Written by Caleigh Wells
Photography by Julie Wuellner
Since 1978, a luxurious home with Scottish towers and turrets sat atop a mountain overlooking Malibu Colony, Catalina Island, and the Santa Monica Bay. “Princess” Lilly Lawrence, daughter of an exiled oil minister, threw lavish parties there and called it “Castle Kashan,” though Malibu residents knew it lovingly as “Malibu Castle.” That was until 10 years ago, when the Malibu Canyon fire leveled it, destroying centuries-old chandeliers, millions of dollars in artwork and furniture, and a jewelry collection said to be second only to Queen Elizabeth’s.
The 17-million-dollar property sat empty for eight years until developer Scott Gillen bought it in 2015 for just under 10 million dollars. He began to work on an idea for a new castle where the beloved landmark once stood. After he bought the property he tripled his original budget to build his “New Castle,” making it the most extravagant home he has ever built. Within the ashes of the old castle was a loophole that allowed Gillen to build the most expensive home in Malibu to date. Since the Malibu Castle burned down, the project is exempt from modern zoning regulations as long as it stays within the boundaries of the original house, making it truly one of a kind. But Gillen says it’s not just about size.
“It’s large but it’s also very intimate. You’re not yelling across to the other side. Even though it’s big it still is a very intimate environment.” It’s also all about detail, he says. Down to the books on every shelf. “The struggle when you’re buying books,” he says, “is to make sure that they look good where they sit but also to make sure that there’s something good to actually read.” And between the detail, the quality, and the size, Gillen says the price tag is well worth it. “When people question the price of the house, they need to look at the quality of the house and this house is probably the highest quality that you’ll see,” he says.
The “New Castle” boasts 15,000 square feet of living space. The 5-bedroom, 6-bathroom main house is 10,500 square feet and lined with dry-aged oak floors, and doors and cabinetry with a custom teak finish. In addition to a 4,000 square foot guest house, amenities include a master suite with a soaker tub, a 120-ft great room, game room, gym, humidor, spa, and a fully-stocked wine room. In case that isn’t enough, there is also a home theater opening to the 75-ft infinity pool, with a waterfall that flows down a full story to the home’s lower level. For the price of $85 million he even throws in custom furniture valued at over $1 million, and a year of concierge services. Gillen says behind all the luxury in every property is a consideration for livability, a consistent flexibility, and a constant pursuit of “wow’s.” “My formula is that I build every house like I would live in it and I think that is the success.” But part of that means deviating from the blue prints. “I’m a design-build kind of guy so what happens is I build a box and I have an idea of the inside,” he says. “But I really let the project speak to me as it evolves.” All throughout New Castle there are evolutions like these, which Gillen calls afterthoughts. One of those afterthoughts is a $100,000 steel hanging art piece that covers a blank wall. Another is the first thing you see when you walk through the front door. Only after construction began did he think to put a wine cellar in the entry way, made with over $1 million worth of teak wood. He did it to create another “wow.” “I’m looking for moments. It’s important that you look at it and just go, ‘wow,’” he says. “The idea is to catch as many wows as you can.” Those wows include the wine cellar, the expansive ocean views once you reach the living space, the width of the open floor plan, and the viewpoint from the lower deck where you can see the mountains in Malibu Canyon, the ocean, and Malibu’s iconic Serra Retreat a strong stone’s throw away.
While putting the finishing touches on the “New Castle,” Gillen bought 24 acres along the Pacific Coast Highway for $50 million, making it the most expensive undeveloped land in Malibu to date. He bought it after joint venture partners spent 11 years working on obtaining coastal development permits that would allow homes to be built there. The lot sits in the exclusive Malibu Colony neighborhood. He told The Real Deal that it will have “the most spectacular views that anybody has ever seen.” “The codes are changing dramatically here,” he told us. “The Case was a big deal for me because you can’t get those homes anymore.” This will also be the first multi-home development Gillen will build. He said they will each be made in a mid-century modern style. In an October interview, Gillen said the renderings of The Case will be released in the next couple months. The 24-hour guarded, gated community will have 5 single-family homes all between 10,500 and 13,500 square feet on lots ranging between 2.45-5.78 acres. The community, which he is calling “The Case,” is scheduled to be on the market by around 2020. The asking price for a home in The Case? A mere $40-$60 million.
Scott Gillen is a man of many talents. He has developed dozens of properties that total $130 million in sales. And yet, he doesn’t consider himself a developer first. Gillen says his “real job” is as a filmmaker and director. He devoted 17 years of his life to directing commercials and television shows before he ever dipped his foot in real estate. In that time, he shot more than 120 commercials for clients like Lincoln-Mercury, Mercedes-Benz and GMC. But even when he’s building houses, his background in film always influences what he does. “As you shoot you’re composing a shot, so as I build I compose, and I’m always composing a shot, so it’s a matter of artistic value of everything I see. I want to make sure that that has a perfect composition to it,” he says. That also means Gillen’s houses always face south, his kitchens are on the right to capture the sunrise in the east, the dining rooms are on the left to capture the sunset, and the house rarely sits in shadow. “Being the film background I have, we always work with the sun so natural lighting is better,” he says.
Behind all his work he says he finds passion in starting with nothing and making something great. He enjoys making cars, bikes, homes, commercials, and TV shows. Photos of his 1930s Fords sit next to multi-million-dollar SoCal homes that he has developed. “I live to create, and so for years I’ve put everything I am, every single day, into turning ideas and dreams—mostly my own— into reality,” he writes on his website. “What these projects have in common is my absolute dedication to a hands-on, hand build process.” From Gillen’s passion to create came an inspiration nearly 20 years ago to move beyond what he could make with a camera. During his time as a filmmaker, Gillen experienced a contract dispute that forced him to take a break from commercials for a year. Unlike what his peers might have done, he took this setback and used it as an opportunity to try his hand at building a house. And so, he did. The first house he built was in Venice, on the neighborhood’s iconic Abbott Kinney Boulevard. He sold that first property fourteen years ago, and at the time it sold for the highest price in that street’s history. He quickly discovered a passion for building homes. As a self-described control freak, he enjoys being able to create without having to answer to anyone else. “I like to create things and make things that nobody else does,” Gillen says. As he walks around to show the highlights of his New Castle, there is an apparent dedication to both utility and aesthetics. From the patio to the kitchen to the thermostats in each room, one word kept popping up in his descriptions: ergonomic. “Ergonomically to me means you should reach for a light switch and it should be there because you think it should be there,” he says. “So everywhere that you grab that you should see something, it should be there. That to me is ergonomics.” With ergonomics in mind, Gillen carefully determines the placement of rooms and appliances, the angle of his windows, and the exact height of each stair to make walking as easy as possible: 6 1/8 inches.
Today, Gillen juggles his roles as a director and builder. He founded his development company, Unvarnished, for his housing projects. Two years ago he was one of three employees there, and today the company is 15 strong. While he spends much of his time in real-estate, he continues to work behind the camera as a director and producer. Recently, he has worked on episodes of television shows like “Build or Bust” and “Setup,” as well as the 2017 movie, “Carbon Canyon.”
And when you ask him what he does when he isn’t working, he smiles like he has a secret. “I love what I do, this isn’t working,” he says. “I think every day that I wake up and go to work I do my hobbies so I build houses, I build cars and furniture, I toy with glasses, jewelry, what have you.” He joked that his doctor said he has to smoke at least three cigars per day. He also loves to grow tea, and in ten years he hopes to have a big, big boat. He also is an avid collector. “I like to collect things, but my wife doesn’t like the things, so I have them in a completely separate building, a building of things that are not allowed in the house. I’m going to fix that soon though,” he says. Gillen has built homes throughout Southern California but works primarily in Malibu, where he has lived for the past thirty years.
Now, he’s focused on his new project, a neighborhood he’s calling “The Case.” This time around he is working with architect Richard Landry, who has worked on some of the largest mansions in the Los Angeles area. His agent, Sandro Dazzan of Coldwell Banker, says that was the largest purchase ever for an undeveloped piece of land in Malibu. But for now, he says New Castle holds the title for his best yet. “I think this is my favorite project. I think that every project I do evolves so each project I finish is my favorite project,” he says. MM