Bird of Paradise blooms frame a front yard view of the Winter House, built in 1925, an 'old world' Mediterranean estate designed by architect Ray J. Kieffer. The home in Beverly Hills, California, is on the market for the first time in 87 years.
Los Angeles Times Enlarge
LOS ANGELES -- Crossing the threshold into the grand entry hall of the Mediterranean-style house in Beverly Hills is like stepping into a time capsule.
Up for sale for the first time since it was built in 1925 for its original owners, the elegantly understated house -- listed at $5.5 million -- doesn't ooze wealth so much as good taste and a 1920s practicality.
"There was a mind-set among the rich back then," said listing agent Bret Parsons, the founder and managing director of Aaroe Architectural. "You do it once, do it right, and that's it."
If it seems that a house built when Calvin Coolidge was president has been a long time coming on the market, it is. Seven years was the average amount of time for a homeowner to hold onto a house before selling it last year, according to the California Association of Realtors, up from five years before the housing downturn.
Nationwide, slightly more than 15 percent of owners have been in their houses at least 30 years, according to the Census Bureau.
A California bungalow built in 1912 appeared on the Multiple Listing Service in January for the first time, but agent Jimmy Ishoo said the Westlake-area house had been reworked and updated over the years.
What makes the Beverly Hills house a rarity is how much of the home is unchanged.
Guest bedroom furnishings are reflected in a mirror at the Winter House.
Los Angeles Times Enlarge
Named Winter House for its owners, insurance executive Frank Winter and his wife, Florence, the 4,748-square-foot residence remained the home of their daughter, Frances, until her death late last year at 101.
Frances Winter never married or established her own address, choosing instead to entertain in the two-story home of her parents and live out her years still sleeping in her childhood bedroom. When she could no longer handle the stairs, a bed was moved downstairs.
In contrast to the towering ceilings in the central entry hall, the adjacent library has a more human scale. Wood bookshelves, detailed in the original blueprints, line either side of the barrel-ceilinged room, and a fireplace with a tile-surround is flanked by tall windows.
Several shelves converted to a catalog system for phonograph records still contain 78s bearing the titles of waltzes and fox trots. At the time the house was built, 78 rpm was becoming the standard rotation speed for records and the Victor Orthophonic Victrola was introduced to consumers.
Next to the den is the dining room. On the floor near the head of the table is a foot button hidden beneath carpet that, when pressed, buzzes loudly in the kitchen -- signaling the help that it is time for the next course or for plates to be cleared. Another floor buzzer is in the morning room, where the family would take breakfast. Both still work.
Entered through the butler's pantry, the kitchen is a utilitarian affair with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling cupboards.
This is the sensible kitchen of owners who needn't spend much, if any, time in the room. Hired help prepared the meals and cleaned up. A dumbwaiter carried trays of food up to the bedrooms and office on the second floor.
A record storage rack with automatic push buttons to display albums is found in the library.
Los Angeles Times Enlarge
An antique Universal range and oven, with built-to-match salt-and-pepper shakers and a timer on a small shelf, still works. This model is at least 80 years old, according to the experts at Antique Stove Heaven in Harbor City, Calif.
A mirror hangs above the kitchen sink: odd placement to modern eyes but extremely practical in its day.
"When a housekeeper is working there, she can see what is going on behind," Mr. Parsons said. "She had to keep her eye on the door to the dining room at all times."
Transom windows that provide natural air conditioning sit atop the doors off the kitchen that open to a back room used for deliveries and a laundry and ironing room. A back staircase leads to a staff bedroom with bathroom.
The large living room was cooled in the summer by casement windows that crank open.
A feature found in some high-end homes of that era are copper window screens that roll up when not in use, said agent Jerry Jahn, who shares the listing with Mr. Parsons. "Copper lasts forever."
In the winter, fireplaces could take the chill off some rooms or the owners could turn on the furnace.
Located below grade in what is called a "California basement" -- just large enough for a furnace, water heater, and some storage -- sit six gravity-style heaters that rely on furnace-heated air flowing up into house.
A panel of six controls in the central hall allowed the residents to turn on the heat. Today, the old push buttons sit next to newer thermostats.
The bulk of the upstairs is devoted to three family bedrooms with private bathrooms. To enhance air circulation, the rooms are connected by doors in the bathrooms and dressing areas that could be left open.
The second-floor landing has a seating area and window seat by a wall nook for the telephone. The back of the phone box is accessible from the sleeping porch.
"It was the height of luxury to be able to take a call outside on the balcony," Mr. Parsons said.
Another phone nook is in the kitchen. A year after the Winters moved in, the first transatlantic call ever was placed from London to New York.
As high-tech as a telephone was for the time, the intercom system was simply a long pipe running from a mouthpiece in the master bathroom to the kitchen. The caller pressed a buzzer to alert the kitchen staff, then yelled into it for morning coffee to be brought up.
Through the years, the home was the site of social events recorded in the Los Angeles Times archives. Florence Winter hosted alumni and faculty of the Marlborough School at a tea in 1928. Frances Winter also made the society pages, frequently with her Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters from UCLA.
Designed by prolific architect Ray J. Kieffer, the estate has no swimming pool but includes a tennis court. The sport was all the rage in the 1920s as tennis skirt lengths rose from the ankle to the knee.
These days, Julie Lemos, the caretaker who lived with Frances Winter during the decade before her death, is the sole occupant of the 87-year-old house. She and her bichon frise, Einstein, remain in residence while it is on the market and Winter's heirs -- children of distant cousins -- settle the estate.
Ms. Lemos was present during a recent open house to answer questions and proudly show off the place. Among the looky-loos was Shawn Far, who works in the apparel industry and is restoring his own vintage house nearby. Mr. Far planned to recommend the Beverly Hills house to a like-minded friend who, he said, would "bring it back to life."
Contractor Sally Sherman, a former architectural commissioner for the city of Beverly Hills, said the first thing she'd recommend to a buyer would be to upgrade the electrical and plumbing systems.
"I hope it will go to someone who loves it," she said, "and restores it."
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