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A Brief History of LA's "Witch House"

Paul Narvaez, Flickr // CC BY NC 2.0

One of the houses on Beverly Hills’ North Walden Drive is not like the others. With its steeply angled roof, askew shutters, rickety picket fence, and moat, the Spadena House—or, as some call it, the "Witch House"—looks more like it belongs on the set of a fairytale film than on a street in Los Angeles. And, in fact, that’s exactly where 516 N. Walden Drive was originally built: On the lot of Willat Studio in Culver City.

The house was designed by Oscar-nominated art director Harry Oliver in 1921. The owners of the studio, Carl and Irvin Willat, instructed him to build a structure that could house the studio’s office space and dressing rooms and double as a set to save money. According to the Culver City Historical Society, Oliver began studying the architecture of bungalows in the old English countryside and "came up with the idea of an 'English cottage fantasy' architecture." Although it looked "tumbled down," the Los Angeles Express assured its readers that the studio’s offices were "equipped with the most modern appurtenances."

The future "Witch House" on the Willats Studio lot in Culver City in 1921. Photo courtesy BeverlyHills.org [PDF].

The designer couldn’t have predicted the reaction to his "story-book" house, which fronted 6509 Washington Boulevard—it reportedly caused car accidents, drew a number of visitors, and garnered lots of press. "Only a movie director could design such a quaint structure," noted The Norwalk Hour in 1922. "Those who live in Hollywood are always searching for the strange and unique.'

When the studio went out of business, the Willats planned to demolish the house. Instead, it was purchased by Ward Lascelle, a producer, who moved it to its current location in Beverly Hills in 1926. Lascelle turned the house "into a functioning home," Michael J. Libow, who bought the house in 1998, told Los Angeles Magazine. "It was really small at the time. There was only the entry foyer, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen."

The Witch House in its new location on N. Walden Avenue. Photo courtesy BeverlyHills.org [PDF].

Lascelle’s wife, Lillian, would eventually divorce him and marry a man whose last name was Spadena (hence the Spadena House). In 1965, Lillian sold the house to the Green family. The home’s fame was an adjustment: Tourists and gawkers came by the carful. "I used to run in the house when people came by," Doris Green told the LA Times in 1994. "Now I'm in a lot of pictures with my gardening clothes on." Eventually, though, the Greens got in on the fun, dressing up and handing out candy to kids on Halloween. Urban legends about the house formed; according to one tale, the house was built by a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs obsessive.

Eventually, the Greens stopped handing out candy on Halloween, and the house fell into disrepair. In 1997, Mrs. Green put the Witch House up for sale. Most prospective buyers wanted to tear the house down, but Libow, who grew up in the area, "always loved the structure," he told the LA Times in 2005, and didn’t want that to happen. So he bought it for the price of the lot ($1.3 million), and set about remodeling it with the help of Nelson Coates, a film production designer.

It was not an easy job: In addition to a dilapidated exterior, the interior 3500 square foot home was stuck in the 1960s, when the Greens has last remodeled it. "I had been to Barcelona, Spain and fallen in love with Antoni Gaudi’s sensibility," Libow told LA Mag, which also has exclusive photos of the interior of the Witch House. "I was fascinated with how his buildings appear to emanate from the ground in an organic fashion. I wanted my home to have a similar vibe as it is such an anomaly for the flats of Beverly Hills." Libow raised the ceilings, added wood cabinetry and accents, had glass custom-made for the interior, and put in a pool. Despite all the changes, according to a 2013 report prepared by Ostashay & Associates Consulting for the City of Beverly Hills [PDF], "the house appears similar to photographs taken of the property in the 1920s."

The house continues to be an attraction; between 3000 and 4000 kids visit the house every Halloween, and tour busses stop by "countless times per day," Libow told LA Magazine. "I was told by a Starline tour guide that mine is the most requested and most visited non-celebrity house in all of the West Los Angeles!" The house will be around for generations to come: In 2013, it was designated a historic landmark by the City of Beverly Hills.

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