Past, Present, and Future

© Feuchtwanger Memorial Library / USC

In 1927, the Los Angeles Times, in cooperation with the investors Arthur A. Weber and George Ley, built a demonstration home in Pacific Palisades. The project was supposed to attract wealthy buyers to settle in a part of Los Angeles that had dirt roads and was remote from schools, markets, and medical care. The progress of the new house was reported in the Times on a weekly basis.

Today, that home, called the Villa Aurora, has become a haven for intellectual life, but the journey was a difficult one – a quintessentially Los Angeles story of exile, artistic creativity, global connection, education, and, of course, real estate.

Villa Aurora, cleary visible as you drive down Sunset towards the ocean, was built as a 14-room Spanish Colonial Revival-style house of 6,700 square feet on a 19,000 square-foot lot.

Arthur A. Weber, the investor, traveled to Andalusia and drew inspiration from the Teruel Cathedral in the vicinity of Seville. In order to perfect the European atmosphere of the house, wooden ceilings were shipped from Spain, and a Renaissance fountain was imported from Tuscany. Local touches included redwood walls and Moorish-inspired tiles made by the Malibu Tile Company. The house was also equipped with the latest technical conveniences, such as an electric garage door and a trash compactor. A theater organ was part of the design and accompanied the projection of silent movies.

Villa Aurora in 1928 (© Feuchtwanger Memorial Library / USC)

Convenience didn’t protect the first residents – the investor Weber and his family – from hard times. After the crash of 1929, the Webers were forced to rent the house from the bank. After they moved out in 1939, the house remained vacant for the following four years.

Then, in 1943, German exiles Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger purchased the home. The price was $9,000.00.

When the Feuchtwangers moved into the Villa the house was so run-down, that – according to Marta’s oral history – they spent their first nights in the garden in sleeping bags. One of their neighbors, a great admirer of Lion’s writings, sent a handyman to support them in turning the Villa into a livable home.

Villa Aurora soon became a meeting place of German-speaking émigrés in Los Angeles. The Feuchtwangers regularly hosted readings, concerts, and receptions. Guests included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Bruno Frank, Charlie Chaplin, Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler-Werfel, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, and many more artists and intellectuals.

Before coming to the United States, Lion had lost two libraries – the Nazis had confiscated his house and library in Berlin in 1933, and he had been forced to leave behind a second collection in Sanary-sur-Mer, France, in 1940. Today, many valuable books can be found among the 30,000 volumes in Feuchtwanger’s last library: a Nuremberg Chronicle dating from 1493, Goya prints, and collector’s items such as letters by Napoleon and a signed first edition by Voltaire. Feuchtwanger also compiled reference collections for each of his books. Today, 22,000 volumes are still at Villa Aurora.

After Lion Feuchtwanger’s death in 1958, Marta became the caretaker of his estate. In 1959, she bequeathed the house and Lion’s library to the University of Southern California (the 8,000 most valuable books are still housed at the USC’s Feuchtwanger Memorial Library). She continued to live at Villa Aurora until her death in 1987.

The house might have languished on the hill in Los Angeles – except that German writers and thinkers, recognizing its significance, came to its rescue. In 1989, a non-profit organization in Berlin, the Friends of Villa Aurora, bought the house from USC and commissioned the architect Frank Dimster, a USC professor, to renovate it.

Dimster had experience with old houses but Villa Aurora, having had very view repairs over the decades, was a challenge even for him.

The entire house was lifted to build a solid foundation, the hill stabilized by cement pillars, an AC system was added, the heating system and pipes replaced and the whole house was rewired. After the various renovations had been accomplished, the Villa Aurora was placed on the list of Historical Landmarks in Los Angeles.

Since 1995, Villa Aurora has served as an artists’ retreat offering residency fellowships to writers, filmmakers, visual artists and composers. While still owned by the Berlin-based non-profit, the entire operation is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media. Its fellows and the Friends of the Villa Aurora have made it an important gathering place for people in and outside of Los Angeles for conversations and cultural life.

Originally published by Zócalo Public Square