“To honor the memory of our beloved friend, Lon Chaney, whose untimely passing has been a severe blow to us all, this studio will observe a period of silence tomorrow… At this time the remains are to be lowered to their final resting place…and in respect… everyone is requested to maintain silence at his post, between signals of the siren.”
Memo from studio chief Louis B. Mayer to all staff at MGM (August 30, 1930)
When silent film star Lon Chaney, Sr. died of cancer in 1930, he and his wife Hazel owned two Paul R. Williams designed residences. One, a simple stone and metal roofed cabin built in the California wilderness and the second, a recently completed two-story Italian Revival-style mansion in Beverly Hills. In the final months of his life Chaney and Williams collaborated on the design of this large residence. (Los Angeles Times. September 14, 1930) Temporarily living at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the actor sketched out his “exacting requirements” and “selected the furniture for the house he dreamed about but which, sadly he never occupied.” (Michael F. Blake. A Thousand Faces. 1995)
In a 1970 Los Angeles Times interview, Williams remembered how difficult it was to cater to newly affluent clients with little experience living with the trappings of wealth. His final design was often the result of balancing their taste with what the architect considered “the bounds of grace.” (October 11, 1970) Lon Chaney, however, was a star with a quiet, private life—shunning public acclaim. He once said “My home is my own. The public I am sure has no curiosity about my domestic life.” Unlike other movie stars of the time, studio publicity departments were never allowed in his home to photograph the interior. (The Tuscaloosa News. September 1, 1930) Williams recognized Chaney’s innate shyness and need for privacy. He designed his Beverly Hills home as a sanctuary. Williams said, “He hated going to a fine restaurant and having fans gather around and watch which spoon he was using.” To accommodate Chaney, Williams designed a posh, formal dining room where the star and his wife could dine alone.
Chaney and Williams were both masters of disguise. Using makeup Chaney created scores of exotic characters. Paul Williams used a variety of new and old building materials to transform many of the mansions he designed into homes with an instant history. In the Chaney home the architect created this allusion by combining recycled 65-year-old bricks, traditional hand-made roof tiles and mature landscaping.
Though the exterior of his home was a style typical in Southern California in the 1920s, Chaney insisted on state-of-the-art construction materials and interiors. One detail was the use of modern, high-grade building paper under the masonry to improve “dwelling insulation.” Williams’ use of this simple material was featured in professional magazines as an excellent example of the affective use of new technology in a residence “of the highest class.” (West Coast Builder. August, 1930)
Chaney, who was slow to transition to the new talking movies, insisted that his home be wired with the latest sound technology. “A combination radio and phonograph that can be controlled from any principal room was built into the house” with the speakers hidden behind decorative screens. (Los Angeles Times. September 14, 1930) Williams created a series of chestnut wood, secret panels to conceal the many modern conveniences Chaney wanted.
Chaney died before he was able to move into the home and his widow refused to live there. The sale was advertised in the Los Angeles Times as a residence “never intended for the market, must be sold at a price worthy of the attention of those who appreciate the best in architecture and construction.” In 1931 the house and contents were sold to Chicago attorney Frank Hann for $80,000. (Los Angeles Times. February 22, 1931)