by Paul R. Spitzzeri
La Casa Nueva is certainly a unique architectural treasure, adding fascinating personalized decorative elements to a building, the architectural style of which is the seemingly ubiquitous Spanish Colonial Revival style. Part of what we do with the Homestead’s collection is to have artifacts that provide architectural comparisons and contrasts, especially in terms of style.
Also unique and highly whimsical is the famed “Witch’s House,” which stands on a corner in Beverly Hills, and is commonly denoted as a “Storybook” style structure. Also known as the Spadena House, the building has a remarkable history dating back to its construction in 1921, the year before La Casa Nueva was started.
The home was not actually built for residential reasons. Rather, Irvin V. Willat, a director at the Culver City film studio owned by Thomas Ince, whose “Días Dorados” estate in Beverly Hills was designed by Roy Seldon Price, the same architect who completed La Casa Nueva, had the structure constructed as an office for his own short-lived studio, also in Culver City.
Willat, born in Connecticut in 1890 and raised in Florida, was, according to Blue Book of the Screen (1923) into photography before he joined some early East Coast film studios, initially as an actor and then working with cameras. Ince hired him for his expertise and innovation with film cameras before Willat became a director, with Behind the Door (1919) being a notable surviving picture of his.
In a 1971 with the late film historian Robert Birchard, Willat discussed the decision to join his brother in starting their own production facility after leaving Ince. When it came time to having an administration building constructed, Willat called upon his set designer Harold G. Oliver, known for such famous sets as 1925’s Ben-Hur, and told him, “Harry, we want to build something for nothing that will attract—and be attractive.”
Oliver, who was said to have been inspired by seeing Cotswold cottages in England, developed a clay model and he and Willat worked from that so that “the result was this odd, very picturesque house” which cost $80,000. Willat told Birchard,
We put a lake in front, we put a bridge across it, we put a fence out—and altogether, it was extremely attractive. So much so, that when the cars going along suddenly saw it they’d put on their brakes, and the fellow behind them would hit them, you see; and this went on to the point where the police came out, and said, “What are we going to do about this?”
“I don’t know—isn’t that your job?” I said. “I built a house here, and when I built it there were no objections to the construction—what am I supposed to do?.
And the fellow scratched his head, and said, “I think you’ve got me there.”
Willat related to Birchard that the decision to launch his own production company came at a particularly bad time, as there was an economic doldrums in the early Twenties. He was only able to make four films before the decision was made to throw in the towel.
As for the office, Willat recalled, “when we closed the studio down, it was put up for sale, and someone bought it—I think for $2,500—and they moved it over on a lot in Beverly Hills, where it now is.” He added that the current owners, who bought the home in 1965, “spent a fortune rebuilding the whole interior to make it a beautiful home, and it now is.” While Willat praised the “beautiful job” he added that “it seems rather foolish” though “they were preserving some of old Los Angeles, I guess—it was historical by then.”
While Willat lost badly financially on his studio and went to work for Paramount, he did well later when he subdivided a large property he owned in Beverly Hills and developed “Willat Park” in 1928. As for his film career, it languished by the end of the decade. He was married to popular film star Billie Dove and she filed for divorce in 1930 on the grounds that he was physically abusive.
Willat, in his interview with Birchard, however, claimed, with the tape machine turned off, that Howard Hughes took a fancy to Dove and offered her a five-picture deal for $250,000 if she left Willat. He then asserted that a Hughes associate dropped off $326,000 at Willat’s house. The director stated “I didn’t ask for the money, but I figured he stole my wife, what the hell, I’ll take it.” Allegedly, the Hollywood rumor mill had it that Willat sold Dove to Hughes and his career dried up.
Willat did make some films subsequently, with the last being made for low-budget studios in 1937, and then left the industry. Despite being known for his tempestuous and demanding behavior, he maintained some close Hollywood friendships and lived for a few years after the Birchard interview, dying at age 85 in 1976.
The buyer of the Willat office was another film industry figure of note, Ward Lascelle, born in 1882 in South Dakota. Lascelle was an actor with the the D.W. Griffith unit of the Triangle Film Corporation and also directed some two dozen one and two-reel movies during the Teens.
Lascelle then became an independent producer, including 1921’s Rip Van Winkle and also made several Westerns during the remainder of the decade. He bought the Willat office in 1924 and moved it to its current location, renovating it into a residence for he and his wife Lillian.
In the 1930 census, the Lascelles lived in the Witch’s House, which was assigned a value of $10,000. In the following decade, however Lascelle’s film career dried up and he and Lillian divorced. While he moved to a home south of Westlake (renamed MacArthur) Park, where he died in 1941, Lillian remained in the house for decades.
The residence was long known as the Spadena House, because Lillian resided there with her second husband, Louis E. Spadina (this being the correct spelling.) Although it has been said he was a “house boy/guest/man servant,” the 1940 census showed Lillian and Spadina, both divorced, she aged 48 and he 56, living in the house, while his occupation was given as a “public service accountant.”
The home remained under Lillian’s ownership until the mid-1960s (she lived nearly to a century, dying in the mid-1980s) and it was then owned by a couple for another three decades and change. Michael J. Libow, a realtor who grew up not far away from the Witch’s House, purchased it in 1998.
While Willat believed the house to be beautiful in the early Seventies, Libow lamented its “look of a bad tract home from the 1960s,” including red shag carpet and very low “cottage cheese” ceilings. Working with a film production designer and a landscape designer, among other fine craftspeople, Libow laboriously transformed the Witch’s House into a stunning showpiece.
Not surprisingly, the residence draws up to four thousand trick or treaters on Halloween and Libow told an interviewer “my home is irreplaceable” and that, as with his client’s homes, the Witch’s Hat is not “a commodity.”
The highlighted pair of snapshot photographs from the museum’s holdings are of the Witch’s House when it was newly moved and renovated by Ward Lascelle, with one of the images dated 1925. The images not only show the remarkable architectural flair of the dwelling, but the dense and lush landscaping of shrubs, bushes, and flowering plants.
The Twenties was a particularly eclectic era for regional architecture, whether commercial, through many “programmatic” examples like the Brown Derby and innumerable others shaped like tamales, ice cream cones, African huts, and many more, or residential, as with the La Casa Nueva or the Witch’s House. Having photographs and other artifacts that reflect this diversity in the collection helps to interpret that sense of wonder and whimsy that characterized architecture in greater Los Angeles during the decade.