A Star Turn

After designing many houses for celebrities, Joseph Ambrose takes on a different kind of client: himself



Joseph Ambrose designed an aluminum, glass, and limestone house that reflects the bold mountains and wide-open spaces that define the desert. The stone was custom cut and numbered at the quarry.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK DAVIDSON

A case of wine, each bottle chosen from a different vintner, greeted architect Joseph Ambrose when he arrived home after his first meeting with Rod Stewart.

“The attached note said he hoped the gift would inspire me to give special attention to his project,” Ambrose recalls of the 1986 meeting. “He asked me to design his new home in South Beverly Park with a separate cottage he could use as a recording studio. Rod was larger than life, but at the same time very undemanding.”

Ambrose designed the 22,000-square-foot residence and cottage in the English manor style Stewart requested. The top floor of the house was occupied exclusively by the rock star’s model train collection.

Ambrose, who has designed houses for numerous celebrities, recently designed one for himself in Palm Springs’ Old Las Palmas neighborhood. An undulating wall that weaves around 25 mature palm trees surrounds the rectilinear, modernist residence.

Soon after opening his Beverly Hills practice in 1983, Ambrose landed the job of creating the master plan for the 400-acre Beverly Park. He possessed the precise training the developers needed to create a new subdivision, including landscape design, city planning, and residential design. When the first lot was sold, the new owner’s wife called to request a design consultation.

“Marianne Gordon, Kenny Rogers’ wife, invited me over for lunch,” Ambrose recalls. “She had large closet needs in the 26,000-square-foot home they planned for North Beverly Park. Marianne told me she didn’t know how anyone could get by with small closets. I thought it best not to remind her she got her start on Hee Haw.”

To help attract celebrities and jump-start the development, Kenny Rogers was offered a sweetheart deal on the best lot in North Beverly Park. But it didn’t quite work out as planned.

“The house was never built because Kenny discovered polyps on his vocal cords and he was afraid his singing career might be over,” Ambrose says. “He moved back to Georgia and sold the lot to Richard Zanuck.”

The first home Ambrose designed in North Beverly Park was the personal residence of developer Brian Adler. He then designed a spec house that was briefly considered as a post-White House residence for Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Joan Collins subsequently considered buying it, near the end of her Dynasty years.

“Joan was amazingly beautiful,” Ambrose recalls. “She came with her big blond husband of the moment, Peter Holm. He said almost nothing and she did all the talking, but she was charming. Sir Gordon White ended up buying that house; and after I designed an addition for him, he sold it to Roseanne Barr.”

Ambrose also designed a house in Beverly Hills’ ungated Trousdale Estates for Mary Hart and her husband, Entertainment Tonight producer Burt Sugarman.

“He was fanatical about security,” Ambrose says. “No photography was allowed, and none of the plans could have their names on them, because plans are sent to dozens of contractors for bids and he didn’t want the world knowing their address. Many celebrities have similar requirements for privacy.

“Mary Hart was my all-time favorite celebrity client,” Ambrose continues. “She was remarkably beautiful and couldn’t have been more warm or generous. Some celebrities have two personalities: the charming public façade, which is an act, and the self-absorbed, unattractive private side. But Mary was totally charming at all times. The interior design for their house was done by the late Steve Chase. It was the only time I worked with him. We had only one meeting, but he could intuit from the plans and the client exactly what was required. He didn’t change anything in the architecture.”

Ambrose also met with Sylvester Stallone.

“We went around looking at properties to determine what kind of architecture he might like. Stallone was a surprisingly small guy. I don’t think he understood much of anything. He ended up buying an existing home.”

In the early 1990s, a downturn in the American economy adversely impacted both real estate and construction. At a time when many developers and architects were seeking other careers, Ambrose received a fortuitous overseas phone call.

“I was contacted by a potential client in Jakarta, Indonesia,” he says. “I had to get out a world map to find the place. It was the Riady family, one of the wealthiest families in the world. They were very close to the Clintons. James Riady was president of an Arkansas bank, and he had hired both Clintons when they were still working as attorneys.

“The Riadys are Chinese nationals whose base was in Indonesia, but they had very Western tastes. I ended up designing homes for their family all over the world. In the early ’90s, I had more projects in Jakarta than in the United States.

“I also ended up designing a 17,000- square-foot mountain retreat for Indonesian President Suharto. It was in a resort area called Bogor. The house was a contemporary design with a large great room at its center, topped by a tall barrel-vault ceiling. The house featured stunning views of rubber and tea plantations.”

Ambrose, whose former home in Beverly Hills is now owned by actress Sharon Stone, fell in love with the desert in 2005 when he bought a condominium as a weekend getaway. Soon he realized he wanted to live here and began searching for the perfect lot. He now prefers to work from his new 4,400-square-foot residence.

“I grew up in Bellevue, Washington,” he says, “then I spent my career in Los Angeles — both places that are very green. I’m now fascinated by the desert, especially its brown palate. I love the mountain and its function as shelter and boundary. My home’s design is in response to this bold, coarse object in space. I needed to create a home with a similar monumentality that also incorporated the wonderful light and openness of the terrain.

“When you design for a celebrity, you must design quickly, because they have busy schedules. Their needs come first, and the designer must meet them while trying to get them to conform to good design principle,” Ambrose says. “There is more pressure for an architect designing his own home, because there are no excuses. Every choice comes from the designer. And when design is your profession, it needs to be perfect, because the house is your calling card. I built exactly what I wanted to build, and I love living here.”
 

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