Architecture & Film Feature

Houses in Film: The Faded Grandiosity of Sunset Boulevard’s Mansion

In a new feature, Aliza Richardson fixes her gaze on memorable houses in film, exploring their uniqueness as architectural marvels and evocative cinematic locations.

In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond’s mansion is a ghost of its former self and the ghostly embodiment of her faded career. Tucked away behind a desolate garage and a jungle of overgrown trees, the house is hidden from the glare of an ever-evolving Hollywood that has no place for Norma Desmond’s silent stardom.

Upon discovering the Mediterranean-style mansion, William Holden’s Joe Gillis remarks that:

“a neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades.”

It’s a striking property, left to fade away. Wilting palm trees, weeds, and dead leaves cover the ground. An empty pool and an abandoned tennis court suggest faint echoes of a carefree, former life. Curtains cover every window, keeping the outside world from invading the carefully constructed cocoon which Norma has created for herself, exquisitely portrayed by Gloria Swanson.

©1950 Paramount Pictures

Despite the house’s crumbling exterior, the interior appears as though nothing has changed in 20 years. The inside of the mansion is a time capsule of Norma’s career, cluttered with memories of former glories. Framed photographs of a younger, spirited Norma hang on walls and adorn every table and mantel. The living room includes a private cinema where the only films that play are her own, long forgotten by everyone but her.

The true story of the mansion mirrors its fate in the film. It was built between 1922 and 1923 for businessman William Oscar Jenkins, who lived in it for only a year before moving to Mexico for business. It was left vacant for a decade, sitting in neglect, falling apart, which earned the derelict mansion the title the “Phantom House.” Finally, in 1936 the lonely house was sold to oil magnate, J. Paul Getty, who bought it as an investment, with no intention of ever living in it. The house was periodically occupied by Getty’s ex-wife and during one of her stays it was discovered as the perfect deteriorating location for Sunset Boulevard, and thus be immortalized as one of Hollywood’s most iconic houses. It’s the kind of house that “crazy movie people built in the crazy 20s”, doomed to be overlooked as time moves on, just like Norma Desmond. The house appeared on screen once more, even more dilapidated, in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) before it was torn down in 1957 to make space for an insipid office building.

With its colorful history and grim interiors, the house was a perfect fit for Sunset Boulevard. However, Wilder felt the layout and size of the rooms limited the filming potential. For that reason, art director Hans Dreier was tasked with creating exact replicas of the house’s interiors, on the Paramount lot. The sets were intricately designed to duplicate every detail of the house, including copies of the original custom floor tiles in the living room. 

With lofty ceilings, ornate columns, stained glass windows, and a regal staircase, the interiors of Norma’s home are overstated in a way that resemble the elaborate sets of silent films. The enormous rooms are cluttered with gaudy decor: candelabras, cherub sculptures, a pipe organ, chandeliers, perpetually drawn velvet curtains, a lavish bed shaped like a gondola, and of course, the photographs.

©1950 Paramount Pictures

These adornments are Norma’s attempts to mask her loneliness, an effort to forget that the house is her self-made prison. She lures Joe into her peculiar confinement and does whatever she can to convince them both that it’s preferable to that world outside. Watching one of her old movies in the living room is “so much nicer than going out,” she’d say. She throws a New Year’s party for two in her magnificent ballroom and she fills the pool with glistening water. But the reminders of  Norma’s desolation are everywhere. The entrance resembles a cell door, branches like barbwire enclose the stairwell up to Joe’s room above the garage, and the locks were removed from every door following her attempts at suicide. The inevitable passing of time is bound to slither its way into that “grim sunset castle” as Joe so fondly calls it, and when it does, the consequences of keeping it out are deadly.

By Aliza Richardson

Aliza is a film major at Seattle University. She runs the Instagram account Housesinfilm, where she pours all of her lifelong love of films and houses. She loves researching the relationship between film and architecture and is an avid consumer of horror films: the good, the bad, and the horrible. She thinks all houses are beautiful, especially the ones that are falling apart a little.