Nearing completion after five years of construction in the hills of Bel-Air, Chateau des Fleurs looms like some super-sized Hollywood notion of dynastic France.
From the street, the two-story mansion on three acres — where Stone Canyon and Bellagio roads converge south of the Hotel Bel-Air, across from the fourth fairway of the Bel-Air Country Club — is largely obscured by fences, trees and equipment.
A better view is available from an ungated lawn on nearby Siena Way, where an observer can peer down on the palatial, U-shaped residence with its Versailles-inspired mansard roof and dormer windows and ponder: Just how much house does a family need?
In an era when urban hipsters in New York and Tokyo are embracing 300-square-foot micro living quarters, and regular folks nationwide typically occupy 2,500 square feet, Chateau des Fleurs shows the enduring appeal of behemoth homes for the uber-rich who can afford them — or at least think they can.
The economic downturn put a damper on the ultra-high-end market for a time, but aspirations are once again surging.
"It's no question [houses are] getting bigger and being used less often, not as primary residences," said Jeffrey Hyland, a well-known high-end real estate agent.
Hyland said he expects to see 20 houses of 20,000 square feet or more coming on the market in the next year. "They're all asking over $20 million and were all built by speculators to flip," he said.
Sumptuous living has been de rigueur in Bel-Air since the 1920s, when founder Alphonzo E. Bell bought and subdivided a sprawling ranch into parcels for prominent Angelenos.
Over time, the neighborhood has attracted VIPs from entertainment and business. Jennifer Aniston has a home in Bel-Air. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk paid $17 million for a 20,000-square-foot Bel-Air manse, then bought the former Gene Wilder estate across the street for $6.75 million, perhaps to preserve his view. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch recently paid $28.8 million for a 13-acre winery and mansion.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the community has just 8,261 residents in six square miles, making it one of Los Angeles County's most thinly populated areas.
Chateau des Fleurs (translation: chateau of the flowers), designed by architect William Hefner, has been the subject of much fascination among L.A. real estate watchers. The mansion features a ballroom, three elevators, a pool, a paddle tennis court pavilion, a guardhouse and a guesthouse.
It's not L.A.'s largest house, but it comes very close.
Of Chateau des Fleurs' 60,000 square feet, only about 40,000 is considered habitable by the city. The remaining third consists of underground parking and storage space, said Luke Zamperini, chief inspector for the city's Building and Safety Department.
That appears to leave the former Spelling Manor in Holmby Hills, with 56,000 habitable square feet (plus or minus a gift-wrapping room) and a 14-vehicle carport (of perhaps 5,000 square feet), atop the throne of residential gigantism in Los Angeles County. The manor, another French-style citadel, is now owned by Petra Ecclestone, daughter of Formula One mogul Bernie Ecclestone. She paid $85 million in cash for the place, then spent millions more remodeling.
Nearby is the contemporary colossus where Tony Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, lives with his wife, Jeanne, and their seven children in nearly 40,000 square feet, including a seven-car garage, according to the city. (Real estate blogs have put the Pritzker manse at closer to 50,000 square feet. Pritzker declined to comment on the size.)
Benedict Canyon residents have battled a Saudi prince's plan to build a sizable compound on three parcels at the end of a private road. It was originally proposed at 85,000 square feet, but an attorney for the prince said the size has been reduced.
Meanwhile, Beverly Park, a gated community of mega-homes near Bel-Air founded in 1990, is experiencing its first tear-down — of the 17,000-square-foot, fire-damaged, chateau-style manse where Lisa Vanderpump, known for her appearances on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," used to live.
Beverly Park was designed to offer the big homes not available in older communities. But Hyland noted that "17,000 square feet is a small house today, particularly if you're in Beverly Park."
Buyers from Singapore, Thailand, Russia and the Middle East who use L.A. as a crash pad are helping to drive the mega-house phenomenon, Hyland said.
It's difficult to pinpoint the number of super-sized houses because real estate sources tend to focus on the value of home sales, not square footage.
Andrew LePage, a DataQuick analyst, said public records show a marked increase in sales of $20-million-plus luxury homes in Los Angeles County. From 2003 to 2008, the county recorded a total of 11 such sales. From 2010 to 2012, the county averaged 10 such recorded sales each year.
Buzz Yudell, a Santa Monica architect, said "an inflation of expectations" is driving the big-home trend. "You start saying, 'Shouldn't I have an entertainment room and a gym and fill-in-the-blank because that's what everybody's doing?'" he said. "When does it cross over into being a pure statement — edifice complex?"
Sarah Susanka, a North Carolina architect and author of the "Not So Big House" and "Not So Big Life" book series, said she attempts to avoid judging people who live large.
"For most of us [these are] so far from what we can conceive of as a house that we automatically see it as gauche or grotesque," she said. "But, in fact, some of these very large houses can in the long haul become something more than a house."
The Pritzkers, for example, use their Angelo Drive residence to raise money to benefit the environment, UCLA and other causes. In the two years they've occupied the house, with its children's wing and soaring hotel-scale atrium, they have held scores of events. At a November gathering for foster youth, Gov. Jerry Brown and former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa were among the guests.
"We've raised about $15 million in two years," Pritzker said. "Jeanne and I are very proud of the charitable work we do. It is part of our civic duty."
It remains to be seen how Chateau des Fleurs will be used. It was designed with husband-and-wife wings, with communal rooms where the couple will meet in the middle, said Hyland, who toured the house several months ago.
Permits list the owner as Jeffrey A. Kaplan.
Kaplan is a media-shy Los Angeles lawyer turned real estate maverick who, with business partner Thomas T. Tatum, owns about 18 mobile home parks. Kaplan was the architect of a failed 1996 state initiative to bar all California communities from adopting new rent-control ordinances for mobile home parks.
Calls to Kaplan were returned by his attorney, who said Kaplan holds the property with "a number of others with substantial financial interests in the house."
Paulette DuBey, executive director of the Bel-Air Assn., a homeowners group, said Kaplan has been a generous supporter of Keep Bel-Air Beautiful, a program funded by volunteer contributions, and has paid the cost of maintaining two traffic islands near the chateau.
Some blogs have guessed that the chateau was built on spec (one blog floated a price of more than $100 million) — and real estate sources say it was shown months ago — but DuBey said Kaplan intends to occupy it.
"The home was built for the family," she said. "He is not going to sell the home."