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Glass Houses: A Radical Proposal for 415:

The Marion Davies estate at 415 Pacific Coast Highway has been on our minds for years.

Like many residents, we remember it in palmier days, when it was the Sand and Sea Club, and, like many residents, we rage at its current state – forlorn, still, wrapped in chainlink, silently disintegrating for 11 years. And, like many residents, we are profoundly grateful to the Annenberg Foundation for making a $21 million grant that will underwrite its resurrection.

Even now, people in City Hall, presumably in concert with people from the Annenberg and the State Parks Department, are planning the resurrection. It should not surprise anyone to learn that we have some ideas, too.

The City’s only previous plan, which emerged in 1998 from a working group whose members included City Council member Ken Genser and former Councilman Mike Feinstein, cost $180,000, and was a horror, as its principal purpose seemed to be to deny the existence of both the beach and the ocean, as well as reducing Marion Davies to a bit player.

Any plan must, first of all, incorporate the three primary facts of 415. It is on the beach. It faces the ocean. It was once the home of one of Hollywood’s leading ladies and one of America’s most powerful men.

The resurrection must be, at once, a tangible representation of its own extraordinary past and a perfect addition to its extraordinary setting, meaning a complement to the beach and the ocean rather than an intrusion on or insult to them, and it must be utterly useful and functional.

The remnants of the estate – most notably the remaining guesthouse and swimming pool – must be impeccably restored. A history of Davies, Hearst, their guests, their times and their milieu must be composed and incorporated into the design of the place – via video, stills and audio. As Davies was a film star and Hearst was a publisher, there is an abundance of material. And any additions must add to the incomparable oceanfront setting rather than subtract from it.

There can be no more daunting task for an architect than designing a building on the beach, for if it is not absolutely right, it will be totally wrong. There is no such thing as adequate in this particular game. If it’s not dead on, it will be a disaster.

Ideal beach buildings are, of necessity, both solidly made and ephemeral. They are firmly anchored to the ground, but they appear to float. And they cast no shadows.

We propose that the exterior walls, roof and ornamentation of the Davies Main house, one or two of the smaller buildings and some of the other more interesting elements be faithfully reconstructed of glass.

Yes, glass. What could be more fitting on the beach than a glass house? After all, glass is made of sand. And, like the beach itself, glass buildings are made entirely of light and space.

These “ghost” buildings would be very beautiful and would give visitors a very real sense of the vast and extraordinary Davies estate, yet would be virtually invisible from certain angles at certain times of day and would not impair the view from PCH to the ocean. In addition, they would be easy to maintain and could congenially house everything from the banquet hall the City wants to the Davies archives.

People go to the beach to be on the beach and glass buildings would permit them to be on the beach, even when they were inside.

Practical people will say that people would literally cook in these glass houses. In fact, a clever architect could manipulate the interior temperature by the artful placement of sliding panels and an arrangement of movable cantilevered canvas canopies that would “float” in the upper reaches of the structures. Besides, great architects like Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, Santa Monica’s two Pritzker Prize winners, have spent their lives doing things that people said couldn’t or shouldn’t be done.

Indeed, our notion of remaking the Davies estate in glass was inspired by 1991 Pritzker Prize winners Venturi and Brown’s Ben Franklin house in Philadelphia. The two-story house was torn down by Franklin’s son. Two centuries or so later, on the original site, Venturi and Brown remade what amounted to the original house’s skeleton in cream-colored steel, and set it on a grey flagstone “floor” in which passages from Franklin’s letters to his wife about the house were inscribed.

The Franklin “ghost” house is not only functional and beautiful, it’s profoundly moving and obviously inspiring.We should settle for nothing less in this time on this place on our beach. After all, America was invented in Philadelphia, and it is being perfected in Los Angeles.

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