By Anthony Paletta
There’s something very “Hollywood” about a Norman revival home perched atop a beachside cliff in southern California. In this case, it’s a particularly fitting association as this six-bedroom house was once owned by screen legend Bette Davis. The star of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Now, Voyager lived here between 1947 and 1950, during which time she made the Oscar-winning All About Eve (pictured, above).
The house, 1991 Ocean Way, was recently renovated and is on the market for $17mn, but it is still possible to read a “D” (for Davis) emblazoned on a coat of arms in stained glass on the front door.
Laguna Beach has long been a favourite spot for actors, with Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland all having had weekend homes in the area. But although Davis’s daughter Barbara Davis Sherry (now the author and pastor, BD Hyman) was born while the actress was living here, the three years she spent in the house were not always happy. Her husband, artist William Grant Sherry was often abusive and as Davis quipped to biographer Charlotte Chandler, “We lived happily never after.” They would divorce in 1950.
The house, however, was much more of a success than the marriage. Davis described the home to famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as “a dream . . . filled with antiques, wood-panelled walls, and all my beloved books”. The library became Davis’s study and she filled the house with antiques from Britain and her native New England.
The estate was originally built in 1929 by architect Aubrey St Clair for Charles Prisk, publisher of the Pasadena Star-News and Long Beach Press-Telegram. Today, the property, which consists of the main house and a guest house, is on the Laguna Beach register of historic buildings.
The house features a coffered wood ceiling in the dining room and a double-height timber-vaulted great room. Ann Christoph, a landscape architect whose offices are located in another St Clair building, has written extensively about St Clair’s work. She says “cathedral or chapel ceilings are one of his hallmarks”, though she believes the interior Juliet balcony which overlooks the great room from the master suite at 1991 Ocean Way is unique to this home.
Christoph points to the quality of the woodwork. St Clair used different sizes of floorboard in the solid oak floors and the exterior half-timbers appear to be crafted by hand. Other details, such as the painted laundry room floor, nautical stained glass and several chandeliers have been preserved.
Contemporary interventions include modern kitchens and bathrooms, and a home cinema. The windows with very narrow muntins, however, have not been replaced (“they don’t make them that narrow anymore”, says Christoph) and the original wood shake roof has been preserved. There’s another “D” on the chimney as well.
The main attraction however is probably outside: dramatic views of the ocean from the main living spaces, the master bedroom and a terrace that runs along two sides of the property, while only 50 steps separate the house from the beach and the wild Pacific beyond.
Photography: Getty Images; Pacific Sotheby's International