If These Walls Could Talk

A historic estate by acclaimed architect Paul Williams combines Hollywood high style with simple good living.

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    Linda Grasso |

There are some homes you walk into and can just feel the history. An English Tudor revival in Toluca Lake, built in 1938 by acclaimed architect Paul Williams, is one of them.

The estate was constructed for screenwriter Gladys Lehman (Shirley Temple’s Poor Little Rich Girl), one of the founders of the Screenwriters Guild. It was featured in Architectural Digest twice, in 1937 and again in 1982, when Happy Days actor Henry Win – kler owned it. It also appears in Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style, a coffee-table book by the architect’s granddaughter, Karen E. Hudson.

The estate, which has been owned for the past 22 years by Robert and Vana Farina, features Paul Williams’ classic style— formality and high glam. Included in just over 7,000 square feet: a grand entry, intricate molding, custom wall inlays, curved walls and staircase, extensive wood paneling, beamed ceilings, and butler’s pantry. 

The winding staircase leads to the master suite, featuring a private balcony. Three other bedrooms are also on the second story. 

Also reflecting Williams’ classic style is a “great room” that faces the backyard—and in this case—a view of the fountain-adorned lake complete with a gazebo and a dock. 

“The den,” as Robert calls it, has a ceiling built with wood from England and two hidden panels reveal secret areas. One of them, a panel by the fire – place, pushes open to a narrow hallway that leads out to the carport. “It was apparently so mistresses could sneak out when the wife gets home,” Robert, a retired marketing executive, chuckles.

“The den is dark and sexy. When you are in here you can just feel that there was some great partying that went on back in the day,” adds Robert. “Bob Wian, founder of the Bob’s Big Boy chain, met his wife, June, right over there at that bar and after proposing Bob bought the estate for her.”

The Farinas also enjoy hanging out at the bar with friends. “We love to entertain. People play pool, sit at the bar or at one of the other areas. I remember when Vana told me what she and the designer had in mind with the built-in bar stools by the pool table, I thought ‘No way.’ But it totally worked.”

Robert, an avid art collector, displays framed images from photographers, including Michael Kenna and Abelardo Morell throughout the house. One particular riveting piece of art: a bronze behind the piano in the living room by sculptor Frederick Hart. “He has a sculpture on display on the west face of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.,” shares Robert. The couple also own a home in Lucca, Italy. Now that their daughter, a professional photographer, is living in Italy (their son, a TV writer, lives in LA), they’re planning on spending more time there. Vana is currently a commuter student at Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence. She hopes to eventually transfer to Lorenzo de Medici School to complete her B.A. in art history.  “My daughter attended both of these schools, so I am what I call ‘reverse legacy’!” she laughs. Right now the Toluca Lake estate is listed for rent by Craig Knizek at The Agency Real Estate. But Robert does not see a sale in the cards. “Oh no,” he says with a slight wince. “It is a really special property. I’d like to keep it.” 