Monday, November 22, 2010

French Hollywood

When you think of the history of Hollywood, it's easy to forget how fast it happened. It took only about twenty years for Hollywood to grow from a poky little farm community into a boomtown. In 1900, the year the first streetcar rolled down Prospect Avenue, later called Hollywood Boulevard, fields of strawberries ranged from Highland to LaBrea Avenue. Lemon groves grew along Cahuenga

Prospect Avenue (Hollywood Boulevard) at Highland, 1910. Los Angeles Public Library photo.

The town was quiet and conservative. Liquor was banned, so was gambling. The streetcars stopped running at 10:30 at night.

In 1910, a young movie director from New York named David Griffith, visiting Los Angeles, decided to use the pretty little town as a location for a film he was shooting, called "In Old California." It was the first movie to be shot in Hollywood.

In the following years film companies built their studios in the flat lands around the Cahuenga Valley, cutting down the citrus groves. By 1920 Hollywood was the center of the American film industry. RKO, Warner, Paramount, Columbia, Lasky, DeMille and Laemmle all had studios.

Suddenly, the town was full of actors, directors, and film workers. Film companies rented entire hotels or rooming houses to board their employees. Young, creative, uneducated and from poor backgrounds, these newcomers flouted all the rules. They smuggled booze into the staid Hollywood Hotel. They stayed up late and danced wildly in the ballroom - often with unmarried partners (even same sex partners!), later going up to the rooms together. With the start of Prohibition, it got even wilder, as everyone broke the law.


The population growth created a huge demand for housing. If you were a big enough star, you bought a lot in the new real estate developments in the hills and built your own mansion. But others were less successful or transient workers. Turn of the century mansions built for wealthy East Coasters summering in California were divided and turned into rooming houses and flats. Homeowners built cottages on their property, or even tore down the main house to build small courtyards of cottages. Apartment buildings went up everywhere.

Hollywood was all about fantasy. It was the era of the great movie palaces, where audiences enjoyed costume dramas about sheiks and matadors and cowboys while sitting in auditoriums decorated in French Baroque, Spanish Gothic, or Italian Renaissance styles. Naturally, residential design reflected the public's desire to extend this fantasy to their home lives.

The California climate and heritage made it a natural to build houses and apartments designed to evoke Old Mexico or the Mission era, and those styles still predominate Southern California today.

But in 1920s Hollywood, another style became predominant - and it was perfect for a town with a large population of up-and-comers craving fantasy, status, and flashy elegance.

Chateau Elysee, Franklin Avenue at Bronson, built 1927, Los Angeles Pubic Library photo

Magnificent French chateaux soon sprouted up among the citrus groves and palm-lined avenues of Hollywood.
The Fleur de Lis

Some were built to house young actresses, like the Fleur de Lis, designed by architect Leland Bryant in 1929, and the Chateau Beachwood.

Developers strictly controlled the styles of homes built in neighborhoods like Hollywoodland, where only four styles were allowed - Mediterranean, Spanish, English Tudor and French Normandie.


This home is on Beachwood Drive, with similar neighbors.

L. Milton Wolf, the real estate mogul who was part owner of Hollywoodland, built "Wolf's Lair" in the hills, a Loire-style chateau fortress complete with granite dungeons and secret tunnels.

Why was French architecture so popular? With its slate roofs and steeply pitched towers, narrow gothic arched windows and fortress-like turrets, this northern-European style strikes an odd note in sun-kissed palm-lined Southern California.

Chateau Beachwood, Los Angeles Public Library Photo

One architecture scholar, Laura Massino, suggests it was partly due to the fact that so many young American men had returned from military service in France, where they had seen castles, chateaux and medieval villages. Residential architects in particular used style pattern books for inspiration, and suddenly the trade journals were filled with articles from young architects like Samuel Chamberlain, whose "Highlights of a Sketching Tour in France" appeared in a 1923 journal for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alumni Association.

Chamberlain's sketch of the Chateau at Azay le Rideau

Some went in for more modest French style, as reproductions of quaint half-timbered French villages were built to house apartment courtyards, like the one built by the Davis brothers in 1919 on Highland Avenue. Like Chamberlain, Walter S. Davis had served in France.


The French Village style was used for commercial buildings, too, most notably for Charlie Chaplin's own studio complex, built in 1917 on La Brea south of Sunset.


French Normandy style even appeared at the beach - this slate-tiled and dormered manor house in Santa Monica was built for Norma Talmadge and later bought by Cary Grant. Further north, actress Norma Shearer's beach house was a touch of olde Strasbourg on the beach. both houses still stand today.

This story-book cottage style beach house is shown on the shore in Malibu. Architect William Raymond Yelland, also a veteran of the war in France, was known for designing quaint storybook cottages, in Southern California and the Bay Area.


Those who couldn't afford their own French style beach house could bask in the elegance at the Deauville Beach Club - like its name, its style was inspired by Normandy.

The Chateauesque style was particularly suited for the large imposing urban apartment houses and hotels proliferating in Hollywood.


Hotels advertised their names with huge neon signs erected on the roof, like this sign at the DuBarry. These signs are so iconic of L.A.'s history that many of them have been given landmark status by the City of Los Angeles.

Leland Bryant was one of the most productive architects of French inspired apartments. Here's a list of some of his buildings erected in the course of just a few years:

Faubourg St. Denis, 308 N. Sycamore, 1926

Faubourg St. Gilles, 316 N. Rossmore, built 1926.

Chateau Laurier, 4353 W. 5th, built in 1928.

The Trianon, 1752 Serrano, built in 1928.


The Fontenoy, 1811 N.Whitley, built in 1928.

The Savoy Plaza, 1360 N. Crescent Heights, built in 1929.

St. Germaine, 900 S. Serrano, built in 1929.

The Granville Towers, 1424 N Crescent Heights, built in 1930.

La Fontaine, 1285 N. Crescent Heights, built in 1930.


Other magnificent and notable buildings were the Hollywood Tower, also called La Belle Tour, built in 1929, its peaked roof with a huge neon sign is visible from the 101 freeway. Actor George Raft owned a part interest in it, and lived there for a while. It was quite the place to stay for visiting actors, writers and other Hollywood celebrities. As the neighborhood declined in the '50s and '60s, so did the hotel. In the '70s it became a retirement home.

The Chateau Elysee's beginning was scandalous. Newspaperman William Randolph Hearst donated the land to Eleanor Ince, widow of movie producer Thomas Ince, who had died under mysterious circumstances on Hearst's yacht. Some said the hotel was part of a bribe to buy Mrs. Ince's silence. The huge hotel had 77 luxurious suites. Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Kate Hepburn are among the stars that stayed there. In 1935, Carl Van Vechten recommended it to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Aaron Copeland wrote letters to Leonard Bernstein on its stationery. By the late '40s, however, people were beginning to describe it as tatty and rundown.


In West Hollywood, a massive new apartment house was just completed as the stock market and the rental market crashed. The owners decided to operate it as a hotel, and the Chateau Marmont became the hotel of choice for Hollywood intellectuals and artists who needed a bit of privacy and tolerance for their bad habits. Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Vivian Leigh lived here, happy for the privacy and seclusion. Billy Wilder, fresh off the boat from Vienna, slept for a while on a cot in the basement. Film executive Harry Cohn famously advised William Holden, "If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont."

Writers Gore Vidal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hunter S. Thompson stayed here at various times. In later decades, the Marmont was home to rock stars like Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Led Zeppelin. Bad girls Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears spent troubled nights here - Britney was banned after making a spectacle of herself in the restaurant.

Like Hollywood itself, these elegant palaces went into a decline in the '70s through the '90s, but recently - just like Hollywood - there's been a bounce back. Real estate booms and tourism have helped.


These classic buildings are now valued for the glamor and fantasy they inspire.

The Chateau Elysee was given a new start when it was bought by the Scientology Church and renovated. It's now the church's Celebrity Centre, a kind of members-only luxury hotel. You can take a virtual tour at their site.

The Hollywood Tower has its own special notoriety - it's inspired a Disney thrill ride called the Tower of Terror - based on an old Twilight Zone episode set in the hotel. The actual Tower is now renovated, and luxury apartments are on sale.

So French Hollywood has come full circle - from the height of fashion to the dumps, and back again. It almost makes me want to brush my pin-curls, slip into a satin dressing gown and sip some bootleg champagne.

Historic photos are from the Los Angeles Public Library. Historic postcard images are from the LMU Library.

8 comments:

Ellen Bloom said...

Wow! Excellent post! I always like reading about the architecture of Los Angeles!

kcinnova said...

I started reading this post feeling sorry about the demise of those citrus groves. I ended up appreciating the buildings because of their history.
You are a wonderful writer, Aunt Snow. :)

Life with Kaishon said...

I love the way you share. You teach so beautifully. What a fascinating history. I would love to visit one day.

Karen Sather said...

Oh my gosh I just love this post. Wow thank you for the trip down memory lane with facts I never knew, and what incredible pictures...there is so much beauty and mystery just waiting to be learned and lived and strolled upon...and I have to study this post again to take in all in where it lingers...you presented it so nicely!

Jason, as himself said...

Fascinating, as usual! I love these photos, and what interesting history.

This time I really did get in the trunk of your car.

Jeff Hanna said...

Extremely interesting and informative. Thank you.
A friend who lived in West Hollywood in the 50's told me that there was a large apartment complex fronting on the Sunset Strip called "Normandie Village." He said it was a full square block in size, was built in the 20's, and was an atmospheric jumble of peak-roofed and chimnied French-style cottages connected by picturesque walkways. It either burned down or was razed in the 60's.
Hve you any info. or photos of this place?

kim23 said...

wonderful tour! I've recently seen an amazing storybook house in Beverly Hills, California. The Witch's House is the perfect place to go when trick-or-treating. The landscape is so bizarre, complete with twisted trees and gnarled shrubs. Now, a real estate agent, Michael Libow, lives there. You should see it! You can't miss it!

Michael said...

I am so glad to have found your blog today. I have studied William Raymond Yelland for years. What if anything do you know of the Yelland house on the Malibu coast? It is very similar to the Montclair Library in the City of Oakland which is said to be based on earlier works by Yelland. Yelland love the French Provincial design with a large catslide roof to one side and a large flanking wing off of the catslide. Occasionally a dormer window breaks the roof line of the wing. (See Montclair Library)