Uncertain Future for Artist’s Home in Exile

By ERIKA MARTIN | Reporter

While two World Wars ravaged Europe in the first half of the 20th century, many of the continent’s artistic and scientific luminaries flocked to the sunny shores of Los Angeles for brighter days.

One of these was Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning German author, who with his wife Katia and daughter Erika built a home at 1550 San Remo Drive in 1941. That Riviera house is now for sale with a nearly $15 million price tag, prompting Mann fans across the globe to worry that it could be torn down to make way for new development.

Thomas Mann, a German novelist, social critic and philanthropist, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. Photo source: Wikipedia
Thomas Mann, a German novelist, social critic and philanthropist, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929.
Photo source: Wikipedia

For Mann, the home he referred to as his villa provided a home base in a strange country. He had left Germany in 1933 and spent eight years wandering until he happily settled on the bright Palisades plot that reminded him of the Italian coast.

According to its listing, the 5,266-square-foot house has five bedrooms and five bathrooms, as well as an art studio, living room firepit, expansive views and the study where Mann wrote “Doctor Faustus” and “Joseph the Provider.” The house has been on the market for more than three months and was reduced from nearly $18 million in June.

The home’s last residents, Chester and Jon Lappen, had lived in the house since the Mann family sold it in 1953. Chester, a prominent attorney who died in 2010, was “proud of the fact that he purchased the home from novelist Thomas Mann,” according to his obituary in the Palisadian-Post.

The house remained in the Lappen family, and in 2012 one heir told German newspaper Die Welt, “A sale is not under discussion for us.” It’s unclear why the house is for sale now, but the move has sparked controversy in Germany, where many academics are calling for its preservation.

German author Thomas Mann bought a house on San Remo Drive in the Riviera in 1941 that is now for sale for almost $15 million. The Mann family sold it in 1953, two years before his death. Photo source: Wikipedia
German author Thomas Mann bought a house on San Remo Drive in the Riviera in 1941 that is now for sale for almost $15 million. The Mann family sold it in 1953, two years before his death.
Photo source: Wikipedia

Joyce Rey, the villa’s listing agent, insisted that it’s not being marketed as a tear-down.

“We’re being honest in representation of home: It’s an older home in need of renovation,” she said.

However, she added, “The value of the property is in the land.”

The listing describes the 42,616-square-foot lot—flat, lush and private—inviting buyers to “create [their] dream estate or remodel and expand the existing home.”

And, indeed, not even architect J.R. Davidson himself considered the Mann villa one of his best designs. He had only a few exterior photographs made and never invited potential clients to view it.

Rey said the house had attracted interest from around the world, but no prospective buyers have indicated they are interested in its historical merits.

The listing does not mention Mann. Though his reputation may have faded in recent years, the author was once one of the most celebrated literary minds.

When his family moved into their Palisades villa, the private event was covered by several journalists.

Mann was joined by many other European artists living in exile of Nazi regime and flourishing in Los Angeles: Lion Feuchtwanger, who owned Villa Aurora; Igor Stravinsky; Bertolt Brecht; and Arnold Schoenberg, to name a few.

But Mann was a particularly well-liked, prominent figure in America, a stand-in for pro-democracy Germans everywhere. He was a White House guest, delivered speeches at the Library of Congress and his family became American citizens in 1944.

Thomas Mann (right) chats with Albert Einstein at Princeton in 1938. Photo source: Wikipedia
Thomas Mann (right) chats with Albert Einstein at Princeton in 1938.
Photo source: Wikipedia

“We, of course, would love to have the Thomas Mann house preserved and look at the possibility of making another cultural center,” Villa Aurora Director Margit Kleinman said. “However, buying a house is one thing and maintaining it and a fellowship program are another. It would be sad if it were torn down, but you have to know how to finance it and maintain it.”

Villa Aurora has been run as an artists residence since 1995 and is financed by the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, thanks to a successful campaign to preserve it run by USC professor Harold von Hofe and Feuchtwanger journalist Volker Skierka.

Mann achieved posthumous fame with the 1971 Italian film “Death in Venice,” based on his novella, “Der Tod in Venedig.” The British actor Dirk Bogarde played Mann’s doomed protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach, who is haunted by both a beautiful love object only seen from afar and the music of Mahler.

Theatrical poster for the 1971 Italian-French drama “Death in Venice,” directed by Luchino Visconti, based on Mann’s book by the same name. Photo source: Warner Bros.
Theatrical poster for the 1971 Italian-French drama “Death in Venice,” directed by Luchino Visconti, based on Mann’s book by the same name.
Photo source: Warner Bros.

In the early 2000s, the Lappen family toyed with the idea of selling and approached the German Consulate General in Los Angeles. In the end, a tight budget won out over a love of literature.

Kleinman noted that Mann’s home is a landmark of the “Weimar on the Pacific” created by exiles in Southern California.

“It is a testimony to the fact that these people were able to live here and survive here,” she said. “Many thrived, and many were miserable.”

Friedel Schmoranzer, project coordinator at Villa Aurora, noted that Mann’s home is one of few remnants left of the history of World War II in the Palisades.

“A lot of our guests are actually very interested in the time and seeing the immigrants’ houses,” she said. “Basically all of them are either nonexistent or private and difficult to see behind fences. It would be a great idea to make it more accessible.”

The Manns didn’t stay long in the Palisades.

They left in June 1952, when the rise of McCarthyite America became too reminiscent of Germany’s late Weimar period. Yet he wrote in his diary that he always felt his “heart cramp up inside” when viewing photos of his Riviera villa.