The housing market may be in a funk, but you'd never know it driving on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
There, on a prominent lot, businessman C. Frederick Wehba Sr. is building the city's latest and most conspicuous Taj Mahal.
Wehba, who founded the Los Angeles real estate company Bentley Forbes Group, is constructing a 32,000-square-foot mansion clad with hand-cut Portuguese limestone.
The Wehbas won't discuss the cost, but with over-the-top features such as 24-karat gold-plated doorknobs fabricated at the same French workshop that has serviced the Palace of Versailles, real estate experts peg it at $40 million.
"It is exciting to see it coming together after working on it for so long," said Wehba's wife, Suzi, who calls it her dream home. "We really wanted to do it."
A crew of up to 100 works every weekday on the house, which fronts Sunset Boulevard on two acres between Rexford and Alpine drives. Construction on the home began 18 months ago, allowing passers-by to chart its progress.
Despite the considerable work already done, the house is not expected to be ready for occupancy for another year. Still to be completed: its French gardens, a pool pavilion, a tennis court and an elevator that provides access to a subterranean garage.
But while the Wehba residence will be grand by any measure, there are even larger and pricier homes under construction in the area, suggesting that despite the residential slowdown, the megawealthy are building as big as ever.
Billionaire Alec Gores, who heads Gores Group, is constructing a large home on multiple acres on Angelo Drive in Beverly Hills. Nearby on the same street just outside Beverly Hills, billionaire Anthony Pritzker is building another.
The trend isn't just local, it's global. Mukesh Ambani, the fifth richest man in the world, is building a 27-story home for his family in Mumbai that will cost more than $1 billion.
"I tell everyone that space is the new luxury," said John Finton, president of Arcadia-based Finton Construction Inc., which is building the Wehbas' house and several others of its size.
The Wehbas bought the land at 9577 Sunset Blvd. in 2004 for about $6.7 million. The lot is the larger subdivided half of property once owned by Saudi Sheik Mohammed al Fassi.
The sheik's mansion drew headlines and became a tourist attraction when he painted its nude classical statues in flesh tones. The mansion burned in 1980 and was demolished in 1985.
"It was an eyesore along Sunset Boulevard and sat vacant for several decades," said Kurt Rappaport, president of Westside Estate Agency, who previously brokered the sale of the parcel. "It's definitely exciting (that the Wehbas are building)."
Unlike the other supermanses under construction, which are largely hidden behind high gates and abundant flora, the Wehba residence is on display right on teeming Sunset.
"Anybody who would want to live there today would want to be very visible," said Jeff Hyland, a high-end residential broker and president of Hilton & Hyland. "It's like the gateway to Beverly Hills for people who don't know they are headed to Beverly Hills."
The couple seems comfortable with the exposure.
Fred Wehba is chairman of Bentley Forbes, which is a large privately owned commercial real estate investment firm. It owns trophy properties, such as the tallest office tower in Atlanta and Washington's famed Watergate complex.
Suzi Wehba noted that the home is built for entertaining; the couple hosts charity events and programs for their Bel Air Presbyterian Church. The home will have a large music room to accommodate such events.
"It will be a great opportunity to entertain friends and guests around the country as well as Los Angeles," said Fred Wehba in an e-mail interview.
As a result of the layout, the house will have only five bedrooms and lacks some of the standard features of Hollywood megamansions, such as screening rooms. But it has maids' quarters and its own luxury quirks, such as the inclusion of five coffee and tea bars. Suzi Wehba said she's a big tea drinker.
Other personal touches abound: Her bathroom-dressing area features built-in heated mirrors for the shower and three large walk-in closets. The 800-square-foot master bedroom has a slot in the ceiling from which a 60-inch television will descend.
Moreover, only about a half-dozen homes in L.A. feature exteriors of hand-cut stone, including the 52,000-square-foot Holmby Hills home built by the late Aaron Spelling, Finton said.
Rappaport calls the design of the Wehbas' home "Fairfax rococo." But the Wehba's architect, Brian Biglin of Biglin Architectural Group of Beverly Hills, said the home follows classical design principals. He was hired to refine the American beaux-arts design of a previous architect.
"We aren't trying to be overly ornamental, other than what is required for this type of architecture," said Biglin, who's currently working on a 46,000-square-foot mansion in Los Angeles. "It is a pure, classical building, which is part of the history of Beverly Hills."
Finton, who has been in the luxury homebuilding business for about 20 years, said that the Wehba residence is a typical project for his company. While he builds homes in the 5,000-square-foot size, he is also currently working on a 55,000-square-foot house in Bel Air.
He said there are about 100 homes in the region that are comparable to the Wehbas' home. Finton thinks that more and more megamansions are being built these days.
"Certainly there is a trend for people to spend more time at home, homes where people feel like they don't have to go anywhere, where they can say, 'My house is like a hotel,' " said Finton, who's built homes for night club impresario Sam Nazarian.
He added that strong foreign interest in Los Angeles, particularly among Europeans, is buoying the ultrahigh-end market.
"I have a client from London we've done three homes for him. He said they are a steal," Finton said. "I don't know why he needs three. But the exchange rate of almost two to one makes L.A. a bargain."
Syd Leibovitch, a real estate broker and president of Rodeo Realty Inc., said Beverly Hills and the surrounding enclaves will always be attractive to those megawealthy individuals who want megamansions. He said that despite the weak residential market, the ultraluxury market is relatively strong from a historical perspective.
"If you're wealthy and you want a big, flat two-acre property to build a house on and money is no object, where else would you do it but in Beverly Hills?" he asked.
For the Wehbas, the new home will be a step up from their current Beverly Hills abode, a 10,000-square-foot house they've lived in for 10 years.
"I've loved living there, but I'm not going to miss it once I'm here," Suzi Wehba said. "We've always liked French classical architecture," she said, adding that a visit to the Palace of Versailles 18 years ago led her to fall in love with the style that would provide the inspiration for her new home.
When the house is complete it will be furnished with antiques from France and custom-built pieces that match the formal French exterior.
Of course, a 32,000-square-foot home needs a large staff to keep everything in order. But Suzi Wehba said her current crew a six-person team that includes an assistant and butler in addition to maids will be up to the task.
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