Life at the top: Villa Riviera penthouse has great views and gargoyles for $1.2 million

As you soak your weary bones and muscles in the Villa Riviera’s penthouse bathroom, gargoyles protect you from evil spirits.

And, look, we haven’t even emerged from one of the two bathrooms in the 15th-floor penthouse of Long Beach’s elegant and historic Villa Riviera, on the market now at $1.2 million. To get your eyes really popping, towel yourself off and scamper on out to the 2,872-square-foot condo’s great room, where you could fly a kite beneath the unit’s 35-foot-high exposed-beam ceilings.

Among the many charms of the great room, if you can pry yourself away from staring up in wonder at the peak of the rafters, is its full-size wood-burning fireplace, the only one in the 130-condominium building.

Throw in some other impressive amenities: window seats offering panoramic ocean views, a huge formal dining room with a butler’s pantry, a large master suite with walk-in closets and the ubiquitous ocean and city views.

The two glorious baths have their original Art Deco tiles and pedestal sinks.

One of the two bathrooms in the Villa Riviera penthouse. Courtesy photo

Want more? Built-in original book shelves, a separate office area, and a large utility room with laundry hook ups.

“It’s not in turn-key condition, but it’s certainly in move-in condition,” said listing agent Andre Rogers, of Berkshire Hathaway. A buyer’s first concern might be refinishing the floors. It’s a chore that’s no big deal for a person who can fish $1.2 million out of a car ashtray. You hire a guy and wait a few days before you move in.

“I’ve had a lot of people look at it,” said Rogers. “Celebrities, Hollywood types. I can’t give you names because of confidentiality.”

It’s OK. It’s already known that the place was a hangout for Charlie Chaplin back when it was a hotel, shortly after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which the Villa weathered handsomely, primarily because of its architect Richard D. King’s study of quake-resistant construction in Japan.

And the Villa had another brush with stardom in 1937, when film magnate Joseph M. Schneck bought the building as a trifle for his film-star wife Norma Talmadge to keep her occupied in the likely event of her sunsetting career, which had peaked in the Roaring ‘20s.. Perhaps the film idol was not amused, because the building was acquired by another company, for lack of payments, less than a year after Talmadge opened her gift.

The Villa, like its iconic twin the Queen Mary, also served in World War II, when it was used for Navy housing, primarily putting a roof over the heads of a crew of scrambled-egg hat-wearing top brass, earning the Villa the nickname “Home of Admirals” during the 1940s.

Built in 1929, the Villa Riviera immediately dominated the Long Beach skyline with its French Gothic Revival, Chateauesque design and topped with a copper roof that quickly developed a green patina. It was also the second-tallest building in the county, just a few feet shy of L.A.’s City Hall.

It opened as an own-your-own complex and, following the quake, it became a luxury hotel and remained as one until 1955, when it reverted to own-your-own. In 1991, the Villa converted all of its 132 units to condominiums.

So, for a million and change you get a Villa penthouse with no shared walls, a place rich in Long Beach history —it’s in the National Registry of Historic Places—a mess of amenities, not the least of which are the concrete evil-spirit-hating gargoyles (a half-dozen of which were sledge-hammered in earlier years by tenants who didn’t appreciate the creatures partially blocking their view; they have since been replaced).

Gargoyles protect the penthouse condominium at the Villa Riviera. Courtesy photo

So why, at $1.2 million, isn’t it flying off the shelf?

“Parking has been a challenge in selling it,” admitted Rogers. “When a unit at the Villa is sold, they lose their parking space (in the Villa’s 100-car garage). A lot of people love the place, but they balk at having to park a block or two away in a pay lot.” He said there’s a waiting list of nine months to a year for a spot in the garage.

Yeah, I was disappointed to hear that, too. Looks like I’ll be staying in my East Long Beach home for a while still. Luckily, I have pit bulls to ward off evil spirits.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.