First-time visitors to the J. Paul Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif. (the Villa, actually in Pacific Palisades, lies within the Malibu 90264 [zip] code) all mistake the adjacent Italianate Revival palazzo, the Villa de Leon, for the Getty Villa museum, not visible from the Pacific Coast Highway.
The Villa de Leon was named after wealthy wool magnate and entrepreneur, Leon Kauffman, who purchased six elevated lots in the 1920s in the new Castellammare (Castle by the sea) area on the Malibu coast, North of Sunset Boulevard and high above what would soon become Roosevelt Highway, predecessor of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Kauffman selected architect Kenneth MacDonald in 1926 to design this 12,000-square-foot palazzo in the Beaux- Arts European tradition. This imposing structure features 35 rooms, including nine bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, a huge grand salon (32’ x 64’), a library, a circular dining room, a butler’s pantry, an elevator and a seven-car garage. The construction price of $1 million (that was a lot of money in the late ‘20s!) included a first-ever central vacuum, several hand-made crystal chandeliers, Italian tiles, imported marbles, hand-carved wooden beams, mahogany paneling from Thailand, magnificent wrought-iron gates, even gold grouting for the Italian tiles.
When first built, the Villa de Leon boasted topiary gardens, a pipe organ and beach access via a private funicular railway, very expensive amenities that have not survived the passage of time.
The new Castellammare neighborhood became popular with the Hollywood crowd. John Barrymore, Thelma Todd and Joseph Cotton had homes in the area.
The J. Paul Getty Villa property, 50-plus canyon and hillside acres, was a lemon ranch when purchased in 1945 and Getty used a portion of the existing ranch house to house his burgeoning art collection made available for the public viewing two days a week. While living in England, Getty decided to build a museum on his Pacific Coast Highway property patterned after the recent discovered Villa dei Papiri, a large Roman villa partially excavated in Herculaneum, Italy and thought to be once owned by Caesar’s father-in-law. The Villa dei Papiri was covered by ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 49 A.D. The J. Paul Getty Villa first opened to the public in 1974 showcasing Getty’s growing personal art collection. Getty died in 1976 without ever seeing his unique new museum.
In 1997 all the Getty Villa art holdings, with the exception of the Etruscan, Greek and Roman artifacts, were transferred to the new Getty Center in the Sepulveda pass. After minor Villa structure and extensive canyon remodeling, the Getty reopened in 2006 as an antiquities-only museum.