Wallace Neff (January 28, 1895 – June 8, 1982) was an architect based in Southern California and was largely responsible for developing the region's distinct architectural style referred to as "California" style. Neff was a student of architect Ralph Adams Cram and drew heavily from the architectural styles of both Spain and the Mediterranean as a whole, gaining extensive recognition from the number of celebrity commissions, notably Pickfair, the mansion belonging originally to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
Wallace Neff was born to Edwin Neff and Nettie McNally, daughter of Chicago printing tycoon Andrew McNally (Rand-McNally Corporation). Since Grandfather McNally had moved to Altadena, California in 1887 and founded Rancho La Mirada, La Mirada, California was Neff's birthplace. However, he spent a great deal of time at the Altadena residence, a grand Queen Anne Victorian mansion which looked from the hillside community down to the Pacific Ocean. It would become little wonder that the young Neff would take up an interest in architecture given his surroundings on Millionaire's Row (Mariposa Avenue). At age nine Wallace had moved to Europe with his family only to return to the U.S. at the outbreak of World War I.
His interest in architecture saw him studying under the revered Ralph Adams Cram in Massachusetts. He eventually returned to California and took up residence in Altadena while serving as a shipyard draftsman in Wilmington. Eventually he found himself ready for the architectural realm creating designs of the Spanish Medieval period including his own home Parish of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church, established 1918 in Altadena. His gift to the parish as well as the community was the design of the church building finished and dedicated in 1926.
The church is of Spanish Medieval design including a bell tower which is patterned after a Spanish watchtower. The view from its broad portals at 100 feet gave an enormous panorama not only of the Southern California country side, now blocked by the since-built steeple of Westminster Presbyterian Church to its south, but an expansive view of the San Gabriel Mountains to its north which boast peaks up to 7,000 feet in altitude. The building is reminiscent of the Serra Missions with its arched south porch and terra cotta tiles. It has high stucco-on-concrete walls with small, high stain glass windows. Below each window is a taller stain glass window with biblical depictions leaded into each one.
It boasts a Spanish tile roof and a massive plank wood arched front double door. The interior is vaulted to heights in excess of 50 feet. Across its ceiling are three broad rough hewn trusses acting to support the gabled ceiling. In actuality, the building's superstructure is built of iron girders. Other details on the exterior are broad wing sweeping walls and exaggerated window sills with wooded bars. These features become an important part of his developing style. The Saint Elizabeth church building is the only house of worship ever designed by Neff, and has the distinction of being the oldest building in use for Catholic worship in the Southland.
To the parish plant Neff added the priests' rectory, the convent for the Holy Name Sisters who taught at the school, and a pet project, a shrine to Saint Theresa of Avila (1929) which features the true style of his architecture. This makes Saint Elizabeth Parish a rare collection of Wallace Neff works.
The California Style
As Neff's style became more popular and demanded by the elite, the rich, and the famous, he moved to the exclusive Pasadena suburb of San Marino. To his client list he adds the Singer Mansion, Gillette Mansion, the Gates Residence. Libby Ranch, and the Pickfair Estate. Other fine mansions line the streets of Chapman Woods, Hancock Park, San Marino, Glendora, Beverly Hills, San Pascual Avenue, California Street and others in lower East Pasadena.
In 1946 Neff designed the airform or "bubble" house, a distinctive form of inexpensive housing, a dome-shaped construction made of reinforced concrete that was cast in position over an inflatable balloon (airform). Though the design did not gain support in the United States, it was used for large housing projects in Egypt, Brazil, and West Africa during the 1940s and 1950s.
In 2001, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston supposedly paid $13.5 million for a Neff house owned at different times by actor Fredric March and the philanthropist and USC trustee Wallis Annenberg. In 1998, actress Diane Keaton, an avid fan of Neff's work, purchased a low-slung Neff house in Beverly Hills – featured in Architectural Digest, July 1999 – with the front lawn covered in lavender, for $7.5 million. This home was later purchased by Madonna and Guy Ritchie, and was still in their possession as of 2007.
Everett Phipps Babcock and Georgious Y. Cannon worked in Neff's office.