September 10, 1979 12:00 PM

Building a house is like giving birth. When the baby is born, you forget about the pain,” observes Lee Grant, whose last “labor” was more traumatic than most. A freakish gust of wind lifted the half-finished Malibu retreat she and husband Joe Feury were expecting from its foundations and smashed it to pieces. Yet architect Peter Choate delivered Grant’s pride and joy only six months late, and both mother and 11-room, French country-style home are doing well. “Every time I go outside,” the actress giggles, “I say, ‘I wish I owned a house like that.’ ”

For Choate, 38, working with stars has become so routine he can even afford to make mistakes. When he designed Beverly Hills’ Ginger Man restaurant, he spelled the co-owner’s name wrong on the door. But restaurateur Carroll (two rs, two ls) O’Connor forgave Choate, who had earlier designed his Westwood house. “When famous people deal with their own homes, they’re just like any other client,” says Choate. At 25, he started working for his father, Chris, himself an architect for Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Patti Page. Later Peter apprenticed with L.A. architect Ted Grenzbach, who numbered Dinah Shore and Rock Hudson among his customers. Eight years ago, after he found himself “working eight hours a day and moonlighting eight,” Choate opened his own office. Since then he has been commissioned by such celebrities as Linda Ronstadt (when he renovated her storm-battered Malibu beach house, Choate recalls, “Governor Brown sneaked around a lot”) and director Alan (Klute) Pakula.

Choate believes his laid-back style draws the stars to him. “Because of their success, they’re not afraid to express strong opinions. I’m low-key, and generally these people like that.” Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft, liked Peter well enough to hire him twice: He built their Malibu beach house last year, and now he’s designing a new home in West Los Angeles with the Brookses’ 7-year-old son, Max, in mind. “It’s their house, and I don’t try to impose my will on them,” says Peter. “They’ve got to like it, even if I never make the architecture magazines.” TV actor Peter (Rich Man, Poor Man) Strauss, who asked Choate to renovate an old stone house in Agoura, adds: “Peter has someting that’s very rare in California. Taste.”

Choate has worked in a variety of residential styles but prefers to combine stucco walls, stone fireplaces, tile roofs and rough-hewn beams. Lee Grant calls him “a dreamer. He just molds and thinks and takes his time designing and won’t be hurried.” Choate’s fee is 12.5 percent of the construction cost, so that when he works overtime “it’s my money.” He has spent as much as three years finishing some houses—and Choate says he isn’t through until the furniture is moved in. He makes more emergency house calls—such as on the night Grant’s bathtub overflowed—than most doctors. Choate can comfortably handle only eight new jobs a year, and though he’s too polite to refuse a client, overwork has taught him to “stick my head in the sand and hope some people go away.”

Peter’s father, who also designed sets for MGM and taught art at UCLA, now helps Peter when the schedule jams up. His mother is a painter now, but when Peter was a child, she designed the family’s L.A. houses. “With that background, the last thing I wanted to study was architecture,” says Choate. But at Stanford, where he enrolled for golf (an All-American, he thought of turning pro, and still plays once a week), he took an architectural course to get an easy A. After marrying at 20, he decided to stick with it.

Choate and his wife, Pat, 37, live with their three children near horsey Mandeville Canyon in a five-and-a-half-year-old Choate original that Pete admits “is not quite finished.” “There’s a bit of the cobbler’s-children-have-no-shoes in all this,” says Pat. Choate insists he would just as soon design for ordinary people as for Hollywood stars. But one celebrity did impress the usually blasé architect. “When I was doing Ryan O’Neal’s house, Ursula Andress was there,” Choate says. “She was something else!”

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