perilous perch above the highway as a consequence of the slow erosion of the palisade.

“The previous owners sued the city over the unstable hill,” Fuchs says. “We got a lot of money to repair the hillside. I redid the foundation and put in 30 caissons some 30 feet deep to bedrock.”

The intricately designed wrought-iron stair rail as executed by a craftsman, James G. Kubic, who incorporated ram heads as a witty reference to the original owner’s wool manufacturing business.

An inveterate antique collector, Fuchs has filled the villa with pieces she had sourced at auctions and the numerous dealers she knows. “My main house in Beverly Hills is filled with antiques,” she says.

These days the Villa Leon stars in its own show, having been featured in photo shoots staring such luminaries as Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon, Victoria Beckham and Robert Downey Jr.

However, Fuchs is by no means subsidizing the villa with film shoots. Sensitive to her Castellammare neighbors, she has limited the number of projects she permits (such as weddings) and has denied street closures and night filming.

While there remains much to do, Fuchs has found contentment. “I’m in heaven when I’m here.”

She will be on hand with her 11-year-old triplets on Home Tour day, serving as gracious hosts.

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