Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Stairs of Hollywoodland

In 1923, a group of real estate developers started to sell property in the Hollywood Hills south of Mullholland Drive and east of Lake Hollywood reservoir. They wanted to create an exclusive community with homes that were picturesque and historically European in style, nestled in the beautiful rolling hills. It was a planned community, marked by a gated entry, and the target market was wealthy East Coast folks longing for a life of affluence and elegance in sunny Southern California.

They erected a huge sign on the slope of Mt. Lee, above the development, with the name of the development spelled out in huge letters and lit up with 4000 light bulbs. The sign was meant to be temporary, but it stayed on the mountain, and over the years it suffered from lack of maintenance and other misfortunes. In 1932 a despondent starlet named Peg Entwhistle leapt off the "H" to her death. A few years later, a drunk driver careened off the cliff above and destroyed the "H." In 1949 the sign - without the "Land" - became the property of the City of Los Angeles, but it continued to deteriorate. The first "O" crumpled, so it resembled a "U". The last "O" collapsed entirely. In 1978, rocker Alice Cooper started a campaign to restore it, which has kept the sign in shape today.

If you drive up North Beachwood Drive from Franklin Avenue, the sign is centered over the roadway in your windshield.

Soon you come to two granite gateposts that span the sidewalks with curved archways. This is the entrance to Hollywoodland.

Nowadays, people tend to call the neighborhood Beachwood Canyon. Although it's home to many industry people and celebrities, it's not glamorous at all - it's quaint and kind of quiet and neighborly. To the left of the gates a small complex holds a market, cleaners, and coffee shop. We stopped in the coffee shop for lunch before taking walk number 34 from Charles Fleming's Book "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles."

The coffee shop is like a throwback to the 1940s - all knotty pine woodwork, colonial-style furnishings, striped wallpaper and antique decor like old stoves, butter churns, vintage Coca-cola trays, and copper pans. The counter is set with low vinyl swivel stools, like a movie malt shop.

Inside, the cozy wooden booths were occupied with customers - impossibly skinny young women in tight jeans, young men with spiky hair-styles discussing club venues for their bands, families with small kids, and women in yoga-wear talking about screenplays. We had lunch - a cup of soup and half sandwich for me, a burger for [The Man I Love] before starting our walk.

Across the way is the Hollywoodland Realty office, a gabelled half-timber Tudor cottage. Beside it is an apartment court decorated like a Spanish hacienda. We started walking up North Beachwood Drive from this corner, and found our first set of steps.

Wow. These were some seriously steep steps. Made of the same granite as the gateposts - and other retaining walls we'll find later - they are steep and narrow, but fortunately have good sturdy handrails. This flight has 143 steps in all.

At the top, we walked around a road that curved beneath a looming hill crowned by this extraordinary juxtaposition of architectural styles:

Here, a cantilevered modern glass box sits side-by-side with a turreted French chateau that could have been airlifted from the Loire Valley. It even has fake, rigid flags topping its conical turret, permanently flying in the wind.

On the road below, this charming Spanish cottage is for sale. I could live there....couldn't you? It's only $1.3 million.

Or I could live here, in this sprawling pink Italianate villa perched high on the hillside. Just below the pink villa, we found the second flight of steps.

149 of them. By the time we got to the top, we were winded and our calves were aching. As we crested the last of them, we were greeted by this extraordinary sight:

This is what's wonderful about this neighborhood. Like Hollywood itself, it's a place where anyone can create a fantasy life. Have you always wanted to live in a stone castle? A Moorish palace? a Zen paradise? Hansel and Gretel's cottage? A Swiss chalet? Take your pick, you can find them all here in Beachwood Canyon.

Just beyond the ramparts of the castle, there's this '50s style low-slung modern, with its decorative block screen.

Here's a glimpse at the street-level entrance to the pink Italian villa we climbed past.

This Indo-chinese inspired goddess statue presides serenely over a home with a stunning view of the Griffith Observatory behind her fence.

Our climb had brought us to the street where the French chateau and its neighboring glass box had their entrances. Here's the unremarkable entry to the modern house,

And here's the French house, its fanciful charms well hidden from the street.

The streets were remarkably quiet. A few cars - Range Rovers and Mercedes predominated - navigated the hairpin curves, but we saw no other walkers, no people in the front yards, and very little activity going on, even though the houses were decorated for Halloween. It was startling, then when we saw, perhaps fifty yards away, a coyote strolling boldly up a branching street in broad daylight. It was a reminder how high in the hills these houses are, and how close to the park and mountain wilderness.

As the road curved around, the Hollywood sign came into sight. This side of Hollyridge Drive is lined with low houses whose street faces look modest, but just think of the views they must have from the back of the house!

On the hill above the road, a pink asymmetrical '80s structure was perched next door to another castle, this one faced with irregular fieldstone.

Beyond this, a mustard-colored Spanish house with lovely leaded-glass picture windows revealed a gilt grand piano in the parlor. We admired it for a while until a young man wearing nothing but a bright orange pair of Speedos stepped out to sweep the doorstep, and, embarrassed, we kept walking.

Beyond his home - which must have an enviable view of the Hollywood sign - another flight of steps - 178 of them - led down all the way to Beachwood Drive.

Our guide took us south on Beachwood, past homes built like Norman manor houses and medieval castles and ivy-covered cottages.

This one has a dove-cote at the peak of its tower, while its neighbor has a striped awning held up by decorative spears.

We crossed Beachwood, and just off the drive at Woodshire Drive, we found the next set of stairs to carry us up the west side of the canyon.

These stairs are special. A double set divided by what used to be basins filled with cascading water and now planted with lush succulents, this set of stairs was declared Historic-Cultural Monument No. 535 by the City of Los Angeles in 1991. It's 148 steps in all, very steep, and - fortunately - fitted with benches to rest on partway up.

At the top of the flight, I noticed this adjoining house was for sale.

How about that downtown city view? You can buy it, for only $659,000!

We continued around Belden Drive, and then up another flight of stairs to Durand Drive. Our guide urged us to take a short detour up Durand for a peek at a fabulous estate surrounded by massive granite walls.

This is Wolf's Lair - a 3 acre compound built by L. Milton Wolf, one of the real estate founders, in 1923. It's said that its guesthouse operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition, and that it included a secret hideaway apartment in the gatehouse with a South Seas style tiki bar, the better to seduce young starlets. It was recently sold to a famous musician for $3.5 million - quite a steal from its before-crisis listing of $7.9.

Legend has it that Wolf kept a pet gibbon in these small turrets.

It was shrouded in scaffolding when we arrived, so I couldn't get any good photos, but here's a location site that has some pictures.

At the height of Durand, at the entry to the Lair, the road turns and a footpath drops away through undeveloped wilderness, leading down to the shores of Hollywood Lake reservoir below, sparkling like an unexpected jewel.

Are you exhausted yet? We are!! We followed the guide back down to the very last staircase, strewn with pine needles, heading down to Woodshire Drive.

From here it was an easy stroll back to the small village market, the stone gates, and our car.

You can read blogger Robert Guerrero's account of his hike through Beachwood Canyon here - his group even took the detour down to the lake! He's further along than we are, covering the climbs in the book.


kellyg said...

Wow. That looks so cool. Thanks for the tour.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful outing. I love your adventures!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Those are steep steps. Good exercise!

shrink on the couch said...

Now those are some stairs I'd like to master. Excellent pictures and so appreciated, Aunt Snow!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Awesome... LA seems to be all about topography. I'm going to have to take a photo of my favorite staircase in the Bronx (the one that connects the 238th St 1 train station to Riverdale, where my favorite Bronx pub lies).

carmilevy said...

What an incredible place to explore. I could SO see myself living there...if not for the whole money/convenience/fear-of-earthquakes thing :)

Gracie and Bobbi said...

I sure am tired after that workout!! What a beautiful tour it must have been... Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

Vallen said...

You could have stopped in and had a beer with Harry Bosch if he'd been home. Doesn't he live right below the sign?
You always give the best tours.

Ellen Bloom said...

Hey Auntie Snow! Have you ever been to the Garden of Oz in Beachwood Canyon? Let me know if you're interested. I have the key!

cactus petunia said...

What a scenic workout!

M. Bouffant said...

Useless info: McDonna, the Lady Gaga impersonator, used to own the Wolf's Lair. People were mad, for some reason, when she had big Italian-style red stripes painted on the wall on the east side, which is on, I think, Belden Dr.

The castle w/ the turrets & all is a Hollywood facade. I think it's fiberglass, actually, & fairly normal inside. Been a good ten yrs. since I've been up there, but now that the weather's cooler I fully intend to get out & stretch the legs more. Really, I do.

Beachwood is also the only street in the Hollywood Hills that has bus service, such as it is, except Laurel Canyon, but the Laurel Canyon bus has only been running a few yrs.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I was exhausted after the first set of stairs. My arthritic knee is rather unhappy with me, but the views are sensational!