The grand solarium speaks to the elegance and craftsmanship seen throughout The Cedars. The ornate ceiling is banded by a bas-relief featuring lions, thought to represent the MGM symbol. Sue purchased a set of four emerald-green velvet Art Deco chairs that had once decorated the luxurious ocean liner the S. S. Normandie, a monument to Art Deco before it caught fire and capsized in 1942. From Paris, she purchased a sixty-five-inch round Madagascar ebony Art Deco chamfered table with gilded legs. She designed the chaise, additional chairs, desk, and end tables in the style of Deco Master Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann (1879–1933).

by Lynn Morgan 

Photography by Erhard Pfeiffer 

Palm trees, the iconic Hollywood symbol, shelter an antique fountain by the pool at the rear of the house. A view overlooking Los Angeles is beyond the hedges. Photography © Tim Street-Porter.

“A neglected house gets an unhappy look; this one had it in spades.” Joe Gillis, the doomed screenwriter protagonist of Sunset Boulevard, could have been talking about The Cedars in an earlier incarnation when he said those words. Indeed, some interior scenes from the classic film noir were shot in the house, which was built in 1926 for film director Marcel Tourneur.1 The hilltop villa in Los Feliz, which looks over Los Angeles, has been, variously, a home, rock stars’ playpen, movie location, and a book repository before being rescued by its present owner, fashion designer Sue Wong. 

The Cedars comeback was initially orchestrated by Xorin Balbes, a real estate developer and designer who specializes in restoring historic or architecturally significant houses. He bought the house in 2003, and began the restoration process, reinforcing the structure of the property and updating its plumbing and electricity; turning back the tide of decay, and reviving its livability. Sue Wong has artfully completed the process by restoring the original aesthetic beauty of the house and preserving its intricate frescoed and bas-relief ceilings, gilded columns, and massive fireplaces. 

A painting by contemporary artist Jayme Odgers represents three of the seven chakras; a painting across the room represents the other four. The console table was designed by Zoltan Papp of Artisan Restoration, who paid tribute to both the Art Deco and Second Empire styles.

The living room has saffron-tinted walls of Venetian plaster and stunning architectural details, including painted and gilt Corinthian columns, ornate moldings, and a baronial fireplace original to the house, restored by Zoltan Papp and framed by a gilt bronze screen. The mantel displays the first of many emblematic lions seen throughout the residence. “They’re supposed to represent the MGM lion,” explains Sue. “There are over 140 of them in the house.”  The room is lit by natural light and wrought-iron chandeliers; the torchères were used to dress the set of the movie Titanic. The painting beside the fireplace, Three Goddesses, by contemporary artist Jayme Odgers, represents Creativity, Abundance, and Wisdom. Painted in the 1920s Cubist manner, Sue notes “I wanted it to look like a 1920s mural.” Other works in Sue’s collection include a painting by Anna Wollenska, a contemporary of Picasso, in the media room; lithographs by the Art Deco master Erté, as well as numerous fine early twentieth-century paintings purchased in Paris. Sue designed the Art Deco-inspired bordeaux velvet channeled club chairs, the velvet tufted circular banquette, and the Art Deco style “ziggurat” sofa.

Left: The elegance of the living room is complemented by an exquisite rococo throne; one of a suite of three in the room. Originally from Europe, the chairs were deaccessioned from a museum in Canada. Sue purchased the chairs from a French antiques dealer and brought in Artisan Restoration to restore the frames and gold leaf. Sue designed the gold metallic hand-embroidered fabric. Right: The arched colonnade between the living room and solarium is echoed in the windows looking out over the hills of Los Angeles.

An affinity for Hollywood’s golden age and the creativity that characterized the early twentieth century drew Sue to The Cedars, and inspired her to restore its faded grandeur. 

“The 1920s and 1930s are my favorite decades. I do a lot of period adaptations in my work, I’m a romantic at heart,” explains the diminutive China-born designer whose gowns are known for their alluring, timeless style that mixes fantasy and feminine beauty. The evocative mood of The Cedars is the perfect complement to Sue’s design sense, and, since her line speaks to the Hollywood glamour of yesteryear, she frequently uses the house as a backdrop for her fashion shoots.

Locals call the sprawling Venetian-inspired house “The Talmadge Estate” in honor of actress Norma Talmadge who reputedly lived there. Talmadge was a top box office draw in the early days of cinema, acting in the first silent version of “Camille” among other films. She and her husband Joseph Schrenk formed the Talmadge Film Corporation, becoming one of the nascent industry’s first power couples, with Schenck ultimately becoming the president of United Artists. Talmadge also spent time in New York because she had easier access to the best clothing designers on Seventh Avenue. She helped to create the enduring nexus between Hollywood and fashion and became one of the first celebrity style icons.

Left: The entrance to the living room features an elaborate vaulted and painted ceiling, from which hangs a baccarat chandelier original to the house. Sue has included some extraordinary pieces of traditional African art in her vision of The Cedars, since tribal art from that continent was hugely popular in Paris in the 1920s and had a significant influence on Art Deco and cubism. “I have two-hundred-year-old statuary from the Ivory Coast that harmonizes perfectly with the Art Deco pieces,” she says. Here, male and female fertility figures are placed on French Art Deco pedestals from the 1920s. Right: The French console chest is dated 1932 and signed by Christian Kass, reputedly a protégé of French Art Deco master Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. The façade features carved running deer, a popular decorative motif of the era.

Doors of wrought iron and frosted glass, original to the house, lead into the dining room. Arranged around the table are Spanish-style chairs from the 1920s. A pair of seventeenth-century period Spanish chairs, restored and upholstered with embossed leather, are also in the room, though not illustrated. 

Left: As one climbs the stairs from the foyer to the second floor, the stained glass window, original to the house, leads the eyes to an elaborate twenty-eight-foot tower, decoupaged with Old Master paintings and ornamented with thousands of gold cherubs. A Baccarat crystal chandelier, original to the house, is suspended from the tower ceiling. As with all the ceilings in the house, they were restored by Artisan Restoration of Los Angeles. Right: The interior and furnishings of The Cedars provide the perfect backdrop for Sue’s elegant fashion designs. Photography by Ming Wu.

This history appealed to Sue Wong. “I’m in the business of glamour: of creating it, of selling it; I’m immersed it in,” she says. Even in desuetude, the residence spoke to that sensibility; so she purchased the house in 2004 and committed herself to restoring the house to its full glamour.

In late 2004, Sue embarked on a two-year creative odyssey and commissioned Zoltan Papp, whose Los Angeles-based company, Artisan Restoration, specializes in repairing, restoring, and re-creating fine antiques, art, and historic buildings and interiors.2 A skilled artisan, Zoltan’s meticulous approach appealed to Sue, known herself for the technical excellence and ornate detailing present in her gowns. The results of this close collaboration are breathtaking, with the rebirth of six ceilings, the creation of a new ceiling, and all of the intricate aesthetic beauty reinstated. 

Zoltan Papp is more than a restorer, he’s a wizard. Trained at the Hungarian Fine Arts School in Budapest and later apprenticed to Friedrich Ott Smith in Vienna, Zoltan has restored chateaus and churches in Europe, and furniture, porcelain, paintings, and statuary for clients around the world. Recalling his first visit to The Cedars, Zoltan says, “It needed lots of attention, structural restoration had been done, but nobody had cleaned the ceilings in decades. This is fortunate because the layers of dirt had preserved the painting beneath.” Zoltan and his team removed layers of grime from the ceilings, uncovering elaborate frescoes and peeling gold leaf, repainting and regilding where necessary. He added a mantelpiece to the library fireplace to match its counterpart in the living room and worked closely with Sue to custom-build furniture, including an ormolu-mounted Second Empire-style console table for the living room.

Upstairs, the master bedroom is an exercise in yin and yang: light and dark colors, weighty, magisterial furniture, and ethereal drapery. Sue designed an Art Deco-style cabinet that conceals modern electronics; the other cabinet in the room is an authentic Gothic Revival piece. The antique bedstead, in the 1920s-1930s style, is by English designer Theodore Alexander. Sue designed the embroidered silk tussah drapes. The lace fabrics, frosted with iridescent beads and used as window treatments and to veil the four-poster bed, are from English Home of London. The beading and lace were hand-sewn in China at the factory that produces textiles for the dresses Sue creates. The bed is crowned by a canopy of Fortuny-inspired pleated silk. 

Left: A 1930s slipper chair, upholstered in silk damask, is one of a pair in the room. Says Sue, “I had them in storage for twenty years, awaiting the perfect location; they were ideal for the space.” The corner fireplace features carved baroque-style columns and gold leaf trim. Right: An exquisite antique Italian gilt mirror hangs above a recamier with velvet and gold embroidered pillows.

Down the hall, one of several guest rooms is decorated in masculine shades of burgundy and dark blue. Of all the restoration done in the house, its indigo ceiling took the longest. “This room was very difficult to restore,” Sue recalls. “A fire back in the 1930s left a thick layer of smoke and soot that had never been properly cleaned. You couldn’t see all the small painted details before Zoltan restored it. He brought all the colors back to life and made it glow.” The room’s baroque features inspired the velvet draperies and heraldic banners depicting angels and saints and, of course, lions. The bed is draped in burgundy and gold velvet; the headboard was once part of an antique Italian door. The furnishings are antique, as is the Oriental carpet. Close to the ceiling, emblematic shields are painted with cheeky aphorisms in Gothic lettering that read “Never Trust the Advice of a Man in Difficulty,” “Boldness is a Mask for Fear, No Matter How Great,” and “When the Candles Are Out All Women Are Fair.”

Left: In the library, a mask of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and revelry, looks down from a deep port-colored Venetian plaster wall. A nineteenth-century painting Compassion, is by an unknown English artist. The ceiling shows a bas-relief of a Roman chariot race finished in gold leaf. Sue designed the desk, capacious bookshelves, and the console table. The chairs are Spanish, from the 1920s. Right: A stylized depiction of Eve from the 1930s by French artist Leon-Laurent Galand (1872–1960) looks over a sofa with pillows upholstered in vintage fabric. The 1920s French Art Deco Madagascar ebony table is bordered with mother-of-pearl.

The house is very much a theatrical construct. “The 1920s and the silent era were the hey-day of art direction and set design,” says Sue, an avid student of history and art. “Movies weren’t shot on location as much as they are today, so studios had artists and craftspeople on staff who could design and build anything: whatever was necessary to fabricate any reality the directors wanted to put on screen.” The art directors and designers who were the creative forces behind The Cedars—reputedly inspired by a Venetian palazzo owned by the Duke of Alba—were responsible for many of the fanciful houses that still dot the surrounding hillsides and canyons. Integrating elements of Venetian architecture and Byzantine flourishes in a playful pastiche, the house was a Hollywood fantasy for its original owner, Marcel Tourneur. As a director, Tourneur was an influential theorist, instrumental in defining film as an art form separate from theatre, with its own techniques and aesthetics. With a background in fine art and art direction, and access to the industry’s top studio artists, it is no surprise that Tourneur’s home was a visual masterpiece.

The fact that its original architect and designers are unknown lends a touch of mystery to the house, an atmosphere in which Sue clearly revels. From the twin stone figures of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, flanking the front door, to African fertility figures, the house is filled with slyly invoked spiritual and mythological references that cross epochs and cultures. There is a strong Jungian subtext to her design of the house, with its recurring themes of goddesses, Deco Green Men, guardians, and heroes.

Sue created the furnishing plan herself, working on it, she says, “In small increments of stolen time” when she was not busy designing the intricately embroidered and beaded cocktail dresses and ballgowns that bear her name. There is a direct connection between the aesthetic of her clothing and the interior of the house: it is the natural habitat of flappers and philosophers, sirens and vamps. 

A Moroccan-themed room with a vaulted ceiling painted a faded shade of desert rose serves as another guest bedroom. It adjoins an authentic 1920s bathroom with original tile, the only period example remaining in the house. Once painted a vivid purple, the room remains a playful memorial to the late rock star Jimi Hendrix, who allegedly composed his drug-addled classic, “Purple Haze,” while locked inside. A large antique center table from North Africa is inlaid with metal ornaments and henna-stained bone-inlay. An elaborate Moroccan mirror hangs above an antique Indian cabinet; the mirror is a smaller version of the large full-size antique-looking glass in the corner. The room is furnished in teak and antique Moroccan pieces; the room appears as a desert seraglio.

Sue’s extensive knowledge of fabrics and design served her well during the restoration. She designed the opulent draperies in the living room and library: hand-beaded velvet panels embroidered in Borghese gold thread, custom-made by the same artisans in China who create the textiles for her gowns. She also designed the elaborately scrolled gold embroidered velvet fabric used to reupholster a suite of three rococo thrones once owned by European royalty, now in her living room. A round, tufted banquette, upholstered in cerise velvet, and a black velvet “ziggurat” sofa, trimmed in burgundy bullion and swags, were designed by Sue for the living room.3 Other pieces were acquired at auction or on shopping trips to Paris. “I couldn’t find the Art Deco pieces I wanted in Los Angeles,” she explains.“I did a lot of research and found that examples are still available in France, so I went on some wonderful shopping sprees there. Paris is my favorite city on the planet; it has great architecture, beauty, and a wonderful sense of romance.”

Sue delights in the rich lore that surrounds The Cedars. “Errol Flynn practiced his ‘wicked, wicked ways’ here,” she says. “Marilyn Monroe was a frequent party guest; Howard Hughes played the grand piano in the solarium. Johnny Depp lived here to do research for his role in Ed Wood because Bela Lugosi had lived here. The wrap party for Easy Rider was held here; Dennis Hopper shot some of the scenes for the movie here. It was also a big rock ‘n’ roll party pad. Arthur Lee of the band Love lived here for a while, and he told me he couldn’t find his way from his bedroom to the kitchen because the place was so full of groupies and assorted hangers-on! Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground also stayed here for a while, as did Jimi Hendrix.”

The banquette in the sitting room leading to the Moroccan bedroom has an alluring, exotic quality, filled with voluptuous pillows in mixed patterns and brocade fabric. The feeling of foreign intrigue is enhanced by an Indian jewel-encrusted, carved doorway suspended from the ceiling. Two of the inlaid Moroccan tables are surmounted by ceramic lamps.

The wild times came to an end when the house was purchased by a UCLA psychology professor, who used it mostly as a library and repository for his books. Sitting in the ballroom of The Cedars, listening to Sue Wong recount stories of the rock stars and reprobates who have passed through its gates, the history of the house is palpable. The patchouli oil, incense, and marijuana scent are gone, yet the house is still a piece of pure Hollywood Babylon.

“When you buy a house of this nature, you feel that you have a responsibility to preserve it for the next generation. I am merely its temporal caretaker,” she says. “I am very honored to be chosen for that role.”

1. Information on the film personas, movies, and historic events in this article was gathered from David Wallace, Dream Palaces of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Abrams, 2006); and

2. Zoltan Papp of Artisan Restoration, 8556 Venice Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.

3. The furniture designed by Sue Wong was fabricated by Beverly Home and Hotel Manufacturing, 225 N. California Avenue, City of Industry, California.

Lynn Morgan is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Modern to Classic: Residential Estates by Landry Design Group (2006). Unless noted photography © Erhardt Pfeiffer, 2007