From Black’s Beach you look up and see the house poised fragilely on a sheer cliff, opalescent in the dim light of dusk. Gaze due north along the Torrey Pines Cliffs from Scripps pier and it captures your eye. The Gagosian mansion, a gargantuan monument to conspicuous consumption, is marked by a bright green roof of oxidized copper and a 15-year history as bizarre as it is dense. Most recently appraised at $20 million, it is the biggest, most expensive house in La Jolla, and is certainly one of the most notorious in all of Southern California.
Talking about the Gagosian mansion is a rigorous workout in superlatives. Ralph Dalton, a La Jolla realtor who once sold the house, calls it “the ultimate ego trip.” Indeed, some big egos have chosen to live there: Earl Gagosian, the millionaire who built it, founder of the Royal Inns, a nationwide chain of hotels; Charles Leggett, conman extraordinaire turned government informant, dubbed the greatest swindler in Chicago history by the Chicago Tribune; Richard L. Burns, founder of a multimillion-dollar oil, gas, and coal exploration firm; Kevin Rogan, managing director of IFM Funding, a west German company that operated Picnic ’N Chicken restaurants; and Nader Yazdani, son of a man who was once one of Iran’s most powerful industrialists.
Few people can afford the Gagosian mansion, now listed at $8.6 million (well under its appraised value). Perhaps fewer still possess a sense of self that can expand to its scale. Its thirty-three rooms (including nine bedrooms, three kitchens, and thirteen baths) cover more than 17,500 square feet. The living room alone, at 2400 square feet, is bigger than most houses. The enormous 100,000-gallon swimming pool, set among palms, ferns, and other tropical plants, is spanned by a 74-foot bridge that was built, according to Gagosian, “at a horrible expense.” Decorating several walls are murals that were hand carved in stone by some forty craftsmen from Cuernavaca, Mexico. Three chandeliers hang from the ceiling in the living and dining rooms, each one elaborately ornamented with gold leaf. Just about every room has a spectacular ocean view through tinted glass with bronzed casements. Outside, on an acre of manicured lawn, is a golf green with a sand trap. The most unusual feature of the house, however, is its roof — or, more precisely, its roofs, the several structures made of ribbed copper that rise around the perimeter of the house like so many stove hoods. From far out at sea the house is a tiny dull emerald that boats from nearby Scripps Institute of Oceanography use as a landmark. Gagosian says he spent $90,000 on the copper alone in attempting to imitate the copper castles he’d seen in Europe.
But the features of the house are only as unusual as luxury. The story of the people who lived there makes for a narrative both rich and rare. Three of the five owners have been victims of foreclosures. One of these, Leggett, was evicted along with his family and took up residence in the San Diego County jail. Gagosian, Burns, Rogan, and Yazdani all experienced severe financial difficulties while they owned the Gagosian mansion. Four major companies fell apart while their owners held title to the house; three ended up filing for bankruptcy. Kings, princes, and movie stars have inquired into buying it. Ronald Reagan has toured it. So has Spiro Agnew. One of the Gettys wanted to live there, actually had the house in escrow, but died suddenly of cancer before the deal could be closed. Gagosian was led halfway around the world trying to collect a house payment, and he believes to this day that his debtor may have had plans to murder him. When Leggett lived in the house, two Mafia hit men paid him a visit. Luckily, he wasn’t home. Yazdani, in a desperate move to make delinquent payments and stay in the house, swindled some big-time Salt Lake City financiers, and ended up fleeing the country in fear for his life.
The price of opulence has been considerable misfortune for the inhabitants of this splendid if somewhat overbearing house. Though misfortune never came about specifically because of the house, or even because of its expense, many speak of the place as “jinxed.” Others say that’s nonsense. They say that such an exotic home naturally attracts certain types of personalities, driven men with big egos who inhabit a precarious world in which one stands to lose as big as one stands to win.
In 1968 Earl Gagosian and his wife Kay decided they were ready to build a new home. The Royal Inns were, according to Gagosian, “going like a gangbuster,” the two kids were in their teens, and the hotel magnate had always wanted to live near the water. So in 1968 he bought nearly six acres on the cliffs above Black’s Beach for $180,000. “I thought I was nuttier than a fruitcake when I paid that price,” Gagosian recalls today. “But you know that now it’s worth about nine million.” On that land he built his dream house, which was designed by local builder Konrad S. Leak with significant modifications suggested by Gagosian, his wife, and his children. Originally intended to cover only 8000 square feet, the design ballooned along with the price, which, after building costs and furnishings, came to about two million dollars. “In 1970, when work began on the house, two million didn’t mean that much to me,” says Gagosian.
This was the same man who, just out of the Navy in 1945, went to work as a laborer for Travelodge. Within a year, after numerous promotions, he was supervising all construction for that company. Gagosian became a vice president in 1950 and says he worked without a vacation or a day’s sick leave for 14 straight years. In 1965 he started the Royal Inns and quickly made a fortune. “I’ve built 300 Travelodges and 69 Royal Inns, including one that is now the Holiday Inn Embarcadero,” Gagosian says with paternal pride. “That comes to one hotel a month for thirty years.”