That was then. Now, paparazzi waiting for a glimpse of Lindsay Lohan or Matthew Perry leaving the condominium building might mistake an underweight Juicy Couture-clad blond toting a teensy dog in a Louis Vuitton carrier for a boldfaced name. A thirtysomething entertainment lawyer, just back from exercising his horses in Malibu, tracks dust on the travertine floor on his way to the elevator. Outside, Mamas Mesforoush, a polite young man who shuttles between homes in Los Angeles and London, hands a valet the keys to his customized Range Rover. He's just in time for a meeting with Mike Russo, the veteran contractor who's going to turn his apartment into a showplace, at a cost of $1,000 a square foot.
"Is that negotiable?" Mesforoush inquired at their first meeting.
"No," Russo replied.
"All right," the young man said. "Then you're hired."
Sierra Towers sits on Doheny Road at the western end of the Sunset Strip, where the lively commercial clutter of West Hollywood gives way to the grand mansions of Beverly Hills. The building has always had its fans, well-heeled Westsiders of a certain age who appreciated the unobstructed views from every floor and the tender ministrations of porters and attentive doormen. It isn't surprising that condos in the building have been selling for jaw-dropping prices the last few years — the cost of residential real estate has skyrocketed throughout Southern California. Yet a Sierra Towers address now represents something more than a hefty price tag: The building has acquired a cool quotient.
Franck Verhagen, a Belgian-born hairdresser, has warm relationships with many of the stylish men and women who sit in his chair at the Joseph Martin salon on Rodeo Drive. They come bearing fresh Aspen dish or such essential information as the current yachting port of choice (Dubrovnik). Then they'll ask what's new with him. Throughout 2004 and the beginning of this year, whenever Verhagen would reply that he and his partner, Martin Fassnidge, were planning to move to an apartment in Sierra Towers that they had gutted and were remodeling, the response often was, "I love that building." Some had heard the false gossip column reports that model Kate Moss paid $3 million for a condo there. Others knew that oil heir Brandon Davis and Harry Morton, scion of the Hard Rock Hotel empire, were looking in the building.
But many of Verhagen's clients knew that Sierra Towers was smokin' even before the latest crop of tabloid regulars arrived. A rash of free-spending owners combining a sense of manifest condo destiny with a contemporary design aesthetic have reinvented the once dowdy and undervalued building as a star, reeking sex appeal.
"When I tell people I'm moving there, they're so jealous," says jewelry and eyewear designer Loree Rodkin. "They say, 'I want an apartment there. Do you know anyone?' like it's some speakeasy you can only get into if you know the right person."
A former manager and friend of the famous, Rodkin bought side-by-side one-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments 18 months ago, then gutted both to create a "minimal Zen tribal" 4,000-square-foot one-bedroom haven that will be completed in March, if she doesn't make more changes.
From the beginning, the building has been home to a colorful and eclectic cast of characters: an Internet diet guru, a periodontist, a banker, directors, writers, producers, songwriters, an Oscar-winning actor, a land developer, a music mogul, wealthy widows, a legendary jockey, a hotel heiress (no, not that one), the ex-husband of a Kennedy, the daughter of a Rat Pack member and the mother of a TV talk show host, a former big band singer, the owner of a local chain of women's clothing stores who committed suicide in the early '90s by jumping from his 31st-floor balcony, one of the founders of MGM and an aging former Playboy bunny whose apartment was a gift from her married paramour, which didn't faze anyone as long as her homeowners association dues were paid. (See box at right.)
The meeting of producer and theater chain owner Ted Mann and actress Rhonda Fleming at Sierra Towers in the '70s resulted in a 24-year marriage. The late television star David Janssen and his wife Ellie and singer Buddy Greco and his vivacious wife Dani lived there in the '70s too. Observant neighbors were aware of David and Dani's affair before any gossip columnists. The lovers divorced their respective spouses, married and moved out of the building.
But there has never been so much activity and enthusiasm for creating luxurious homes in the sky as Sierra Towers has experienced since the beginning of this century. Five floors down from Rodkin's condo, the home of Irwin and Lynne Deutch occupies the same footprint as her masterwork in progress. The view that forms a backdrop for the Deutchs' dining room includes nearby green hillsides, the Getty Museum beyond and on a clear day, the Pacific. A spacious living room, media room and the apartment's only bedroom overlook the city, a panorama that's especially dramatic after nightfall, when the stars above and lights below twinkle.
The Deutchs bought the apartment six and a half years ago from George Hamilton, who left behind a lone bottle of suntan oil on the terrace. Mirrored walls that had reflected a pair of towering elephant tusks were also Hamilton's legacy, so Alison Spear, a Miami architect who had designed a pied-à-terre in New York for the Deutchs, was hired to transform the apartment into a loft-like space that would showcase their art collection and honor the views.
It took two years to pave floors with Lagos Azul limestone, construct room dividers of Australian walnut, enclose the kitchen in glass, install a state-of-the-art lighting system and conceal window shades controlled by timers in the ceiling. The result is a sleek, sophisticated apartment that echoes the simplicity of the building's architecture. God is in the details: The headboard in the master bedroom is recessed; if a door handle protruded, a cavity was carved into the wall to match it, so that the door lies flush when open.
"The Deutchs were really the front-runners," says Linda May, a Realtor who moved to Sierra Towers in 1990. "They were the first people to hire an internationally recognized architect to redo two apartments at such a high level. They took a leap of faith."
Russo, the general contractor who first refurbished a Sierra Towers unit 28 years ago, jumped with them. He is now such a familiar presence that he's rather like the building's unofficial mayor. He figures he's worked on 120 of the 148 apartments there, and redone some four times. He's currently involved in five major projects, including Mesforoush's and Rodkin's, and on a typical day 60 to 70 of his employees are at work high above Sunset Boulevard. A year and a half ago, he was so busy supervising 12 apartments in various stages of completion that he couldn't take on any more, even Matthew Perry's.
"For years, we'd just change a few things in a unit," Russo says. "There was a lot of old money in the building, people who weren't into design or doing everything over. If someone spent $200,000, that was a lot. I was so tired of doing the same thing over and over — putting in crown molding, new drapes and new cabinets — that I was ready to retire. Then younger people started moving in and gutting everything. The typical unit I work on now costs $1 million to redo, and it keeps going up. The building is built really solid, yet it was a sleeper for so many years."
The costliest of Russo's makeovers was $2.5 million, but that record could be broken soon, since fixing up apartments has become a competitive sport. "Every new owner has seen what's been done before, and they want theirs to be the flagship," he says. Four years ago, only five apartments had been combined with another to create bigger units. Now the number has risen to nine. Each floor contains six apartments, and for the first time, three units — the whole front of the 18th floor — will be gutted and combined into one apartment for real estate executive Charles S. Cohen.