When Ya Wish upon a House

Former home of celebrated Disney animator an impeccably preserved dream come true
When Ya Wish upon a House
Frank Thomas, one of the 'Nine Old Men' who drew Walt Disney's groundbreaking animated films, died in 2004—and his mid-century 'dream home,' now on the National Register of Historic Places, went on the market recently in Southern California. Photos: courtesy Matt Berkley
When Ya Wish upon a House
When Ya Wish upon a House
Frank Thomas: at his home studio in his heyday.
When Ya Wish upon a House

Throughout the mid-20th century, Walt Disney's fame and impact on American culture skyrocketed. Years later, we learned of the 'Nine Old Men' who drew Disney's groundbreaking animated films. Two were the subject of a 1995 documentary, 'Frank and Ollie.'

Frank Thomas was the last of the nine to join Disney Studios, and he became fast friends with Ollie Johnston. The two artists had modernist dream homes built adjacent to each other in now-tony La Cañada Flintridge. Only one still stands, it is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it hit the market late last month for a cool $3,228,000.

"It actually is a very warm and inviting house," says Matt Berkley, listing agent for the home known as the Animator's House, contrasting it with the hilly opulence of the neighborhood. The 1959 construction is 3,500 square feet with four beds, three baths, and a post-and-beam design by one of the most prolific modernists of the San Gabriel Valley, Ted Criley Jr.

For nearly all the decades when Thomas was creating unforgettable scenes, like the spaghetti dinner in 'Lady and the Tramp' and Captain Hook playing piano, the Claremont firm of Criley and McDowell was designing more than 1,000 homes and numerous churches and public buildings in the area, including a Pitzer College residential hall. The animator was a different kind of client though, because of his very pronounced vision for the house.

"He was like Disney royalty," Berkley said of Thomas, who died in 2004 and is survived by a son who grew up in the house, has written about it, and lives there. The agent was explaining what he said had been "a lot of inquiries" since the house was listed January 20. "This is the first time it's ever been on the market."

"What's interesting to me is the demand is as much as the Lautners and Neutras that we've [sold]," said the agent, who is an associate with 'collectible homes' specialist Crosby Doe and has a Masters in architectural history. He added ruefully, "People are flocking to the house, but not necessarily to buy it."

Ollie Johnston had a Cliff May house with a miniature steam train on the same hill, but it was demolished after his death in 2008. Berkley believes the same fate would befall the Thomas house were it not for one critical saving grace.