Wallace Neff is recognized as one of the most prominent architects in California history. The look of his elegant, dramatic Spanish Revival and Mediterranean homes harkens back to our Mission and European roots, and also reflect the lifestyles of his famous and affluent clientele.
Wallace Neff was born in 1895 and grew up leading a privileged life in La Mirada, Ca, where his grandfather Andrew McNally (of Rand McNally publishing) founded Rancho La Mirage. He spent much of his youth in the opulent hillside Victorian mansion owned by McNally in Altadena, which would set the tone for his rich tastes and appreciation for architecture. The time he spent living in Europe, after his parents moved the family there when he was 9, also fostered his connection to the styles he would later incorporate in his designs.
His studies led him to MIT to study architecture with Ralph Adams Cram, highly respected for his ecclesiastic designs in the Gothic Revival style. After graduating, he returned home to Altadena, and found drafting work for a shipyard in Wilmington, while he looked for opportunities to design independent projects of his own. The first of these was a church, in his home parish of St Elizabeth in Pasadena, which he presented as a gift in 1926. This project would link the training of his mentor, in the ecclesiastic realm, to his love of Spanish Revival, in the medieval style, which he would explore throughout his career. The prominent elements that came to define his work were present in the church: a Spanish tile roof, dramatic double arched wood plank doors, broad sweeping walls, exaggerated window sills, iron grating, soaring 50 ft. gabled ceilings supported by rough hewn trusses, and a prominent bell tower.
In the 1930’s his work drew the attention of Hollywood’s most famous stars, moguls, and industry tycoons. During this prolific period, he created the Gillette Mansion, the Gates residence, Libby Ranch and perhaps his most famously grand estate, Pickfair, for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Cary Grant, Judy Garland, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, King Vidor, Claudette Colbert and Fredrick March were among his most famous clients of the time, and his work for them became considered to be the epitome of Southern California architecture. His portfolio evolved, eventually including various styles he was would become famous for, ranging from Classical and Regency, to rustic Normandy, Mission Revival and even Tyrolean, with sweeping curved outdoor staircases, lavishly landscaped grounds, columned facades, towering chimneys, and an elegant, yet dramatic, presence. In his 55 year career, Neff won 7 awards from AIA. Today, Wallace Neff homes are collectors items, highly prized and sought after by current Hollywood celebrities such as Dianne Keaton (who bought the Fredrick March home) Madonna, Sydney Pollack, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, to name a few.
In stark contrast to his earlier famous work, he began to explore low income housing solutions in response to the growing need of GIs returning home from WWII. In 1946, Wallace Neff devised a method of making his Airform Houses. These were structures built with concrete, poured over an inflated Goodyear rubber balloon, and reinforced. This innovative and inexpensive mode of building didn’t catch on in the US, but was adopted by Egypt, Brazil, Pakistan and West Africa in the 40’s and 50’s, as an efficient way to provide affordable housing. Only one of these structures remains in this country, called the Shell House, located in Pasadena. An artist and his wife live there today, comfortably, with a few prized pieces of furniture donated by Wallace Neff’s estate…and one of his pieces of pottery, found among the grounds of the house. They liken it to “living in an upside down swimming pool.”