Property where Disney built home and backyard railroad sells for $74 million

Property where Disney built home and backyard railroad sells for $74 million
·Homes Editor
A graphic from ImagineeringDisney.com shows where Walt Disney's house and train stood in relation to today's property.
A graphic from ImagineeringDisney.com shows where Walt Disney's house and train stood in relation to today's property.
The Disneys' original house on Carolwood Drive, right, and Walt Disney's barn workshop in the small valley below, center left. He operated the Carolwood Pacific railroad from the barn.
The Disneys' original house on Carolwood Drive, right, and Walt Disney's barn workshop in the small valley below, center left. He operated the Carolwood Pacific railroad from the barn.

Back in 1949, Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, bought 5 acres in Los Angeles' tony Holmby Hills neighborhood on Carolwood Drive.

They engaged architect James Dolena to build them a 17-room split-level home of about 5,500 square feet. It would be their final home together; he died in 1966, and she died in their home in late 1997.

In 1998, investor Gabriel Brener bought the home for about $8.5 million. At the time, a newsletter from a local Disney-related organization said that "the new owners wish to raise their young children in the home of Walt Disney."

That didn't happen. Instead, "Brener discovered to his disappointment that the house wasn’t suitable to live in due to lead pipes, asbestos, and other issues common to construction in the early 1950s," the same newsletter reported much later. "He was compelled to raze the house."

The home that Brener built in its place, in 2001, has 8 bedrooms and 17 baths in 35,000 square feet spread over three levels. (Click here or on a photo to see a slideshow of the new home on the property.)

And it just sold for $74 million, the Wall Street Journal reports. The international buyer is unnamed.

The asking price for the home -- never publicly listed -- was $90 million. At $16 million less, the sale still ranks among the 5 most expensive home sales this year, according to Zillow Blog.

The Carolwood Pacific emerges from the 90-foot tunnel dug to preserve Lillian Disney's flowerbeds.
The Carolwood Pacific emerges from the 90-foot tunnel dug to preserve Lillian Disney's flowerbeds.
The archway now.
The archway now.

The price almost certainly owes at least a bit to the Disney history, even though the house was bulldozed. “This is a true, true definition of a trophy property,” Mauricio Umansky, chief executive of L.A.'s luxury realty The Agency, told Forbes last year. He represented the home along with Jay Harris of The Agency and Ron de Salvo of Coldwell Banker Previews International in Beverly Hills.

Harris agreed, telling Forbes: “When people buy into L.A. real estate, especially on this magnitude, it’s nice to have a tie to Hollywood, and this area of Holmby Hills was and still is the who’s who of Hollywood."

And a couple of Disney artifacts do remain. A miniature stone archway inscribed with the year 1950, as well as the 90-foot railroad tunnel through the arch, are the remnants of Walt Disney's legendary scale-model backyard railroad.

Soon after he and his wife bought the property, Walt encircled the home and yard with half a mile of track. He hand-built the locomotive himself, in a workshop that studio hands made for him based on his childhood memories of a barn in Marceline, Missouri. The red barn workshop became known as his "happy place." He wrote of his project in the October 1965 issue of Railroad Magazine:

Walt Disney photographs his daughters, Diane and Sharon, in the yard of their home on Carolwood. His red barn is behind them.
Walt Disney photographs his daughters, Diane and Sharon, in the yard of their home on Carolwood. His red barn is behind them.
Disney's backyard barn/workshop, rescued from the Carolwood grounds.
Disney's backyard barn/workshop, rescued from the Carolwood grounds.
The boyhood barn in Marceline, Missouri, that inspired Disney's backyard workshop.
The boyhood barn in Marceline, Missouri, that inspired Disney's backyard workshop.

"Shortly after the Second World War, I was having trouble getting my studio rolling again. I knew another fellow living in Beverly Hills who had built a midget railroad and I determined to build one of my own to keep my mind busy and off studio problems.

"I went about it systematically. After serving an apprenticeship in a machine shop, I studied metalwork and carpentry before I figured I was ready to start building. Then I built a train to one-eighth scale. The engine and the tender combined was seven feet long and operated on coal and water, like the ones I had known as a news butcher. I fashioned all the cars myself. The boxcars were big enough for a person to straddle, and the flatcars could seat two. My special pride was the caboose, which I furnished entirely in miniature, right down to the pot-bellied stove. The engine was designed after one that had run on the old Central Pacific, so I named my little railroad the CP, for Carolwood Pacific, the street I lived on.

"All my planning worked out perfectly except for one factor, my wife. She didn’t take kindly to the idea of having a railroad run around our house, and told me so in no uncertain terms. Things came to such a pass that I went to my lawyer and had him draw up a right-of-way agreement giving me permission to operate the railroad on the property. My wife signed it and my daughters witnessed the agreement.

"I figured out a route around the place, but it required a six-foot cut in one of the slopes. This time my wife put her foot down. So I compromised by building a tunnel 90 feet long and covering it with dirt. I gave my secretary strict instructions not to tell me how much it cost."

Here's Walt Disney testing out the railroad, in footage that aired on the 1956 TV show "Where Do the Stories Come From?":

A visitor at the time, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, recalled in a 1966 appreciation:

"He seemed totally disinterested in movies and wholly, almost weirdly concerned with the building of a miniature railroad engine and a string of cars in the workshops of the studio. All of his zest for invention, for creating fantasies, seemed to be going into this plaything. I came away feeling sad.

"I needn't have been. Mr. Disney, the cinema artist and tycoon, was even then joyously gestating another Mouse. It was born as Disneyland. This great amusement park may be a symbol of mass commercialism in our day. It may be an entertainment supermarket. It may be many things that high-brow citizens frown on. But it is tasteful, wholesome and clean. It is a place of delight for millions, who escape into its massive fantasies."

That's right: The backyard railroad was the genesis of the train you'll find circling Disneyland and its sister parks. The train was the first detail Disney established for the theme park, which eventually sprawled into Main Street, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and the entire Magic Kingdom.

The original Lilly Belle. Click any photo to go to a slideshow.
The original Lilly Belle. Click any photo to go to a slideshow.

And the backyard tunnel's S curve -- adopted so passengers couldn't see the other end of the tunnel -- inspired the "dark rides" repeated on many Disney attractions, according to Michael Broggie's definitive book "Walt Disney's Railroad Story."

Broggie's dad, Roger, was Walt Disney's first "Imagineer," and Michael got to ride the Carolwood Pacific as a young boy of 6. "My brother Roger [Jr.] and I would be given a cloth to wipe down the trains for his guests," Broggie told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. "We were the crew. ... Then Walt used to pour libations for the adults and make [elaborate] ice cream sundaes with cherries and nuts for the kids."

He recalled: "Walt had special anthracite coal ground to 1/8 scale back in Scranton, Pa., and shipped out in 100-pound bags. He had a little 1/8-scale shovel he used to load the coal in the firebox."

The Carolwood Pacific locomotive -- which Walt dubbed the Lilly Belle in another attempt to win over his wife, Lillian -- survives at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Disney's family had the red barn workshop moved to the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum at Griffith Park in 1999, where it's still available to visit on the third Sunday of every month.

And the Holmby Hills property that just sold for $74 million is what remains of that 20th century Disney estate. Click here or on a photo to see what it looks like now.

Click image for a bigger version in our slideshow.
Click image for a bigger version in our slideshow.