Thursday, April 12, 2012

Not since the 17th century have the homes of the rich been so amply fortified.

Fueled by homeowners' increasing demands for privacy and security, a new generation of elaborate security gates are being installed around the country. A far cry from the lavishly decorated, overtly showy spectacles of the past, these barriers are designed to be unobtrusive and easily overlooked. Packed within and around them, however, is a plethora of state-of-the-art technology—facial-recognition devices, Internet-connected digital cameras, remote iPad control and other features—that can drive up the cost of an entry up to $1 million or more.

Tom Cruise's Beverly Hills, Calif., home is fronted by simple rust-colored arched gates. They're no more than 6 feet tall, flanked by sand-colored stone pilasters. But they conceal a small guard shack that sits right inside the property. A dense thicket of 50-foot-tall trees shrouds the long driveway; the home sits about a quarter mile back. Hidden pan-and-tilt cameras are mounted on the stone pilasters and on posts inside the driveway. One sits at dog level, programmed to capture the license plates of cars as they drive in.

Steven Spielberg's estate in Pacific Palisades, Calif., has a similarly nondescript exterior. Sandwiched between low white pillars, brown gates, coupled with a wood plank fence wrapped in chain link, block off the property. "Clients used to want huge gates and security detail sitting visibly outside," says Dennis Bridwell, a private investigator and, according to public documents, a longtime security consultant to celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Garner. "But those days are over."

Even those owners who are continuing to construct traditional extravagant entryway gates are toning them down, erecting their fancy gates well inside their property lines and installing more muted versions for the exterior. Reclusive billionaire Ty Warner, who made his fortune manufacturing and distributing Beanie Babies and is now in the luxury-hotel business, installed a few years ago three pairs of 11½-foot-tall bronze gates for the interior doors to his estate in Montecito, Calif. In a hand-rubbed bronze, they also have glass behind the metalwork. By contrast, he asked Les Métalliers Champenois, a company that specializes in high-end metalwork, to finish his exterior driveway gate with a dark patina to reduce the metal's golden sheen.

High-end gate-design firm Picasso Gate, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., books appointments up to two years in advance. Its founder, Brent Nichols, has customized entryways for Mr. Cruise and Kevin Costner; last summer he helped identify and fix a problem with the White House's gate, which had stymied everyone including its manufacturer. "I'm not sure I can really disclose what was wrong with them," he says. "I'm not sure I should be talking to you at all."

DoorKing, an Inglewood, Calif., company that manufactures gate-operator systems, has seen orders climb back toward to the levels they had reached before the recession, says Richard Sedivy, its director of marketing. ADT estimates that the North American residential and small-business security market has grown steadily despite the recession and the mortgage crisis, expanding to about $12.5 billion in 2011 from $11.3 billion in 2006 .

"We had the worst housing market of all time, but the security business grew right through it," says Jeff Sprague, a managing partner who follows the industry at Vertical Research Partners...