Beverly Hills (United States) (AFP) -
It's a dispute that plays out in towns the world over: a new property owner wants to alter a much-loved landmark against the wishes of locals. It's his money. It's their community.
So far, so familiar.
But this is Beverly Hills, where the perfectly manicured mansions of celebrities and socialites populate one of the world's most desirable zip codes. Oh, and the property in question is worth $40 million.
'It is extremely beautiful,' said preservationist Alison Martino, who grew up four blocks away from the North Roxbury Drive house bought in 2020 by Eric Baker, the co-founder of internet-based ticket empire StubHub.
'It's on a double lot, which makes it very stately and it's pushed back from the street. It almost looks like a park. It's the most beloved house in Beverly Hills.'
To the visitor, the whole city looks a little like a park; lavish homes nestle on tree-lined streets that are peopled chiefly by Lululemon joggers and the occasional member of household staff.
- Elvis, Sinatra, Madonna -
The enclave of Beverly Hills began life a little over a century ago, and soon established itself as byword for luxury; an oasis for the well-heeled who made their money in the newly burgeoning film industry, but found nearby Hollywood a bit tawdry.
Over the years, it has been home to a Who's Who of entertainment, counting Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Madonna and Jennifer Aniston as residents.
Today, minibuses ferrying star-spotting tourists whizz through the neighborhood, with guides pointing out the present and former homes of the famous.
Roxbury Drive is a particularly rich vein, with lots once owned by Lucille Ball, Peter Faulk, Jack Benny, Jimmy Stewart, and Rosemary Clooney.
'When Lucille Ball moved to Beverly Hills, she wanted that house, but it wasn't for sale, so she bought the house across the street so she could look at it,' said Martino.
- $39.1 million -
The object of Ball's desire is a Regency Revival home constructed 80 years ago by Beverly Hills master builder Carleton Burgess.
The 9,000-square-foot spread sits among fabulous lawns and boasts its own full-size tennis court, a pavillion and a swimming pool.
Previous owners annually festooned the house with Christmas decorations, Martino says, welcoming the neighbors over to see.
But in 2020, Baker slapped down $39.1 million for it -- almost double its previous sale price -- adding a glistening centerpiece to a property portfolio that reportedly already included two swanky Beverly Hills spots.
Now, he appears set on making changes to his North Roxbury Drive pad -- despite what the neighbors think.
Last year he applied for a 'certificate of ineligibility,' a pass that would allow major work on the house without the need to get a green light from the city's cultural heritage commission.
His exact plans for the property are not known, and his Los Angeles-based lawyer did not repsonded to AFP requests for comment, but locals fear he wants to take a wrecking ball to the place.
'They want to tear it down so they can build a bigger, more modern house with the latest architecture,' wrote one commentor on Martino's Vintage Los Angeles Facebook page.
'The thought of this impeccably well-maintained historical building and grounds being demolished sickens me.'
Others mutter darkly about not wanting something that 'looks like an embassy compound' with a building that goes right up to the street.
'Even with all the money in the world, you don't get to do whatever you want,' said life-long Beverly Hills resident Rebecca Pynoos. 'Our cultural heritage shouldn't be sold to the highest bidder.'
- 2am meeting -
Feelings are running so high that a recent planning meeting went on until 2am.
After seven hours of back-and-forth, much of which hinged on whether or not the house was sufficiently well-known to merit preservation, councillors voted to bring the matter back for further consideration on June 21.
The discussion on Tuesday night looks set to be lengthy -- councillors have been presented with a 727-page document that includes a missive from actor Diane Keaton.
'I am pleading with you... This charming and historic home needs to be preserved for us and future generations,' she writes.
For campaigner Jill Tavelman Collins, the argument over the North Roxbury Drive house is emblematic of a larger issue in Beverly Hills.
'We've lost Lucille Ball's house, we've lost Jimmy Stewart's house... there's so little left on Roxbury that is from that time and I think it's pulling at everyone's heartstrings,' she said.
'I think it's like the straw that broke the camel's back.'