If anyone could rightfully claim to be the father of Beverly Hills, it was Burton E. Green, the oil millionaire who drilled his first productive well near the Los Angeles Civic Center in 1901, and who soon owned hugely profitable oil fields throughout Los Angeles and Kern Counties.
As president of the Rodeo Land & Water Company, he supervised the grand opening of Beverly Hills on October 22, 1906, and overcame slow lot sales following the Panic of 1907 recession. Of critical importance, Green listened to skilled Realtor Percy Clark’s inspired advice to transform the Hammel & Denker Ranch (where Green and his partners had failed to find oil) from acres of dusty bean fields into a fashionable community of large homes on gently curving, tree-lined streets. (See introduction to Beverly Hills; page 9.) Green also hired, at Clark’s suggestion, landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook and architect Myron Hunt to prepare the master plan and other design guidelines for the new community.
In the early years of Beverly Hills, Green, in essence, guaranteed the promise of the company’s early advertisements: “As a living place, Beverly Hills is incomparable—nothing in or near Los Angeles resembles it—here is something in a class alone.”
Shortly after the Beverly Hills Hotel opened in 1912—and it had been built with a loan from the Rodeo Land & Water Company—Green made an unmistakable show of confidence in Beverly Hills’s future: He started construction on his own showplace estate several blocks north of the hotel. Furthermore, he encouraged his well-to-do business associates and friends to build estates nearby.
In the summer of 1914, Green moved into his newly completed Beverly Hills home with his wife, Lilian, and their three daughters: Dorothy, who was known as Dolly; Liliore, whose name was a variation of her mother’s; and Burton, who was named after her father. Green purchased an eleven-acre parcel on the north side of Lexington Road that stretched a full block, from Hartford Way and Cove Way on the west and north, to North Crescent Drive on the east. Situated on a small knoll, and with the land to the south still empty and treeless, Green’s property commanded a panoramic view from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica Bay. The only immediate neighbors were Henry and Virginia Robinson, whose estate stood on Elden Way, north of Lexington Road (see page 58).
The Green mansion was vaguely Tudor—or what one observer described as “a broad treatment of the English domestic style”—and it would have fit in perfectly with the other in-town mansions along then-fashionable West Adams Boulevard—but it did not reflect the era’s finest architectural aspirations.
The architect was J. Martyn Haenke, who designed homes that were comfortable and imposing but hardly trend-setting, for Los Angeles’s newly rich oil, land, and retail barons. Haenke, for example, designed three ca. 1915 mansions in the Mid-Wilshire district’s exclusive Fremont Place for the Janss family, the
developers later responsible for Holmby Hills and Westwood. Haenke even designed the imposing gates at Fremont Place’s entrances. Whatever the Green mansion lacked in architectural sophistication, it compensated for with large rooms and myriad comforts. The front door opened into a 25-by-30-foot reception hall, which led into the 20-by-30-foot staircase.
The first floor boasted a 24-by-45-foot living room, a 20-by-24-foot library, a 24-by-35-foot dining room, an adjacent breakfast room, a butler’s pantry, and kitchen. The living room, dining room, and library, as well as the entrance hall and staircase hall, were richly paneled in mahogany, walnut, and oak. Every main room had a marble fireplace. The east and south-facing rooms opened onto 24-footwide terraces overlooking the estate grounds.
On the second floor, the five bedrooms were finished in white enameled woodwork, and each bedroom had its own dressing room and full bath. The second floor also included a nursery and sleeping porch. Servants’ quarters were located under the steeply sloped slate-paved roof.
The grounds, of course, were another testament to Green’s success, and they were the features that distinguished a true estate from merely a large home.
The gates at the northwest corner of Lexington Road and North Crescent Drive opened into a long driveway that wound up the gentle hillside past full-grown oaks, cocoa palms, flowering trees and shrubs, and native plants. The oaks, one observer noted, had been “transplanted bodily and at considerable expense from the canyons in the mountains back of Beverly Hills.”
The recreational features included the required tennis court, a playground for his children, a small lake, and various garden pavilions. There was no swimming pool or “plunge”: that feature did not become a “must have” until the 1920s. From this grand estate, Green guided the development of Beverly Hills, particularly after some of his Rodeo Land & Water Company partners, such as Charles A. Canfield and Max Whittier, focused on other investments, or had passed away. Yet Green never launched another great real estate development. He was, first and foremost, an oil man, and he devoted most of his time to those lucrative ventures.
He and his wife, Lilian, were active in Los Angeles social circles, but never
in the realm of those known disparagingly as “movie people.” He was a founding member of the very proper California Club and the Los Angeles Country Club locally, in addition to the Pacific Union Club and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, and the Metropolitan Club in New York.
What did Green think of the influx of Hollywood movie stars, producers, and directors into Beverly Hills in the 1920s and 1930s? After all, these self-made, self-created men and women—and particularly rough-and-tumble producers such as Jack Warner and Joseph M. Schenck—were never welcomed into Green’s social clubs. Did he view the newcomers with disdain? Or, just perhaps, with a guilty pleasure, knowing that their presence increased the value of Beverly Hills real estate? We will never know.
In 1965, Green died at his Lexington Road estate at age ninety-six. He had outlived all of his contemporaries. He had seen hundreds of houses constructed in Beverly Hills. And he lived long enough to have witnessed some of the great estates along Lexington Road and in Benedict Canyon fall to the subdividers and their bulldozers. He had known for decades that his vision, and that of his Rodeo Land & Water Company partners, of Beverly Hills as one of California’s greatest and best-known communities had come true.
By the time of Green’s death, the style and grace of his vaguely Tudor mansion was definitely old-fashioned. The estate’s value was in its land and its location. In 1968, businessman and sports enthusiast Eugene Klein purchased the
Green estate. He remodeled the house. Completely. Klein changed the façade from vaguely Tudor to vaguely Georgian. He ripped out one second-story bedroom, so that the living room ceiling could be raised to a height of twenty-two feet. He removed the staircase hallway paneling, but he re-used some of the wood for the bar in his barroom.
It has been completely renovated once again, and the residence now achieves the dignity and quality of a famed Beverly Hills estate.
In Beverly Hills’ early decades, the estate owners’ great fortunes usually came from oil, real estate development, or motion pictures. But there were a few high-profile exceptions, one of whom was Nebraska-born Oscar B. English, who made his millions in gypsum, an essential ingredient in wallboard, plaster, cement, even blackboard chalk. He was a major stockholder in the Chicago-based U.S. Gypsum Company, and he served as its chairman.
Like so many Midwestern businessmen, English moved his family to Beverly Hills after his retirement. Not just any large home or estate, however, would meet his exacting standards. In December 1926, he purchased an impressive eleven-acre parcel between Foothill Road and Alpine Drive. The property stretched from a full block fronting Sunset Boulevard hundreds of feet into the foothills until it met the southern boundary of the twenty-six-acre Kirk Johnson (formerly Thomas Thorkildsen) estate at the top of Alpine Drive. Very few properties in Beverly Hills had such a grand scale, and Oscar and his wife, Alice, planned a mansion that would do justice to that grandeur.
The couple was fond of the English Tudor style, because it conveyed dignity and propriety. It was also a popular style in the fashionable suburban areas north of Chicago where they had lived previously. They hired architect Arthur R. Kelly, who was a leading practitioner of the style. Kelly designed a two-story, slate-roofed mansion with distinctive rough-hewn stone walls, first-floor bay windows, and a picturesque roofline with gables, dormer windows, and tall, stone-clad chimneys. An elaborate wrought-iron gate with various English Tudor motifs opened into the estate from Alpine Drive.
Inside the mansion, Kelly created an Old English fantasy. Most of the main rooms were paneled in wood from floor to ceiling, and most of the windows were leaded or stained glass. The ceiling plasterwork replicated Elizabethan and Jacobean styles. Much of the furniture looked as if it had come from an ancestral castle. (In reality, it had been manufactured in one of the California workshops that specialized in “antiques.”)
Other Beverly Hills mansions were larger and more expensive than the English residence, but the house nonetheless became an instant landmark after its 1930 completion, because it sat back from Sunset Boulevard on a gentle rise behind a vast lawn. Visible from several vantage points, the mansion dominated the streetscape.
The Oscar English residence also attracted attention because of its next door neighbor, the Arthur English residence, which was also completed in 1930. The two brothers had built side-by-side mansions on the eleven-acre property— Oscar took the west (Alpine Drive) side of the property, and Arthur constructed his home on the east (Foothill Road) side.
Surrounded by family and blessed with wealth and the pleasures of a showplace estate, Oscar and Alice seemingly had everything to live for. Sadly, Alice had suffered from painful and debilitating ill health for years, and she had contemplated suicide many times. Oscar had already had one nervous breakdown from worrying about his wife.
In October 1935, Alice finally decided to end her suffering and take her own life. Oscar, likewise, decided that he could not live without the woman he loved. Determined to prevent any suspicions about her death, and anxious to forestall any guilt her daughter and son-in-law might feel, Alice wrote several notes, which she left in the bedroom she shared with Oscar. One stated: “Because of ill health, I am not going to go on. Life is of no value under the difficult physical conditions I have had to endure for many years. Do not blame anyone. No one is to blame. My life is my own.”
In another note, she wrote: “I have never had health, and I will not go on longer as I have for years.” Oscar signed his name below hers. Oscar and Alice English chose the day—October 21, 1935—of their deaths quite carefully. Their daughter, Lucille, and her husband, John Cook, who lived in the mansion with them, were away on vacation. Oscar’s brother Arthur was out of town. Their two servants had the day off. They would not be accidentally discovered.
They would not be “rescued.” Oscar and Alice pinned a card on their bedroom door: “Call the police. Do not come in.” They locked the bedroom door, took poison, and lay down on their twin beds. Early the following morning, their butler found the card on their bedroom door and called the police. Because of their precautions, no one had any doubt that this was a double suicide.
Too grief-stricken to live in the home where her parents had died, Lucille and her husband put the estate on the market. In 1936, Algernon Kirtley Barbee, a soft-drink executive, purchased the estate, and then sold it the next year to Freeman F. Gosden, who played Amos on the Amos ’n Andy radio show. In 1941, Albert S. Rogell, who directed more than one hundred films from the 1920s to the 1950s, including many westerns and B movies, purchased the property.
By the mid-1950s, the large Oscar English estate and the adjacent Arthur English estate were glaring anomalies in a Beverly Hills where buyers wanted sleek, contemporary homes and where great estates were being subdivided into small building lots. The English estate was finally broken up and put on the market. The lawns in front of both mansions down to Sunset Boulevard were sold as six building lots.
Arthur English’s sumptuous Spanish-style mansion burned to the ground, and a new house was constructed on its site. Today, the Oscar English mansion and two and a half acres of grounds, including a portion of the once-enormous front lawn, are all that remain of the two brothers’ eleven-acre estate. Arthur English’s architectural tastes differed greatly from those of his brother and sister-in-law.
Rather than build another English Tudor residence next to brother Oscar’s home, he hired architect Roland E. Coate to design a large, handsome Spanish Colonial Revival mansion. Because the Foothill Road side of the property was slightly steeper than the Alpine Drive site, the Arthur English mansion also had more dramatic grounds, including extensive terraces and a rocky waterfall with a pond.
Oscar and Arthur were not the only English’s with Beverly Hills residences: the family had relocated to the city en masse. A third brother, Paul, built a grand Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, also designed by Coate, on Cove Way, behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and across the street from the home of Burton E. Green, father of Beverly Hills.
Wallace Neff was one of the most successful – and longest practicing – architects in Southern California’s premier neighborhoods for many reasons. He could design a mansion in virtually any architectural style: Spanish Colonial Revival, French Norman, English Medieval, and Monterey Colonial. He understood how to give his clients both an impressive residence and a comfortable family home for daily living. He knew how to work with the era’s best landscape architects and design a mansion that complemented its site perfectly, no site was too challenging for his skills.
For screenwriter Frances Marion and cowboy star Fred Thomson, he transformed a dramatic – but seemingly unbuildable property on Angelo Drive into the famed estate called Enchanted Hill. At the end of 1924, Neff got a telephone call from film director Fred Niblo, who had just purchased another dramatic Angelo Drive property below Enchanted Hill. It had views that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to downtown Los Angeles, with Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills below.
Niblo and his second wife, actress Enid Bennett, were already living in a since-demolished Tudor-style mansion at 805 North Crescent Drive, just a block below Sunset Boulevard and the Beverly Hills Hotel. They had been two of the very first “movie people” to move to Beverly Hills. By 1924, when they contacted Neff, they could easily afford to “move up” - to a grand Angelo Drive mountaintop.Niblo became a successful Broadway actor, and he married into what was then the First Family of the American theater - the famous Four Cohan’s, of whom George M. Cohan was the star. George’s sister, Josephine, had started in vaudeville at the tender age of seven. She moved up to Broadway with her multitalented brother’s success. Niblo married Josephine in 1901 and became an associate in the famous partnership of Cohan and (Sam) Harris. Niblo and Josephine traveled and performed around the world, he later boasted that he had appeared on stage in every English-speaking country. Following Josephine’s death in Australia, where she and Niblo had been performing for three years, he turned
In some fortuitous instances, an estate becomes legendary not only for its fine architecture and handsome grounds, but also because it reflects a major turning point in a community’s history, in larger architectural or landscape trends, or in the owners’ goals for these showplace properties.
La Collina, which was located in the gently rolling hills above Doheny Road and immediately east of the Doheny Ranch, is one of those skillfully designed estates that represented those turning points.
The national architectural press and Los Angeles media applauded La Collina upon its 1924 completion. Flattering articles praised its owner, banker Benjamin R. Meyer, young architect Gordon B. Kaufmann, and landscape architect Paul G. Thiene for their vision.
In 1923, 1924, and 1925, La Collina was one of the first major Beverly Hills estates to be designed by a highly skilled architect, not just an architect with the right connections. Virginia Robinson’s father, Nathaniel Dryden, had designed their Elden Way estate. Max Parker, the art director for many Douglas Fairbanks Sr. films, was architect for Pickfair.
Many of the early, grand estates had relied upon the design services of the capable but often-uninspired Beverly Hills Nursery to lie out their grounds, as well as provide trees and shrubs. La Collina was one of the first Beverly Hills estates to have a professional landscape architect, who maximized the opportunities presented by the site, and who worked in tandem with the architect to make the property enhance the mansion, and vice versa.
Finally, and of critical importance, La Collina was meant to be a very California residence in its location’s climate, terrain, and character. It was not a mock Tudor mansion surrounded by palm trees, nor was it a red-brick Colonial Revival residence that really belonged back East. It was instead, on a sunny hillside overlooking the distant Pacific. The style was Italian, which fit the Mediterranean climate and topography of Southern California.
Of course, praiseworthy articles about La Collina were very flattering for architect Kaufmann and landscape architect Thiene. But the real test of La Collina’s impact on Los Angeles estates was the reaction of the city’s millionaires, who would build legendary residences in the booming 1920s, and who would determine if La Collina’s trend-setting styles and principles were widespread practices, or simply an interesting one-time experiment.
Among this moneyed crowd, which often placed status ahead of aesthetics, La Collina received a resounding yes. Meyer’s banker colleagues hired the Kaufmann and Thiene team. Even greater approval—from the very peak of the Los Angeles financial pyramid—was soon forthcoming.
When Edward Laurence (“Ned”) Doheny Jr. and his wife, Lucy, decided to build their Greystone Mansion at the Doheny Ranch, they quickly selected Kaufmann as their architect. Why? “Because he did the Ben Meyer house, and I liked it,” said Lucy Doheny years later. (The Dohenys, of course, asked Kaufmann to design their Greystone Mansion in the very different Tudor style.)
No Beverly Hills property ever had two more disparate owners — or two more different mansions within a short period of time — than this Hillcrest Road estate just north of Sunset Boulevard.
In February 1923, actor Hobart Bosworth purchased the four-acre property on virtually empty Hillcrest Road. Today, Bosworth is forgotten by all but the staunchest silent-film buffs. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, his name commanded great respect; he was often called the “Dean of Hollywood.”
Born August 11, 1867, in Marietta, Ohio, Hobart Van Zandt Bosworth – known as “Boz” to friends, ran away from home at the age of eleven, and at the age of eighteen, he felt the lure of the stage - eventually performing in New York, primarily, as a Shakespearean actor. He was a handsome man, standing six feet two inches, with blue eyes and flowing blond hair. He had “a magnificent baritone voice,” said his second wife, Cecile. “The women would throw violets to him.”
After contracting tuberculosis, Bosworth moved to the dry climate of Arizona to try and recover. At the age of forty-two, sick, his voice nearly gone, and broke, he reluctantly agreed to star in one of the first films ever made in California. The Power of the Sultan, a ten-minute one-reeler by the Selig Polyscope Company, shot in the drying yard of the Soo Ling Chinese Laundry in downtown Los Angeles at 8th and Olive Streets. The scenery was hung on clotheslines, and the reluctant movie star was paid $125 for two days of work. Boz quickly threw himself into the fledgling film industry, not only acting in but also writing and directing more than five hundred short and feature-length movies.
In 1919, Bosworth divorced his first wife, Adele Farrington, following the birth of their son, George. He then married Cecile Kibre, a woman twenty years his junior who quickly became known as “Mrs. B.” In 1926, three years after buying the Hillcrest Road property, the Bosworth’s completed their new Beverly Hills Estate, and what an estate it was.
The white Spanish hacienda-style mansion, designed by the firm of Bennett and Haskell under Mrs. B’s supervision, had a forty-five-foot-long living room with tall, heavily beamed ceilings and stuccoed walls, a twenty-five-foot-long master bedroom, and extensive servants’ quarters. The estate also had an art studio, gardens, a tree-filled forest, and stables.
Because the Bosworth estate was located just north of Sunset Boulevard, Boz often rode his white Arabian, Cameo along the bridle path down the middle of the roadway. “Bareheaded, his own locks as white as Cameo’s coat. the veteran actor was an erect distinguished figure in the saddle,” said the Los Angeles Times. When Boz worked at MGM, he would ride Cameo to and from the studio every day. While these horseback rides on the then-empty streets between Beverly Hills and Culver City were certainly enjoyable, they also attracted press attention for the wily Bosworth.
Eventually, the “big house in Beverly Hills was too much responsibility,” said Mrs. B. years later. The family was also tired of the lack of privacy from all the tour buses and rubber-necking film fans – and Boz just wanted a simpler lifestyle. Her husband, said Mrs. B, was “a quiet, dignified person” who disliked pretentiousness and flash, “like Cadillacs.”
In the residential neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, change is the one constant. Houses—regardless of their architectural pedigree or historical value—are frequently remodeled, enlarged, or demolished. The grand showplaces of earlier eras are routinely razed and replaced by newer and ever-grander showplaces.
On some of Beverly Hills’ oldest streets, three different houses have stood on some lots in fewer than one hundred years. One of Beverly Hills' few great 1920s residences to remain in near original condition is on the north side of Sunset Boulevard, the former Christie Brothers/Richard Barthelmess estate. Here, a grand Tudor-style mansion stands hundreds of feet back from Sunset Boulevard on a gently sloping grassy lawn at the northwest corner of Hillcrest Road.
The Christie brothers—Al and Charles—were authentic Hollywood pioneers. In 1909, Al Christie entered filmmaking, working for David Horsley’s Centaur Film Company in Bayonne, New Jersey. Two years later, lured by Southern California’s year-round sunny weather, Horsley and his company members, including Al Christie, moved to Los Angeles. As general manager of the Nestor Film Company, Al oversaw the construction of the first film studio in Hollywood, on the site of a former tavern at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. In 1915, Charles Christie joined his brother in Hollywood. A year later, they launched the Christie Film Company, which specialized in short comedies. Scripts were minimal. Sets were rudimentary. Most of the action and the gags were improvised.
The earliest Christie films were “one-reelers,” their colleague Pat Dowling recalled years later, “which, meant they had to be 1000 feet of film, no more and certainly no less, or the exhibitors would scream.” Each week, the fledgling Christie Film Company would start filming an “eastern picture”—that meant a society costume drama. When that one-reeler was complete, the actors and actresses changed costumes and made a one-reeler “western” by the end of that same week.
Whatever their artistic merits, these shorts were a resounding hit with audiences. The Christie Film Company started churning out comedies. Over the next decade, Al Christie was the producer, writer and/or director of more than two hundred films, while brother Charles ran their ever-gowing studio’s day-to-day operations and supervised their real estate investments.
By 1923, Al and Charles Christie, then living on North Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, “traded up” in real estate parlance. In August that year, they purchased from the Rodeo Land & Water Company the four-acre lot suitable for an estate at the northwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Hillcrest Road.
According to the purchase terms, no more than two residences and “customary out-buildings, including a private stable or private garage” could be constructed, and each had to be valued at no less than the then-princely sum of $30,000 each. The deed also included the standard racial restrictions of the time.
Rodeo Land & Water Company president Burton E. Green—who was living half a dozen blocks away on Lexington Road—probably wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of nouveaux riche movie people becoming his Beverly Hills neighbors, particularly ones who’d gotten rich on farcical one-reelers that particularly appealed to working- and middle-class big-city (read: immigrant) audiences.
Nonetheless, Green sold the land to Al and Charles Christie. Rodeo Land & Water Company had just opened up Sunset Boulevard east of Alpine Drive to development, so it had land to sell. The Christies certainly had the money Rodeo Land & Water Company put restrictions on the size and quality of the house that could be built on the site.
Green need not have worried that the Christie mansion would detract from its Sunset Boulevard setting. The two brothers soared way past the $30,000 per house minimum cost limit. Their budget was $150,000. Immediately after the 1923 land sale, workers set about grading the site and landscaping the grounds. By late 1925, “actual building operations” had commenced on the mansion, which was designed by Leland F. Fuller. “The plans call for a house of the English manor type of two stories with an exterior brick, stone and half-timbering, containing a large living room, reception room, library, dining room, private office, and two-story entry hall,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
The second floor included “accommodations for seven master bedrooms and baths with sitting rooms and a guest’s gallery,” said the newspaper. The five acre grounds included a clubhouse, swimming pool, and a luxury dog kennel so large that it required a building permit from the City of Beverly Hills.
Waverly—as it was called—was completed in early 1926. Its first address was 501 Sunset Boulevard, under the original house-numbering system in use in Beverly Hills for the east-to-west streets. That numbering system was discarded in the late 1930s, and major streets like Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards were given new numbers that conformed to the county-wide system. East-to-west streets that ran in Beverly Hills only, like Lexington Road, kept their original numbers.
The Waverly mansion totaled just over 12,000 square feet—which was a big house even by Beverly Hills standards. But it had to be large, and not just to make a statement to the world about the Christie brothers’ success. Waverly was a family compound whose residents included Al and his wife, Shirley; Charles, who never married; their sister, Anne; and their mother, Mary. Christie comedies and the Christie brothers were a smashing success in the 1920s. They released dozens of films, including some of the first talkies.
“Christie Comedy Output Will Be [Sound] Synchronized,” announced the Los Angeles Times on June 26, 1928. The brothers invested heavily in Los Angeles’1920s real estate boom, and they built Hollywood’s first luxury hotel, known as The Regent, on Hollywood Boulevard. Little could upset the Christie brothers’ success. In July 1928, actress Alys Murrell filed three lawsuits against Charles: one for breach of promise to wed, for a breathtaking $1 million in damages; a seduction suit, for $750,000; and a breach-of-contract lawsuit regarding a film role, for $97,500.
Or a grand total of $1,847,500, according to the cleverly headlined July 29, 1928, Los Angeles Times article, “Actress Sues for Love Balm.” Charles’ attorney proclaimed the assault “just plain blackmail,” and the lawsuits were settled out of court the following month. “The attorneys refused to divulge the figures of the settlement,” noted the Los Angeles Times, primly this time.
But far worse was yet to come. The 1929 stock market crash, followed by the Great Depression and the collapse of the Los Angeles real estate market, wiped out the two men. In 1932, the Christie brothers lost their studio. The following year, they sold their Waverly estate to actor Richard Barthelmess, who purchased the mansion so that he could live next door to his long-time friend William Powell on Hillcrest Road.
Since Barthelmess sold the estate in 1941, Waverly has had ten owners. And none more newsworthy than shoe manufacturer and lifelong playboy Harry Karl, who became known as “the Marrying Man” due to his five marriages, including two to the curvaceous actress Marie McDonald—who married seven times herself, and who included among her lovers the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a founder of Las Vegas as a gambling center. “Karl’s marriages to McDonald were spiced with violence, arrests, and an alleged kidnapping of the actress,” said one article. “At one point, she claimed that (Karl) was behind the abduction, but she later retracted the charge.”
Throughout all the mayhem of the Karl-McDonald marriage—he purchased the house after their second marriage in 1954—Waverly escaped unscathed. Subsequent owners, including talent agent Arthur Lyons who represented Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball, among others, respected the mansion’s Tudor style. Neither did the owners sell off any portion of the sweeping five-acre grounds, which had happened with so many other nearby estates after World War II. At one time, Waverly was easily visible from Sunset Boulevard.
Today, however, this estate is hidden from view behind a tall hedge: a verdant Eden that evokes memories of 1920s Beverly Hills and the heyday of the Christie brothers in the silent-film era.
Some distinguished estates are known not for their original owners, who had the vision and wealth to create grand residences, but for a later owner, whose still greater accomplishments, or perhaps long residency, are better remembered. One such property is this Benedict Canyon Drive estate.
Originally constructed in the roaring twenties as a winter home by Ohio glass manufacturer Charles Boldt, this Benedict Canyon residence instead became intimately familiar to three generations of Los Angeles society as the Harvey Mudd Estate, home of wealthy Harvey and Mildred Mudd who hosted dozens of philanthropic events for worthy Southern California causes.
In March 1922, when Boldt paid $20,000 for twelve acres on the east side of Benedict Canyon, north of Tower Road, the surroundings were largely ranch land and citrus groves. Benedict Canyon Drive was just a dirt road used more by equestrians venturing out from The Beverly Hills Hotel than by fancy motorcars. Charles Boldt was one of the first to recognize that Benedict Canyon had real potential as an epicenter of great estates for film-industry celebrities and millionaires such as himself. Only a few months earlier, prominent movie producer Thomas H. Ince had bought thirty-four acres across from the Boldt property for what became his impressive Dias Dorados Estate.
Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, the King and Queen of Hollywood, were already living at Pickfair on a hillside on nearby Summit Drive. For his winter home, Boldt hired prominent architect Elmer Grey to design what would be both a gardener’s cottage and a gatehouse off Benedict Canyon Drive, as well as garages with chauffeur’s quarters further up the driveway, and a main house on a knoll overlooking the canyon.
Few Los Angeles architects had the architectural skills—or were better prepared to give Boldt and his social-climbing wife, Hilda—an impressive, fashionable, and tasteful home than Elmer Grey. Grey and his equally talented partner, architect Myron Hunt, had already designed several dozen mansions throughout Southern California, most notably in Pasadena and San Marino, including Henry E. Huntington’s immense home. Hunt and Grey had also designed The Beverly Hills Hotel where the Boldts (like so many Eastern and Midwestern millionaires) stayed as they shopped for property.
By September 1922, just six months after Boldt purchased his twelve-acre property, Hunt and Grey had finished their plans and construction had begun. “The buildings are designed in an adaptation of the English Elizabeth style of architecture,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Both the house and the garage have the first story of brick construction, the outer surfaces of the walls being cement plastered. The second story and attic gables are half-timbered. The roofs are of flat shingle tile, with the exception of that of the gardener’s cottage which will be an adaptation of English thatch.”
The 6,000-square-foot, twenty-room Boldt mansion was surrounded by terraces that provided panoramic vistas of Benedict Canyon. The front door opened into a two-story-tall entrance hall that rose dramatically up to oak trusses supporting the roof. The living room, library, and dining room were paneled in oak and mahogany. English décor filled the rooms.
Hunt and Grey’s very traditional English mansion, of course, boasted every modern convenience of the time. “The house,” noted the Los Angeles Times, included “a modern refrigerating plant, steam heat, built-in incinerator, sanitary sewage disposal system, and vacuum cleaning plant.”
The grounds included tennis courts, one of Beverly Hills’ first swimming pools or “plunges,” and formal landscaping by the Beverly Hills Nursery. Charles Boldt, who was worth more than $10 million, and his wife could have hardly wished for more of their new home. Yet, just two years after they moved into the Benedict Canyon estate, they sold the property to Harvey and Mildred Mudd for $225,000.
Hilda Boldt craved social acceptance, but the doyennes of Los Angeles high society weren’t about to give it to this former nurse, no matter how rich her husband. So, the Boldts purchased a large estate in Santa Barbara and began their climb up that more lenient social ladder. After Charles Boldt’s death in 1929, Hilda remarried and in the 1930s built what would become known as the Conrad Hilton Estate on Bellagio Road in Bel-Air.
Harvey Seeley Mudd, the new owner of 1240 Benedict Canyon Drive, was the son of Colonel Seeley Mudd, a mining engineer who opened the famous Ray Cooper Mine in Arizona. Harvey was born in 1888 in the famed mining town of Leadville, Colorado. His family moved to Los Angeles in the first decade of the 20th century. Harvey attended Los Angeles High School and later Stanford University.
Becoming a mining engineer himself and joining his father in business, Harvey Mudd made his own fortune with his development of copper mines on the Greek island of Cyprus, mines that had been worked sporadically since ancient times. Harvey and Mildred Mudd made virtually no changes to their new home. But they did hire the noted landscape architect Edward Huntsman-Trout to revamp the original grounds and give them extensive, formal gardens. The results were spectacular.
“A canyon location, such as this one possesses, permits of such features as terraces, winding walks and flights of steps that lead from one bit of beauty to another,” noted the Los Angeles Times. “From the floor of the canyon you gaze up and catch the sweep of blue and gold and white beneath the trees . . . From above, you look down through drifts of almond, cherry and peach blossoms to daffodils, narcissi and irises and find them even more beautiful.”
Fifteen of the estate’s twenty acres were dedicated to the gardens, which were tended by a full-time staff of eight. The son of the chief gardener, who grew up on the grounds, recalled that, while Mudd never worked in the gardens himself, he spent every Sunday making the rounds with his staff and planning new projects.
In these days, “It was not unusual . . . for Mudd to spend up to $3,000 for spring tulips, hyacinth or daffodil bulbs from Holland.” Harvey Mudd’s efforts were rewarded when, in 1934, the estate won the coveted western regional sweepstakes award of the Garden Clubs of America.
In the late 1940s, the Mudds constructed a small, modern, single-story house on the estate, which was designed by architect Gordon B. Kaufmann and landscaped by Huntsman-Trout to blend into the surrounding grounds. The new residence served as a guesthouse, particularly for visits from children and grandchildren (it had a sandbox).
Harvey Mudd died in April 1955. In addition to family bequests, he left $10 million to a number of charities and universities. His widow, Mildred, helped fund construction of Harvey Mudd College, the science and engineering campus of the Claremont Colleges. Mildred Mudd died in 1958 after a “lifetime of civic and cultural activities.”
Her good works included everything from the Girl Scouts—she had been national president—to the Republican Party and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As her husband had done, she left a large portion of her estate to various charities and schools.
In the early 1960s, the Mudd Estate—and the gardens the Mudds had tended and loved for over three decades—was subdivided into building lots for smaller homes. The mansion survived, however, though on much smaller grounds. It was sold to a new owner in 1963 for $149,000. Today, the mansion has been restored, and it remains one of the few memorials to Benedict Canyon’s largely vanished grand estates.
Among all the showplace homes in Beverly Hills, this Foothill Road estate is by far, one of a kind. The sprawling Spanish-Moorish residence is the only pre-World War II mansion on an estate-sized lot in the Beverly Hills flats. To many residents, it’s the north-of-Sunset property that got lost and ended up south of Sunset in the flats. The mansion also acquired an air of mystery among its immediate neighbors, for reasons that involved more than its larger-than-life size and exotic architecture: the lack of activity – particularly the lack of parties – for an establishment of its grandeur. Real events – and occasional reports from its servants to the neighbors – proved that it was never your everyday Beverly Hills mansion.
Ruth Clifford was one of the brightest silent-movie stars, and at fifteen moved to California to live with an aunt. Immediately she became entranced by the new business of silent pictures. She was a pretty, petite, blue-eyed blond with a certain way about her, and the pictures – likewise became entranced with her. She was an extra for Edison’s local film company until she was spotted by a director at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios and immediately signed.
Then, as now, a lovely, talented, and famous young star had many fans, and suitors. In 1924, Clifford married James Cornelius, scion of a notable East Coast patrician family, vice president of the State Bank of Beverly Hills, and one of the leaders in the Beverly Hills real estate sales and development market. Cornelius constructed dozens of homes throughout the Beverly Hills flats. For their honeymoon, the couple sailed to Honolulu to spend a month in Hawaii; the bride took “only” five trunks to a hold a “trousseau composed for twenty-two complete outfits, varying from evening gowns to sport costumes.”
Upon their February 1925 return to California, James Cornelius and Ruth Clifford moved into their new Foothill Road home. It was a startling sight in the fashionable Beverly Hills flats. The mansion was much larger than its neighbors and more shocking – it occupied a one-acre double lot. It was one of the few estate-sized properties south of Sunset Boulevard. The Cornelius-Clifford mansion was an imposing presence in the neighborhood. The thick stucco walls, wrought-iron balconies, beautiful cast-stone embellishments surrounding the windows and atop the massive chimneys, as well as the façade’s centerpiece- a soaring trifoliate window – all gave the mansion the improbable air of a land-locked Venetian palazzo.
Inside, the large, low-ceilinged rooms had only a few windows, which not only reflected the Spanish sensibility popular at the time but also served the practical purposes of keeping the living areas cool in the summer and protecting furnishing from exposure to the sunlight.
A new family purchased the home in the 1950s, but it remains in their family today, a splendidly preserved reminder of the splendor of 1920s Beverly Hills.
Harry D. Lombard – a Boston banker-turned-Los Angeles real estate investor, who later was actress Carole Lombard’s godfather – moved into his newly-completed fifteen-acre Grayhall Estate in 1916. He was living in the country, surrounded by chaparral-covered hills and mountains.
By 1916, only a handful of mansions had been built north of Sunset Boulevard, usually within a few blocks of The Beverly Hills Hotel, including Harry and Virginia Robinson’s home on Elden Way – and Burton E. Green’s estate on Lexington Road. Most of the several hundred residents of Beverly Hills lived in the flats south of Sunset Boulevard, and for good reason.
All of the roads near Grayhall – such as Summit Drive and even Benedict Canyon Drive – were still unpaved. They were dusty in summer and muddy troughs after heavy winter rains. Coldwater and Benedict Canyons were still ranch land and citrus groves. To get telephone service at Grayhall, Lombard had to build a line down to the five-year-old Beverly Hills Hotel.
Despite its rustic setting, Lombard’s two-story mansion – designed by architects Sumner P. Hunt and Silas R. Burns – was elegant and comfortable in every way, starting with the grounds. Lombard had graded the property and completed the estate’s gardens and other landscaping soon after buying it in 1913.
The mansion’s architectural style was an eclectic mix of traditional and then – contemporary elements based loosely on French Provençal, although some observers mistakenly described the house as Tudor or Tyrolean. The confusion, understandable – the house had a façade of costly gray stone, which gave the estate its name; a hipped slate roof with dormers; stone archways; and balconies with handsome ironwork. It also had expansive plate-glass windows –definitely not the French Provençal style – to take advantage of the spectacular ocean, city, and mountain views.
A June 18, 1916, Los Angeles Times article praised the Lombard mansion: “The stone blends with the color of the soil, the walls looking as though they had grown out of the hill top. The place is patterned after an old castle in the Tyrol, modified to suit local conditions. A spoon-shaped swimming pool, a fine tennis court and grounds laid out so that they might offer a finished setting for the mansion, complete the estate.” The driveway, which started at Laurel Way just off North Beverly Drive, ran half a mile to the mansion.
Despite its beauty and pioneering role in the foothills north of Sunset Boulevard, Grayhall’s greatest claim to fame; a tenant – movie superstar Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. By 1918, Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had been secret lovers for two years. He had divorced his first wife, and although Pickford had separated from her first husband, she was still legally married. Doug and Mary needed somewhere private to meet, and where better than an isolated country estate – Fairbanks leased Grayhall for a year.
The Robinsons crossed unpaved Sunset Boulevard, then Lexington Road, and found a short street off North Crescent Drive called Elden Way. Elden Way ended at a barren promontory overlooking Los Angeles to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
The Robinsons fell in love with the remote but dramatic location, and they made a snap decision. The next day, they returned to Beverly Hills and purchased the Elden Way property. At least, that was Virginia Robinson’s story several decades after the fact, and it’s a good one. On February 5, 1911, the Los Angeles Times reported Harry W. Robinson’s purchase of a 4.5-acre “lot 275 by 731 feet, at the end of Elden Way, $7,500.”
The truth, however, was a bit different. The Robinsons’ purchase of this large lot, and their subsequent purchases of adjacent parcels in the virtually empty new community, was hardly impulsive and made perfectly good sense. The couple, of course knew about Beverly Hills, as they were members of the Los Angeles Country Club, which opened its new facility in late 1911. Beverly Hills had been heavily advertised in newspapers and magazines after its October 22, 1906, grand opening.
Most importantly, Virginia’s uncle, Leslie C. Brand, often invested in real estate deals with multimillionaire Henry E. Huntington, who was one of the original investors in the Rodeo Land & Water Company that developed Beverly Hills on the former Hammel & Denker Ranch. Through, Brand, the Robinsons would likely have known that the heavily capitalized Rodeo Land & Water Company was going to make good on all its development promises for Beverly Hills. Most likely, they also knew that the plans for the luxurious new Beverly Hills Hotel, financed by Huntington, were to be announced in April 1911.
The Robinsons wasted no time constructing their new home. February 9, 1911, Los Angeles Builder and Contractor reported that “Nat [haniel] Dryden, 1555 Manhattan Place, has prepared plans for a large concrete residence to be erected at Beverly Hills for Harry W. Robinson. . . The estimated cost is $25,000. The construction will be done under the supervision of Mr. Dryden, who will also let all sub contracts.”
Who was Nathaniel Dryden? He was an amateur architect . . . and he was Virginia’s father, he often drew up architectural plans for family members; his brother-in-law Leslie C. Brand. For his daughter and son-in-law, Dryden selected a more restrained Mediterranean style, or what one observer called “an Italian Bungalow.”
The twelve-room house was only one story tall – a decision that made for a less-impressive-looking residence, but that permitted most rooms to look out or open directly onto the grounds or the handsome terraces. The front door led into a central hallway that ended at the rear of the house and the entrance to the Great Lawn. Off the central hallway – a living room, dining room, library, morning room, bedroom suite for the Robinsons, a small guest house for Virginia’s mother, and a large kitchen and staff area. The house, while quite large – lacked high ceilings and the extensive neoclassical detailing popular in that era. The woodwork was white cedar, painted with light-color enamel paint, not the mahogany or walnut then favored for large homes.
Harry and Virginia – unlike many of their well-to-do Southern California contemporaries –saw no reason to construct a showplace home to trumpet their position. Their lofty social and financial standing was unquestioned; they built for comfort and beauty. With their enthusiasm, the Robinsons started their lifelong transformation of the barren hillside into a garden paradise.
The Robinsons officially moved into their new home on September 30, 1911. On the inside cover of one book in the library, Virginia wrote: “September 30, 1911, our first night in our new house.” She had celebrated her thirty-fourth birthday a week before, and little did she know that she would live to be ninety-nine years old, and that she would spend nearly sixty-six of those years at this Elden Way estate, eventually known as the First Lady of Beverly Hills.