In the summer of 1923, as Wilshire Boulevard was being expanded and reinvented as one of the city's major commercial corridors, a development that necessitated the removal of the street's grand Victorian residences, famed interior designer Howard Verbeck threw a party.
He'd arranged for his house, an eight-bedroom behemoth designed by architect John C. Austin for Illinois grain magnate Hiram Higgins in 1902, to be relocated from the corner of Wilshire and Rampart in Westlake to a piece of property he'd purchased on Lucerne Boulevard in Windsor Square. Since Wilshire wasn't wide enough for the house to be moved in one piece, it was cut in half down the middle and hoisted in two pieces onto 12 trucks. As the bisected structure made its way west, the party's esteemed guests, including the mayor and his wife and, according to an L.A. Times article, someone named Mrs. Mouse, kept the party going inside, singing along with a piano player and an opera singer.
It was a grand entrance to a grand neighborhood — the Getty House, where the mayor lives, is on nearby Irving Boulevard — for a house that's just as grand all these years later. Painted white with seafoam-green trim, it's the kind of structure you could never get bored looking at, with all of its angles, arches, peaks and an entry way that rises and falls like a wave. But at the moment, its most compelling feature is a for-sale sign planted in the ground outside the front gate.
On a recent weekday morning, the real estate agents currently handling the property, Brenda Chandler and Thomas Glabman of Hilton & Hyland, agreed to a walk-through of the house. It wasn't a tough sell. Both of them are architecture buffs who clearly get a charge from showing such a historic — and massive — property. It's become a cause to an extent. Chandler says, “It’s an incredible piece of architecture. L.A. is a city that has a lot of incredible pieces of architecture, and it seems the younger generation isn’t educated on that.”
Glabman adds, “Sadly, our city transforms itself constantly and a lot of this stuff disappears.”
Owned for three decades by Perry and Peggy Hirsch, who've since relocated elsewhere in L.A., 637 S. Lucerne has been on the market since 2014; Glabman and Chandler, the third brokers to handle it, have been overseeing its sale since February. The house originally went on the market for $8 million and has since been reduced to $4.495 million. When you look around the place, really the price doesn't seem that outrageous. All three stories are livable space, and each has its own kitchen. There are seven fireplaces, and a screening room outfitted with soundproofing material on the walls. Besides the carriage house, there's another entire apartment out back. Apparently one of the previous real estate duos to attempt to sell the home got the idea that it would make an ideal compound for a rock star, so they styled the interior with velvet draperies and other goth-looking accoutrements. Chandler and Glabman seem agreed that it was pretty gauche. Their approach has been to instead create a “tabula rasa” — they removed most of the carpet (there's still some in storage rooms on the upper levels) and any woodwork that had already painted, they painted in neutral tones. The first-floor woodwork remains untouched, and it's incredible.
Glabman says they currently have at least two parties who are seriously interested, one of which is an arts organization that would occasionally open the house to the public for concerts and such.
The Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch House — aka Historic-Cultural Monument No. 403 — has been famous basically since it was built. Grain guy Hiram Higgins died only four years after the house was completed, but the house's designer went on to become one of L.A.'s most significant architects. John C. Austin designed Griffith Observatory and was part of the team that designed L.A. City Hall. His footprint is still massive, but many of the structures he designed have been lost to the ages, including the Percy Arms Hotel (1907), which was praised for being more open and “tropical” than hotels on the East Coast, and Villa Madama (1909), the house he built for Henry Hancock, which once stood at the corner of Wilshire and Vermont in what's now Koreatown. Glabman personally put together a book on all of Austin's architecture to show prospective buyers. It's a nice touch.
Between the Great Depression and its purchase by the Hirsches, the house served several purposes: a retirement home for nuns, a rooming house for aspiring actors and offices of one kind or another, according to the L.A. Conservancy.
Besides its cultural relevance, the house is pop-culturally relevant, too. It's appeared in a number of horror movies — Ben, Willard — and a Halloween episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. (Sadly, there don't seem to be any reports of hauntings.) Glabman says that more recently it was the filming location for an episode of Scandal.
Touring the house is an overwhelming experience. Beyond the intricate — but never ostentatious — woodwork and built-ins galore, Glabman points out that the leaded windows in every room have a different motif — intersecting arcs and circles in one, diamonds in another. In a second-floor bathroom, the stained-glass window was designed to look like a pair of pink curtains. Perhaps the most impressive thing, which you can't quite appreciate till you're up on the third floor, is its height. The house towers over the rest of the houses in the neighborhood's homes, which were limited by restrictions put into place well after Verbeck enlisted a fleet of trucks to haul his mansion to the property. Looking north from a third-story balcony, the view is breathtaking.
As Glabman reminds, “It’s one of the last authentic examples of early Wilshire Boulevard homes.” Now it just needs an owner.