Wilt Chamberlain’s House on the Hill
In the early 1970s, Wilt Chamberlain was the king of Los Angeles. He was a basketball star for the Lakers, starred in movies and on TV, cruised around town in a classic Bentley, partied at the Playboy Mansion and played volleyball on weekends on Santa Monica beach. He was a big man in a big city and was looking to build a house worthy of his 7’1″ height.
Wilt’s house at 15261 Antelo Place in Bel-Air was completed in 1972, named “Ursa Major”, and is a muscular mass of concrete, steel and stone surrounded by water. Designed by architect David Rich, it draws inspiration from brutalist architecture and the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright. Rich was tasked by Chamberlain with locating a hilltop location worthy of a trophy mansion. The architect traveled the Santa Monica Mountains by helicopter until he found a 2.5-acre lot with views of the ocean, city, and surrounding mountains. The place was a former Cold War anti-aircraft missile site.
Rich led Chamberlain into the field and drew three shapes in the dirt, a triangle, a circle, and a square. “Wilt stood inside each one,” Rich recounts on his website. [https://usmodernist.org/rich.htm]. “I said, ‘Wilt, this is your home, which shape suits you best?’ The triangle was where Wilt immediately felt comfortable. Wilt’s house would be dictated by triangles. Chamberlain purchased the land for $150,000. The construction cost $1 million.
Wilt’s nickname was “the Big Dipper” since he always had to lower his head to enter a room. His dream house didn’t have this problem. The 2,000-pound, five-foot-thick front door was 14 feet high and led to a large room with 40-foot-high ceilings. “The volumes, spaces, door heights and the like were not designed for human size, but rather for a sense of self and a love of openness and wide open spaces,” said Rich. The house used 200 tons of masonry. Chamberlain consulted on the design process. “I have friends of all sizes,” Wilt said, “and it’s important to me that they feel comfortable in the house.”
Chamberlain wanted the house to look like a cathedral of nature. It was built with five old redwood freight cars evoking a forest of trees. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in lots of natural light. A sunken conversation pit in the Great Hall led to a massive fireplace with a fireplace built of Bouquet Canyon stone nearby. A 16-foot Venetian glass chandelier dominated the dining room.
Wilt was a playboy who loved throwing parties and showing off the “naughty details” of his palace. His notorious bedroom (where he slept with some of the 20,000 women he boasted about in his memoirs) was covered in mink. There was a 72 foot bed with blankets sewn from the nose fur of 17,000 wolves. A Cleopatra-inspired 18-karat gold sunken tub sat at the foot of the bed. On the ceiling, a triangle-shaped mirror retracted to reveal the open sky. The main bathroom was lined with figures of naked women while the shower was 12 feet tall.
Chamberlain loved the aquatic elements. Reflecting pools flanked the entrance to the house. A huge pool surrounded by a moat surrounded the house and extended under one wall into the great hall. This allowed people to swim inside and outside the house. (This would not be allowed by current building codes.)
There was a restaurant-style kitchen, billiard room, gym, and redwood sauna. There was also a detailed X-Rated piece in a 1972 Lifearticle: “A five-sided chamber, its “floor” a circular waterbed, eight feet in diameter, covered in black French rabbit fur. Custom corner sofas in purple velvet fill the space from the bed to the walls. Purple velvet covers the wall and ceiling lit with tiny bulbs like stars. A timed light bounces a spectrum of colors around the room, lending an atmosphere of outer space to the set.
Wilt was a staunch Republican who fell for Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. His Bel-Air neighbors included Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock. Wilt craved privacy, but tourists often showed up asking for a personal tour. He allowed his house to be photographed for the media to appease public curiosity.
Wilt’s basketball accomplishments are legendary. He scored 100 points in a game, had 55 rebounds in a game, averaged 50 points per game for a season, and was never foul. He currently holds 72 NBA records. Former NBA star Johnny Kerr shared a story about Wilt’s power on the court. “Once Wilt got mad at me and dunked the ball so hard it went over the edge with such force that it broke my toe when it hit the ground. I was embarrassed to do let everyone know that I had a broken toe from one of Wilt’s dunks, so I went to the other end of the field, acted like I was tripping, grabbed my toe and I left the game.
In 1973, rumors persisted that Wilt was running out of money to pay for his new home. He left the Lakers to play for the San Diego Conquistadors in the fledgling ABA. His new team paid him $600,000 a year as a player/coach (his Lakers salary was $250,000). The Lakers sued him for breach of contract preventing him from playing in the ABA, although he was cleared to coach.
Chamberlain wrote about his home in his autobiography Wilt: Like any other 7ft black millionaire who lives next door. “It’s good to let people know you have money. It’s a natural thing to want to have a big car, a nice house and a nice suit when many times you’ve been deprived of them and really wanted them. When you can afford it, you can be a bit flamboyant about it.
In 1999, Wilt died in bed of heart failure at age 63. The house has had two owners since his death. The first were the show business couple George and Maria Semple. The second was a Russian investor who had no idea who Chamberlain was. The home has been remodeled several times and currently has six bedrooms and eight bathrooms on 9,395 square feet. The home was put on the market in 2018 for $18 million. Four years later, it’s still available for a discounted price of $11.9 million.