Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The King of the Castle

It's no secret that the Pyrenees Castle is up for sale. It's been on the market for so long that the asking price was recently reduced.

Nor is it a secret that the fabled chateau is a notorious murder site. Phil Spector purchased the property in 1998, and just five years later, killed Lana Clarkson inside the mansion.

I won't get into THAT ugly mess, as it's been done before. I will say that I wasn't surprised when it happened, since one of my parents had a terrifying firsthand experience with Phil Spector's bizarre behavior and hair-trigger temper.

Instead, let's go back to simpler times and meet the castle's original owner, Sylvestre Dupuy.

Sylvestre Julien Dupuy was born August 4, 1878 on the Rancho Rosa de Castille (modern-day Cal State LA - my dad taught there and never knew the property's history). When Sylvestre's mother passed away, his father took him and his siblings back to France.

As a young boy growing up in the Pyrenees, Sylvestre admired a large and elegant chateau close to where he lived. Someday, he would build one of his own.

Sylvestre wouldn't see Los Angeles again until he was 14 years old, returning with an older brother. Several years later, his uncle Jean Pedelaborde decided to return to France, leaving Sylvestre his grazing land on Rancho Rosa de Castille's hills. Sylvestre would soon lease neighboring plots and plant grain fields - in addition to raising sheep, of course. (I'm pretty sure every French Basque Angeleno must have raised sheep at some point). According to an old newspaper article, he found it cheaper to rent or lease grazing land than to own it outright. Sylvestre's sheep grazed everywhere from the Plaza area to the eastern suburbs.

Sylvestre married Anna Candelot in 1899. The couple had four children - Frank (1902), Marie (1903), Peter (1904), and Henry (1905). By 1910, the Dupuy family had relocated to the San Gabriel Valley, where land was still plentiful. Sylvestre was patriotic - he registered for the World War I draft  despite being 40 years old. He was also active in the Lafayette Club.

Sylvestre's agricultural activities were successful, but he also invested in oil and worked for Walter P. Temple's Temple Townsite Company (developers of Temple City). He helped convince the Pacific Electric company to extend a Red Car line to Temple City, and a street was named for him (it was later changed to Primrose Avenue). There is a reference to Dupuy owning a general store.

In the 1920s, with business booming and Los Angeles expanding, Sylvestre decided to build a grand home on a three-acre hilltop property overlooking his ranch lands in Alhambra.

Scottish-born architect John Walker Smart was commissioned to bring Sylvestre's childhood memory of that elegant chateau to life. Thirty rooms - ten bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a basement AND a wine cellar (the Dupuys made their own wine), and more made up the 8,600 square foot mansion.

Artisans were brought over from Europe to work on the Pyrenees Castle, and work on it they did: the elegant interior boasted maple floors (recycled from Alhambra High School's original building) and elegant wood paneling, crystal sconces, chandeliers, marble floors in all eight bathrooms, and a marble foyer.

The grandeur continued outside - a massive fountain in the courtyard, tennis courts, recreation areas for the Dupuy children, and strategically placed guard towers to protect everything. The property was so vast and elaborate that the landscaping still wasn't quite complete when Sylvester passed away.

The Pyrenees Castle cost Sylvester Dupuy $500,000 (or about $7.3 MILLION in 2020 dollars). He paid IN CASH.

Locals and tourists alike have gawked at the Pyrenees Castle ever since it was built. And since the Dupuys liked their privacy (apart from the occasional celebration, i.e. entertaining French athletes during the 1932 Olympics), rumors began to circulate about the big, beautiful, mysterious castle on the hill.

One of the more common stories was that the house's owner was an automobile mogul who never let anyone see him enter or leave the property.

Another legend had it that East Coast gangsters lived inside the house (not the weirdest story that could have been invented, given that there were some real-life East Coast gangsters living in LA at the time).

Yet another rumor held that only two or three of the chateau's rooms were ever lit and that the rest of the vast home was kept in perpetual darkness. Ghost stories circulated, too.

But more than anything else, there were tall tales of secret entrances and secret passages - hidden garage entrances, an elevator inside the hill, tunnels, secret passages, and hidden rooms. (In fact, there was one secret passage - from Anna's closet to the attic.)

None of it was true, of course. In 1939, Anna and Henry Dupuy finally had to go on the record with the Los Angeles Times to explain that the Pyrenees Castle was just a very big family home. They didn't even give the house its nickname - to the unpretentious Dupuys, it was "the house on the hill", or even "the hill".

In 1928, Sylvestre took Anna and two of the children, Marie and Peter, on a trip to France. Passenger manifests show that they sailed through the port of Le Havre and returned via the port of New York.

Unfortunately, Sylvestre's oil investments tanked in 1936, wiping out most of the family fortune, and he passed away on April 22, 1937.

Sylvestre had left enough assets for Anna, three of the couple's children (Frank lived in another house), and their families to continue living in the chateau until they sold it in 1946 for the pittance of $60,000 ($847,000 today).

The mansion was then converted into eight large apartments. Anna Candelot Dupuy lived in one of the apartments until her own death three years later. (Records disagree over whether Anna financed the conversion or whether the next owner did.) The surrounding ranch lands were turned into tract housing. The Dupuys are buried at Calvary Cemetery.

As for the castle, it fell into disrepair, changed hands over and over, was abandoned and vandalized, and was purchased by Chris Yip in 1985.

The house had been treated abominably - broken windows, a leaking roof, severe scarring to the hardwood floors, and even holes in the walls and ceilings where vandals had torn out the sconces and chandeliers. Yip had the floors, paneling, and roof tiles restored, but updated the kitchen and bathrooms and added some modern conveniences.

Chris Yip bought the chateau for $585,000 and put $500,000 into fixing up the house and grounds. He intended to retire there. But in the end, it was all too much, and the Bank of Hong Kong foreclosed on the mortgage.

By now, you've heard the rest. One wonders what the Dupuys would think of the shocking murder that took place in their elegant marble foyer.

Alhambra doesn't have any historic preservation ordinances, and notorious murder sites are often altered or even demolished to deter gawkers. Can anyone spare $4.4 million?

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