The failure of the Strada Vecchia design was particularly heartbreaking, because Wallace Neff (the home’s designer) was working with one of the most dramatic lots in Bel-Air: a slightly triangular, four-acre parcel bounded by Strada Vecchia Road on the north and Bel-Air Road on the east. This was one of the parcels subdivided from Alphonzo Bell’s Capo di Monte estate (see page 372). Francis and Marguerite Browne had purchased the hillside site that had once been graced by that estate’s famed terraced gardens, and it was a true rarity in Bel-Air, a flat, two-acre knoll on which to build, which still had some of the most spectacular views in Bel-Air.
Marguerite had sketched her own design; a vast, inward-looking compound that enclosed a central courtyard and pool. The house was dominated by arcades and a broad, overhanging shingled roof. The house abounded in the latest kitchen gadgets like a dishwasher and an electric stove, an all-electric washer and dryer, and, of course, central air conditioning. Sunlight, trees for shade, and natural ventilation were all but ignored.
Neff tried to interest the Brownes in more appropriate design options. The discuss
ions got heated. Neff got nowhere. The couple wouldn’t budge. He eventually gave the Brownes what they wanted: one of his least distinguished and most forgettable homes. The residence looked like it was hunkered down on the ground, as if it was afraid to acknowledge that there was a world beyond its roof overhangs.
In 2000, the Browne residence was demolished. Nobody rallied to save the house. Virtually no one knew that it was a Neff house. Or really cared.
This time, the new residence was designed to take advantage of the site, and the results were remarkable. From the gates on Strada Vecchia Road, the long driveway passed in and out of a thick grove of California redwoods, offering one brief glimpse of the two-story white residence before the mansion came into full view.
The architectural design was a one-of-a-kind custom contemporary style with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the terraces and a circular two-story windowed rotunda looking out over the gardens and the city views. The interior was given a strong Scandinavian feeling through the use of wood, pleasing proportions, the avoidance of unnecessary ornament, and the abundance of natural light.
The two-acre flat grounds around the mansion included a large, rectangular motor court near the front door, a swimming pool and pool house, and grassy lawns, all surrounded by densely planted trees on the non-view portions of the perimeter so that the residents felt as if they were living within a forest. The placement of several pools of various sizes on the flat land around the house strengthened that feeling by conjuring up images of lakes in the wilderness.The residence was all the more dramatic looking because its white façade and expansive glass windows were such a contrast to the green lawns and surrounding trees. This four-acre estate was an oasis of quiet beauty and serenity that embraced the many advantages of this site, from its spectacular views to its rare, flat, two-acre hilltop.