The Fascinating Story Behind America’s Most Expensive Home

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Earlier this week, a storied Bel-Air property broke real-estate records when it went on the market for $350 million, making it the most expensive home available in the country. The centerpiece of the 10-acre estate is a 25,000 square-foot home—a copper-roofed, limestone-walled, 18th-century French château replica designed in 1933 by Sumner Spaulding and featuring stunning views of both downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean.

Sure, the estate has the kind of hoity-toity pedigree one would expect given its nickname, “the house of the golden doorknobs:” it was owned by Jerry Perenchio, the late Univision C.E.O. who was worth about $2.7 billion at the time of his death according to Forbes. But it also has an unlikely, comparatively low-brow claim to fame.

Namely, the home starred as the Clampett residence on The Beverly Hillbillies during its nine-season run beginning in 1962. The show’s producers reportedly paid previous owner, Beverly Wilshire hotelier Arnold Kirkeby, a rate of $500 per day in exchange for allowing the production to film on the Bel-Air grounds. (The home’s interior and rear were re-produced in a studio for most of the show’s filming needs.) In addition to the rate of $500, Kirkeby also demanded that the network not release the address of the estate—which did not stop tourists from eventually tracking down the home thanks to its unmistakeable front gate.

When Perenchio bought the home from Kirkeby in 1986 for $13.5 million, the transaction was the second most expensive home-sale in L.A. history at the time, according to Los Angeles Magazine. Perenchio spent over $9 million renovating the estate to fit his tastes, removing the front gate in the process.

During his three-decades on the property, Perenchio named the estate Chartwell—not to be mistaken with Winston Churchill’s 14th-century Kent country home also named Chartwell—annexed nearby land parcels and real estate, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s longtime home.

Today, the home boasts some glamorously over-the-top features befitting its $350 million price tag. Among them: a 75-foot resort-style swimming pool (and pool house), a ballroom, a lighted tennis court, a helipad, a 5,700 square-foot Wallace Neff-designed guest house, an underground motor court for up to 40 cars, a world-class wine cellar, and a formal salon.

The property also features manicured gardens designed by Henri Samuel, the landscape artist who worked at Versailles, and an underground tunnel system which is reachable by elevator and connects the main house to the pool house and the gardens.

The house also comes with a somewhat tragic origin story—as it was designed by architect Sumner Spaulding for Lynn Atkinson, the engineer who built Boulder Dam. Although Atkinson adored the house, his wife did not—and refused to move in. Atkinson, heartsick over having to forfeit his dream home, eventually transferred the home to Kirkeby after he was unable to pay back a loan.

“He loved the house; it was his dream house, and it’s sort of a sad story,” Kirkeby’s daughter Carla told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, the same year the family let Elizabeth Taylor host a $1,000-per person amfAR benefit at the home. Atkinson moved to a high-rise apartment on Wilshire Boulevard where, his daughter said, he sat staring at [his lost home] for hours on end through binoculars. In 1961, after moving again, Atkinson committed suicide.

Despite the property’s sprawling expansion under Perenchio’s ownership, the Bel-Air estate was not the billionaire’s most opulent acquisition.

According to Curbed LA, the crown jewel of Perenchio’s real-estate portfolio was his waterfront Malibu property, which featured a 10-acre golf course he illegally built for his wife.

In 2004, the billionaire struck a deal with the state of California to let him keep the golf course on the condition that he leave the property to the state when both he and his wife die. Perenchio, who also gifted his $500 million art collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, died this past May.



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