Partner John Elgin Woolf, Gene Oney Woolf, William Capp
Case Study House No. 17, 9554 Hidden Valley Rd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Alfred Dieterich House, 656 Park Lane, Montecito, Calif.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park Glendale, Los Angeles County, California, USA
Robert William Koch "Buns" Woolf, formerly known as Robert Koch (March 3, 1923, in Temple, Texas – November 3, 2004, in Montecito, California), was an American interior decorator, noted for the Hollywood homes he created with architect John Elgin Woolf.
Woolf was born Robert Koch, an only child, in Temple, Tex., in 1923. “I have been double-gated in my life,” Robert told. He meant a gate that swings both ways. “I suppose that had a lot to do with everything. I got married right before the Second World War, in which I served as a tail gunner on a B-17. But marriage wasn’t for me." In World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps as a tail gunner before moving to Hollywood and starting his decorating career. "After the war, when I was serving out my tour on a base near Palm Springs, I used to take the bus to L.A. on weekends. It would drop me off right on the Sunset Strip outside La Rue, a fine restaurant at the time. One night, I had just got off the bus, and I was looking in the window of the Allan Adler store, at the silver, and a man came by and picked me up. He was an old-time Hollywood decorator named Virgil Johnson, and he brought me right into La Rue, where I was seated between the actress Faye Emerson and her husband Elliot Roosevelt, the president’s son. When you are young and good-looking, especially in war days, wearing a military uniform, there is no place you can’t get into. That was my introduction to Los Angeles."
Woolf settled in the Los Angeles area where he worked at a local decorating store. “I worked in a decorator shop called Design for Living, on Melrose Place, owned by Robert De Beauville,” said Robert. The handsome, blue-eyed Mr. Koch originally dreamed of movie stardom. But in 1948 he met John Woolf, who persuaded the young man to come live and work with him. Design for Living was located across the street from the office of John Woolf, which was housed in the Woolf-designed building at 8448 Melrose Place. “It was very much in Papa’s style, with a tall lacquered double front door—he called it the Pullman door, because it shot through the roofline, like doors at the ends of a Pullman car. “I just noticed Jack right off,” Robert said. “I already knew his work. Everyone knew the Pendleton house. Before I ever met him, I had done a house up in his style, on Queens Road. I did the layout of the architecture, which looked like Jack Woolf did it, and soon I made sure I met him, which actually was through the boyfriend I had at the time. My boyfriend had just built a new house out in Van Nuys and wanted me to live there. So I did.” One night he got invited to John Woolf’s for dinner. “I drove him, but I wasn’t invited. When I went to pick him up, about 10:30 or so, I made sure I was asked to have a drink. That is how I met John Woolf, and things started changing.” They became business and domestic partners. John Woolf, better known and 15 years older than Robert, did the architecture, with Robert providing the decor.
Woolf’s office was already well established in 1948, when, just weeks after they had met, Robert and John moved into a small apartment upstairs. “We shared a three-quarter campaign bed because that is all we could afford,” recalled Robert. “He had just finished the office on Melrose Place with a loan from a wonderful old maiden lady named Elsa Schroeder, who was George Cukor’s business manager. She lent Jack the money to build it, and he put in an apartment on the second floor on each side—very Woolf, with an oval window in a little bedroom, a proper entrance hall, and big living rooms looking onto a walled garden in the back. They were charming and very high-ceilinged, with fireplaces.” Kurt White, who was an apprentice in the Woolf office and a close friend of John’s, recalled Robert Koch’s sudden arrival and the changes that took place soon after. “Bob did a hell of a lot for Jack,” he said. “I hate to say ‘marriage made in heaven,’ but it was one of those things where Jack was not the strongest person in the world. In character, he was a charming, wonderful guy. But if he was led the wrong way, he would follow. Thank God Bob led him the right way. When I first met Bob, I thought, Oh, God—poor Jack. But Bob got him off drinking too much; he got him into the right kind of cars. When I first met Jack, he had a 1941 Ford convertible, and it was one of those convertibles that had a plastic dashboard, and the plastic had gone to heaven. In the old days, we’d go to the grocery store and cash checks for $10—that was all Jack had in his account. You’d buy a bottle of gin and some lettuce, and that was about it.” After Bob, “it was a whole different routine,” said White. “He got him out of his ramshackle Ford and into a Jaguar sedan, and moved him into the building on Melrose Place. There were dinner parties, and there you would find Loretta Young and Agnes Moorehead and Joan Fontaine. I mean, I am still slightly staggered by it, because you just don’t meet those people in your normal existence.” The money began to flow in, not just from clients but from side ventures engineered by Robert. “Bob was really very astute,” White recalled. “For example, he found that George Cukor had nobody to wrap his Christmas presents for him, and he had to give presents to a zillion people. Guess who wrapped the packages for a price? Bob was a sharp cookie. He wasn’t just sitting around looking pretty.”
Together their homes created a distinctive style using Mansard roofs, Doric columns, oval leaded windows and shutter-framed French doors. Inside, the space was typically as glamorous as it was a play on illusion with circular hallways and mirrored pool pavilions. They "established a new vocabulary for glamorous movie-star living; they synthesized 19th-century French, Greek Revival and Modernist touches into a heady mixture that has since been christened Hollywood Regency, which foreshadowed aspects of postmodernism."
In the 40s and early 50s, George Cukor hired Woolf for a series of projects, including an outdoor kitchen. Ten years later, John and Robert together did some renovations on Cukor’s house, which had been designed by James Dolena, another prominent architect of the time, and furnished by the famous decorator Billy Haines. “First, George had Papa re-do a nice room for his mama downstairs. We didn’t fool around with the upstairs, which was pure Billy Haines, including an oval dining room with suede walls. Later we built three small houses on Cukor’s property, one of which was for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Tracy was very nice, very likable. But Papa didn’t like her. The only person I knew that Jack Woolf didn’t like was Katharine Hepburn. They had a big fight over a fireplace. She wanted one, and he didn’t want to put one in. She insulted him by saying, ‘Mr. Woolf, I think your mother must have been a fireplace!’”
Their clients included many of the leading entertainment personalities of the day including Ira Gershwin, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Fanny Brice, Cary Grant, Lillian Gish, Ray Milland and Loretta Young.
"They did their own version of Régence," said Paige Rense, the editor of Architectural Digest, which covered some of the firm's later projects in the 1970's. "In the 60's and into the 70's, there was a fear of Modern and contemporary architecture," she said. "Their traditional twist was very reassuring. It was a certification of taste to have a Woolf house." Outfitting the horizontal, single-floor plan of a hacienda-style house with white stucco walls, straight, Moorish rooflines, Greek columns and mansard roofs -- the last a Woolf signature -- the two men established a distinctive look that appealed to people for whom stark Modernism was too spartan and traditional styles were too boring. In one of the more pointed responses to pure Modernist style, in 1962 the two men bought one of the largest so-called Case Study houses -- a clean glass and steel box of a house built in 1954 as part of a utopian design project -- and remodeled it completely, adding a mansard roof to the house and a Doric colonnade around the pool. The restrained theatricality they brought to their many projects also inspired a wave of renovation of the many small bungalows in West Hollywood, which was in the 1960's a Mecca for gay men out to create a new home. While many "Woolf-ized" houses have been torn down, a number remain.
Robert, said White, was also able to seduce the wives. “I thought Kay Gable was going to try to eat him alive. She was married to Adolph Spreckels at the time.” With Puddin’ Dodge DeWitz, it went further. “She and I were going to be married,” Robert said. “We spent all our time with Puddin’ anyway, traveled the world with her in her private plane. So we were like a little family—Papa, Gene, Puddin’, and I. I never loved anyone more than Papa. He knew that, so why did it matter? It was all planned. I got her an emerald ring. But gay people shouldn’t get married like that.”
The most famous of these was a house the Woolfs remodeled for themselves. Case Study House No. 17, built in 1955 by Craig Ellwood, was one of the largest of the houses commissioned as a showcase for modern design by Arts and Architecture magazine. Among the Case Study Houses are the Eames House and Case Study No. 21, by Pierre Koenig, two of the most famous modern houses in the world. The Case Study program is among the key moments in the promotion of 20th-century modern architecture. John and Robert’s re-structuring of Case Study No. 17 became a symbolic incident in the annals of development culture in L.A. “When we bought it, it looked like a school—worse, a prison,” said Robert. “It was terrible, so we re-did it as a Roman pavilion and made it beautiful.” “The purists were so mad: How dare he!” noted Mark Bennett, an L.A. artist. “Well, yeah. But in ’68 nobody wanted these houses. It was the biggest Case Study House ever built. Big garden. They slapped on a double-height entry with a kind of *faux-*tent top. Inside there’s flocked wallpaper and huge curtains with pom-poms. And it’s like every kind of design pattern going. Big, fake blue flowers everywhere. The modernists said, ‘Sacrilege!’ The Beverly Hills crowd said, ‘Thank God!’”
Woolf was the lover, business partner and later adoptive son of John Woolf. In 1971, after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, Woolf adopted Koch and Gene Oney Woolf, who had come to reside with them, in order to legalize their relationship and formally establish a family. A later household member, William Capp, was included as a "brother," although never formally adopted. The Woolfs' own unorthodox living arrangements, known to friends as the "Woolf pack," grew out of efforts in the 1970's to give legal standing to gay relationships. John and Robert had grown apart romantically but continued to live together. In the early 1960's, Robert met Gene Oney, who moved in with both men. When Robert met Gene, in 1963, the younger man was the top hairdresser at Elizabeth Arden in Beverly Hills, where his clients included a number of the wives of Ronald Reagan’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” Gene was originally from Harleton, TX. In 1971, after John Woolf learned he had Parkinson's disease, he adopted both Robert and Gene, who changed their names to Woolf. Later in the decade, Gene and Robert also grew apart, and Robert brought home a new man, William Capp. William, a former navy sailor, recalled exactly how he had met Robert and John: “I was working at a gym and Robert had been scoping me for weeks before he introduced himself. Robert asked, ‘Do you know anyone who needs a job?’ I said no. ‘Have you ever wanted to be a decorator?’ I said no. ‘Can you type?’ I said no. He said, ‘O.K., you’ll do.’ And he hired me.”
What led to the Woolfs’ coming together as an unorthodox family was a complicated playing out of relationships over the years. Robert had made the true nature of his love affair with the man he called Papa ambiguous. “I loved Jack Woolf. I never loved anyone more in my life,” he told. “And that’s why Papa adopted Gene and me,” he said. “When I met Gene, in 1963, and he moved in, Papa, being much older, loved Gene like he was a son. So he adopted us, and we both became his sons. And then I met William, and he thought of William as his son as well. We lived as brothers, and Papa was our father. That’s just the way it was.” Robert often spoke of William as a kind of reincarnation of John Woolf. “They are the same person. The same character exactly,” he’d say.
After John Woolf died in 1980, Robert, Gene and William moved to a largest house in Montecito, on Park Lane, built in the 1930s for a Union Carbide heir and designed by the Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner. Robert devoted himself to restoring it in his later years. He sold the house in the early 1990s for $10 million. (He had paid $1.5 million for it in 1980.) He and his brothers later lived in a grand, Spanish-style house. Robert, Bruce Nelson said, was the dominant member of the family. “When Jack Woolf was alive, he was the star,” Nelson said. “Robert was a decorator—and an extremely talented one—but then, when Jack died, Robert didn’t close up shop. He went on with the formula they had developed—and they developed it together. And the money that was made was really made by Bob buying and selling houses. He had a golden touch. Jack was pure talent, but Bob was a business genius.”
Robert Koch was survived by his companions Gene Oney and William Capp. Shortly after his death in 2004, the lives of all four men were featured in a major article for Vanity Fair. Three years after Robert’s death, Gene and William sold the family house, and they became estranged. “It’s lonely these days,” Gene said. Death taxes took a huge toll on the Woolf fortune. “Millions and millions,” said Gene, who, like William, was heir to the John and Robert Woolf estate. “We sold almost everything off, and William and I had bloody fights over all of Papa and Robert’s furniture. Now he’s gone off and got a face-lift, and he’s riding his motorcycles, like Robert never existed.” Virtually all that remains are the portraits of John and Robert, which Gene kept in a corner of his small cottage on the edge of Montecito. “I knew it was going to happen,” said Gene. “Robert wanted us to be a family. He really didn’t want us to be alone. But it wasn’t meant to be. Even the dogs split up. I kept Honey, and he kept Sweetie. The whole thing has been a nightmare. As soon as Robert went, the civilizing went, too. It’s a sad ending. No, it’s a tragedy. But I guess nothing lasts forever.”
William, who lived in San Francisco, had a last word: “Everything has changed. I don’t have a Big Daddy to go to anymore. Robert was very giving. Once, years ago, he was in the bedroom paying bills, and he said, ‘William, do you know how much you spend?’ And I said no. And he never told me how much I spent, and I never asked. Gene and I were competitive for Robert’s affection. In the end, there was enough to go around, but there were little things. I remember one Christmas, Robert got Gene a red-fox coat that was really spectacular. I got a raccoon coat, and I said, ‘You give him a fox and I get a coon?’ But those were just little things. As I said, things have changed, because taxes ate up the money. I still have a handsome income, because of the trust, but I will never live the way we did again unless I win the lottery.”
After having fallen into disfavor in the last two decades, the Woolf style is enjoying a minor resurgence. The 1942 Pendleton house, one of the grandest that John Woolf designed, is now the home of Robert Evans, the film producer; Sean MacPherson, a Los Angeles restaurateur and hotelier, also bought a Woolf house.
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