The first is hard to miss, but easy to mistake. Understandably, natives and tourists alike often confuse this 35-room Italianate mansion, the Villa de Leon (pictured above) with the Getty Villa, the celebrated museum of classical antiquity, and one of the area’s premier attractions. Deceptively, the Villa de Leon rests directly above a sign, and turnoff, for the Getty, inviting immediate confusion (although both structures are not in fact accessible from the same road). And both villas boast terra cotta roofs, Mediterranean flourishes, and facades that gleam near-white in the copious California sunshine. But the similarities end there.
Built in 1927 by wool magnate Leon Kauffman for his wife Clemence, the Villa de Leon predates the Pacific Coast Highway, and its Depression-era predecessor Roosevelt Highway, by several years and features more than 10,000 square-feet of living space, nine bedrooms, an enormous grand ballroom, and various accoutrements imported from around the world. In ensuing decades, caretakers let the property languish, and landslides ruined the once ornate gardens. Recently restored, the villa’s new owners have already made significant, visible inroads in repairing cracks to the foundation and helping to prevent further soil erosion— and the cataclysmic collapse that would ensue.
Fifty years later, and 500 feet north, J. Paul Getty, the tireless industrialist had the 64-acre Getty Villa complex built, which he partially modeled after the Villa of the Papyri, whose ruins were preserved in ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Following a traditional Roman floorplan, the villa seamlessly blends indoor and outdoor living spaces and features an open air atrium and peristyle (a garden with a long, shallow fountain pool flanked by colonnaded porches) opening almost every room up to direct sunlight. Getty died in 1976 before its completion, but today it houses more than 44,000 Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Ptolemaic Egyptian artifacts in its more than 48,000 square feet of gallery space and welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Curiously enough, although a private residence and thus closed to the public, perhaps more people have seen inside the Villa de Leon than the better-known Getty Villa, thanks to its enduring popularity as a filming and photo shoot location, where everyone from Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson, and Reese Witherspoon have graced its gilded halls (a number of interior photos are available online.
Both sites are well worth a visit, although parking at the Getty Villa must be arranged in advance; the Villa de Leon is located off the rather obscure Porto Marina Way directly off the PCH heading toward Santa Monica.