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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The House that Walt Built (and Mickey paid for)

Walt took an entire nation on his lap and told us stories we'll never forget.
Several years ago I wrote a biographical piece on Walt Disney in which I referred to him as "the most successful artist of all time." I've always found it interesting to study the homes various successful artists have constructed around themselves and their art. Disney is no exception, though his home was distinctly different from that of most artists. I should say "homes" in that Walt and his brother, Roy, shared an apartment in the early 1920s when they first came to Hollywood and later bought nearly identical homes on the same street in L.A. Walt's third place was in the Los Feliz section of Hollywood Hills, where he and his wife raised their two daughters, while his fourth and final home was located on five acres along Carolwood Drive in the community of Holmby Hills. There he lived until his death in 1966.
When they first came to Hollywood, Walt and his brother, Roy
shared an apartment at the upper location. In 1927, they bought separate home on Lyric Avenue in Los Angeles.
(The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was animated in the garage.)
An aerial view of the Los Feliz
neighborhood with the Disney
property outlined in red.
Inasmuch as Disney's first two homes were nothing special and his final home was demolished in 2001, it's his third home at 4053 Woking Way in Los Feliz, California which we'll be exploring. It is, by the way, open for tours, restored to its state when the Disneys lived there. In 1931, as Walt Disney Studios became more profitable, the couple also discovered they were to be joined by a baby daughter. The two decided to move from the small home on Lyric Avenue (above) to a larger home up in the Hollywood Hills. The home was located at 4053 Woking Way, just above the Los Feliz neighborhood. To get there at the time, you had to drive up some steep narrow roads. The Disney family lived there from 1932 to 1949.
It was here that the earliest Disney successes took
shape, from Snow White to Cinderella.
Inside, the Los Feliz Disney home has a somewhat old English medieval flavor but otherwise seems typical of an upper middle-class home of that era. The décor appears dated, but then it is derived from a period some eighty years in the past. I found no photos of the kitchen but the master bathroom with its two pedestal sinks would appear to be the most outdated room in the house.

As the Hollywood home of a motion picture mogul, the Disney place at 4053 Woking Way was attractive, comfortable, and spacious (at 6,600 square feet), but was in no way spectacular.
By the 1950s, Walt and Lillian Disney could easily afford something better. The girls were in their late teens and would soon be leaving home. It wasn't that they need a bigger house. In fact, their new home on Carolwood in Holmby Hills was slightly smaller and far less opulent than the one they were leaving. Today we'd call it a "Mid-century Modern" (below). The Disneys valued their privacy and wanted a new home modest enough in size that they wouldn't have need for servants or even a housekeeper. There is very little information on the house itself.

A rare photo of the Disneys fourth home at 355 Carolwood Drive
What Walt wanted more than anything else was wide-open space to indulge his newfound hobby of model railroading. Even in the 1940s, something in the realm of five acres and relatively flat, did not come cheaply in the exclusive environs near Hollywood. Almost all the focus as to Walt's time at this address revolves around his building a miniature railroad crisscrossing his back yard. He dubbed it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. The one-eighth scale railroad started out small, but soon became a hobby well out of hand.

Walt's Carolwood Pacific Railroad looks like fun, if somewhat
uncomfortable. The Disney imagineers (and the Disney lawyers) suggested a larger scale for the amusement park.
When Walt wanted to run his tracks through Lillian's prized flowerbeds, she drew the line. Always one to think outside the box, Walt had his studio team build a slightly curved tunnel under the flowerbeds. The tunnel still remains. In fact, that's about all that remains bearing Walt Disney's fingerprints on the property. The mini-railroad train and its expansive layout is said to have been Walt's inspiration for Disneyland a few miles away, with its even nine-tenths scale 19th-century railroad. Walt Disney lived on the 4.3 acres estate with its pool, tennis court, putting green, wine cellar, library, gym and, of course, a movie theater—from 1949 until his death in 1966. Lillian Disney died in 1997 at the age of ninety-eight. Her prize rose garden remains today in her memory.

One look at his railroad empire and you might think Disney should have been a railroad mogul. The tunnel is at far left in brown.
Although Disney's final home was renovated by another owner in 90's, many of the Mickey Mouse inventor's special touches remained intact. However Holmby Hills is a very desirable residential neighborhood, the property there much to valuable to be occupied by a fifty-year-old house that was really nothing special in the first place. In 1998, Gabriel Brener, co-owner of the Houston Dynamo soccer team purchased the property from the Disney estate for $8.45 million. Brener promptly razed the original house, then erected a brand new 35,000-squar-foot mansion in 2001. Recently, the home Walt had called "the happiest home on earth" sold for $74-million, $16-million less than the original $90-million asking price.

The Carolwood Pacific rail line, as well as all the other Disney structures are show in orange overlying the present mansion complex in this aerial view.
The backyard of the Disney property today
looks like possibly that of Disney's
Scrooge McDuck.


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