Chaplin’s Mansion Gets $100k Lighting Upgrade
An extensive lighting system brings Hollywood glory back to Charlie Chaplin's former home.
Charlie Chaplin house
A $100,000 lighting system illuminates this historic Hollywood mansion. Photo: Michael Neveux
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April 03, 2007 by Steven Castle

There is something about the glamour of Hollywood past—and not just the jazzy backdrop of the ‘50s and ‘60s Rat Pack, the glitz of deco-era stars and styles. Go back further, near the beginning, when celluloid was burned in black and white, and there was no soundtrack save the accompanying music. Even the tinny notes compiled an unabashed tone, full of action, hope and the promise of something lively to come.

It was the days of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and plenty of notorious off-screen escapades—and it was a time when the homes that sprang up in the surrounding hills celebrated the exuberant spirit of an entertainment industry at its birth.

Only shards of that period remain today, and one of them is a home called Moorcrest, a 3,000-square-foot Moorish-style mansion located beneath the famous Hollywood sign and sprouting onion domes, a glass dome, two prayer rooms on parapets, a fountain room and more. It was built in 1921 and rented for several years by silent-film star Charlie Chaplin. Later, Mary Astor of “The Maltese Falcon” fame purchased the home. And still later it fell into silent disrepair.

The present owners appreciate the home’s history but insisted on a technological makeover. Primarily, they wanted a lighting control system capable of great flexibility and programming. “There were a lot of pendants and chandeliers, all of Moroccan style,” says lighting designer Neil Splonskowski of Neil Splonskowski Lighting Design in Redondo Beach, CA. “They look pretty, but they don’t make a lot of light.”

Splonskowski needed to highlight the art, fountains, stairs and a home theater, so an entire rewiring through the plaster and lath walls had to be done by electricians. Splonskowski added recessed Cooper Iris housings to make the light sources disappear and painted recessed cans to match the artwork on the ceilings. “All the ceilings have intricate painting, so if you have a can in that, the trim has to match,” he says.

Lights throughout the house are controlled by a Vantage Legrand lighting control system, complete with global and learnable scenes. “The house is very open, and his wife liked things simple. So he wanted global and learnable scenes,” says Splonskowski of the homeowners. They also wanted control of individual areas, so every load is controlled on web tablets and keypads. And for learnable scenes, there’s a button that memorizes the settings with a five-second hold. 

While working to match the home’s existing style and meet the homeowners’ needs, Splonskowksi added several touches of today’s cutting edge in the form of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that are more efficient and last longer than incandescent bulbs.

The dark master suite is illuminated by tiny LEDs hidden throughout the room’s ornate woodwork, shining light on the large mosaic tub in the center of the room beneath vaulted decorative ceilings. In the prayer rooms off the roof and in the library, LEDs had to be built into the niches. More LEDs were placed behind translucent onyx on the staircases to elegantly light the path to the prayer rooms. In addition, a photoelectric laser in a stairwell to the housekeeping quarters turns on the lights when a person breaks the beam.

But by far the most challenging area for Splonskowski was the fountain room, a two-story glass-domed living room. Twenty-foot-plus pilasters are illuminated with recessed canned lights in the floor, LEDs beam from the top of the capitals onto the glass dome above, and hidden directional lights reflect out from the water in a central fountain so the entire room dances with light at night. “Due to long lamp life, the LEDs can be positioned up high,” Splonskowski says. There is a challenge when working with LEDs, though. “You have to dim them differently; you have to ramp them up a little,” he says. “It’s also tough to dim them to a certain percentage.”

In the media room, LED lighting helps illuminate the square room with a hallway bisected with a series of posts. Behind one of those walls is a series of arched windows that allows natural light to fill the room, and a film screen is mounted diagonally in one corner. In the kitchen, LEDs were mounted under and above the cabinets for working light and accents. Outside, lighting for the large koi pond is integrated into the controls. To date, the price tag for lighting control in the home is $100,000.

The system is controlled by two touchpanels (with three docking stations) and 47 keypads. The whole setup is completely integrated with five climate control zones and whole-house audio, and it’s set up to interface with security cameras and the alarm system.

To match the Moorish architecture, the homeowners imported Moroccan antiques, from the massive bronze front doors facing a portico driveway to the tiny niches in the library that give the impression of a Buddhist temple. The manse is also loaded with Hollywood memorabilia, from movie posters to autographed photos. That seems only fitting, given that the home’s Hollywood history dates back to the silent film era. Though this home is silent no more.

CE Pro editor Jason Knott contributed to this article.

Equipment List: Lighting System

  • Vantage MPER-4 Main Power Enclosure Recessed 4 modules (3)
  • Vantage SPER-4 Secondary Power Enclosure Recessed 4 modules (3)
  • Vantage MC master controllers (3)
  • Vantage SC slave controllers (3)
  • Vantage C5V-W LCD 5.5-inch wall-mount color touchscreens with video (2)
  • Vantage keypad stations (44)
  • Vantage ScenePoint dimmers (3)
  • Vantage faceplates (47)

Equipment List: Home Entertainment

Electronics Design & Installation
Neil Splonskowski Lighting Design
Redondo Beach, CA
310-370-6664

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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