How The Garden of Allah continues to make history.
The Garden of Allah & The Chateau Marmont
The Chateau Marmont is a legendary boutique hotel nestled in the foothills of West Hollywood. A temporary home to famous actors and musicians, the hotel has been the site of several infamous incidents.
Built in 1929 as an apartment building modeled after a Chateau in France, the Normandy-style building was converted into a hotel in 1930.
The conversion from residence to hotel, the storied guests and a name taken from the name of a side street bordering the property, mirrors the fate of a somewhat lesser known residence called The Hayvenhurst. Situated within eyesight of the Chateau Marmont, The Hayvenhurst would become known as The Garden of Allah. More on this later…
I decided to create my own “ode to the Chateau Marmont” with this interior. I wanted the space to embody the Old Hollywood, laid back vibe of the Chateau Marmont. I used a lot of rust and sage green textiles in mohair, velvet & jacquard mixed with Art Deco & Spanish Revival decor.
In 1956, modernist Architect Craig Ellwood, one of the original Case Study Architects, was commissioned to design two bungalows for the hotel. Separate from the main hotel, accessible by foot through a series of winding pathways engulfed by tropical plants, the bungalows are like mini modernist case study homes, the best of both worlds really; complete privacy with all of the conveniences of a hotel at your fingertips.
I have a few stories that center around the Chateau Marmont, one of which I’ll share with you now since it relates to Bungalow 3. I was working as a set decorator on “Dangerous Game” a film that starred Madonna, James Russo and Harvey Keitel. It’s a movie within a movie in which Madonna plays lead actress “Sarah” and Harvey Keitel plays her director. We shot some of the scenes at The Chateau Marmont. One scene took place in Bungalow 3, made infamous by John Belushi’s unfortunate overdose.
The director, Abel Ferrara known for his gritty, raw cinematic style, wanted the bungalow to look like a small group of people had partied for hours. Typically, my crew and I would stage everything a day or two before the shoot, but Abel had a better idea. He asked us to hang out at the bungalow the night before the shoot and order room service including booze and basically hang out for the night. Not your typical request from a director, nevertheless, we were more than happy to comply.
That night, after several hours of feigned debauchery, we heard a loud bang come from the Master Bedroom. When we rushed into the bedroom we noticed the head board had become loose causing it to bang against the wall. The set dressers in their somewhat inebriated state managed to reattach the headboard and we decided to call it a night.
We’d all heard stories about Belushi’s ghost making appearances in Bungalow 3, but had chalked them up to Hollywood lore, it was somewhat eerie to learn the next morning John Belushi died in the Master Bed. ????
Sunset and Crescent Heights
The intersection of Sunset and Crescent Heights is somewhat of a defacto dividing line between Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Travel East of Crescent Heights and you enter Hollywood and the stark ugliness that befalls that stretch of land with its multitude of billboards and strip malls promising everything from stardom to fitness and rejuvenation. Travel West and you pass through Sunset Plaza where the Boulevard becomes divided by beds of colorful flowers flanked by quaint, colonial style buildings.
Where it all began.
In 1905 Russian dancer/actress Alla Levinton (born June 4, 1879, Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine, Russian Empire) emigrated to New York. Armed with talent and exotic looks Alla was promptly cast in several Ibsen plays including “Hedda Gabler” and “A Doll’s House”. Alla Levinton became Alla Nazimova and soon found herself under contract to New York’s Shubert Brothers followed by a stint with the Charles Frohman’s Theatrical Syndicate under whom she starred in a tour production of “War Brides”.
Alla Nazimova stars in her first film.
Alla Nazimova with director Herbert Brenon on the set of “War Bride” filmed in New York in 1916.
Producer Lewis Selznick father of legendary producer David Selznick offered Alla the lead role in the film adaption of “War Brides”at the unprecedented amount of $30,000 to star in the film including $1,000 a day bonus for every day filming went over schedule.
The success of “War Bride” brought more roles, fame and money. According to the website The Alla Nazimova Society in 1917, “Nazimova was offered a 5-year $13,000 a week contract, $3,000 more than Mary Pickford was earning at the time. Her contract awarded her the right to approve director, script and leading man”. Not bad for 1917!
The Hayvenhurst Estate.
In 1918 with the profits from her film work, Alla purchased a Spanish style estate on two and 1/2 acres for $65,000 in the Crescent Heights neighborhood on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights. The former owners, real estate developer W.H. Hay and his wife Katherine built the estate in 1913 when Sunset Blvd was still a dirt road.
Alla invested an additional $65,000 in the property by adding a large swimming pool in the shape of the Black Sea (to remind her of her childhood), landscaping and renovations.
Alla enjoyed the fruits of her labor. She loved to entertain and was known for her hedonistic soirees. She was also bisexual at a time when the film community was more accepting of same sex relationships than the general public.
Director Joseph von Sternburg, known for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich encouraged bisexuality in his actresses. He felt it brought a certain exoticness to their personas and allowed the stars to attract both female and male audiences.
In the 20’s Alla began to produce her own films allowing her complete control over every facet of production from the script to the set and costume design. This also meant she was investing large amounts of her own money in her productions.
Natacha Rambova was a beautiful and stylish set & costume designer who happened to be married to one of the biggest stars of the era, Rudolph Valentino. Her exotic name conjures up images of Eastern Europe but Natacha was born Winifred Haughnessy in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Alla collborated with Natacha on 2 films; “Camille” in which she co-starred with Natacha’s husband Rudolph Valentino and “Salome” based on Oscar Wilde’s one-act play.
In their first collaboration on “Camille” Natacha employed a highly stylized version of Art Nouveau combined with Art Deco in the creation of the sets and costumes. Reading about Natacha, I had to think of Catherine Martin, Baz Luhrmann’s wife and creative alter ego who designed the sets & costumes for his films including “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby”.
These stills from “Salome” illustrate the beautiful, avant-garde costume and production design by Natacha Rambova who was rumored to have been one of Alla’s lovers. A true pioneer in her time, Natacha was quoted as saying to actress Myrna Loy, “I know they call me everything from Messalina to a dope fiend, but I really don’t eat little dancers for breakfast.”
Unfortunately, both “Camille” and “Salome” weren’t profitable at the box office which proved to be financially devastating to Alla who had invested a great deal of her own money in the productions.
The construction begins
Alla, now looking for ways to cover the expense of running her estate was approached by Jean and John Adams who convinced the star to turn her beloved estate into a hotel. According to Martin Turnbull’s Blog, Alla wrote a large check to cover the cost to add 25 villas to the property and went back to New York to look for work in the theatre, leaving Jean and John Adams to oversee the construction.
That’s more than likely a rare glimpse of Jean Adams dressed in black in the above-referenced photograph.
January 1927, The Garden of Allah Hotel is born
The Garden of Alla opened on January 2, 1927. An “h” would be added to Alla in 1930.
An actor reads over a script while staying at the hotel. During the 1920’s and 30’s The Garden of Allah became a watering hole for Hollywood Royalty and the literati including Orson Welles, Carole Lombard, Harpo Marx, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Peter Benchley.
Romantic trysts between married stars like Lupe Velez (above) & Errol Flynn, drunken brawls & midnight skinny dips were par for the course at the private enclave.
It gave one a sense of security to know that you could wake up at the Garden about 10 a.m., phone Schwab’s and be certain that a bottle of Jack Daniels would arrive at your villa by the time you hung up.
– A former Garden of Allah resident recalling the convenience of getting deliveries from Schwab’s Drug Store, which stood across Crescent Heights Blvd. from the hotel.
Schwab’s, a famous pharmacy/fountain shop on Sunset was located across the street from The Garden of Allah. Accustomed to accommodating movie stars, the pharmacy made frequent deliveries to the hotel.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
I love this copy of a postcard Fitzgerald wrote to himself in 1938 while staying at the hotel. A bit of motivational prose.
Fitzgerald wrote his last novel aptly titled, “The Last Tycoon” while living at the Garden of Allah. At the time, he was deeply in debt, drinking excessively and dating British born Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham while his wife Zelda languished inside a mental institution. Sheila went on to pen “The Garden of Allah” based on her experiences at the hotel.
Things were spiraling out of control for F. Scott Fitzgerald who died an untimely death in 1944 at the age of 44. Fitzgerald’s quote “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy” feels prescient.
The Death of A Star
Future First Lady, Nancy Davis visited her Godmother Alla Nazimova at the Garden of Allah in 1944. The woman seated on the left was Alla’s long time companion, Glesca Marshall. At the time, Alla had been forced to sell the Garden of Allah and rented Villa #24 until her death in 1945.
Alla Nazimova died of coronary strombosis on July 13, 1945 at the age of 66 at The Good Samaritan Hospital near downtown LA, the same hospital Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was pronounced dead after being fatally wounded at The Ambassador Hotel.
The End of an Era
The Garden of Allah closed its doors in August 1959 as shown in the closing night party in the stills above. By then the property had fallen into disrepair.
I discovered a video on youtube of the public auction for The Garden of Allah in 1959. Oh how I wish I’d been alive back then! The end of an era.
“They paved paradise, put up a parking lot” – Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s song “Big yellow Taxi” is rumored to have been written about the demolition of The Garden of Allah. Joni Mitchell who was living in Hawaii at the time has denied the hotel was the inspiration for her song. Regardless, the lyrics, “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot” definitely resonate.
In the above-referenced photo, developer Bart Lytton (on the left) breaks ground on one of his Lytton Savings Banks. Bart Lytton who now owned The Garden of Allah in 1959, made the decision to demolish the hotel to build one of his Lytton Savings surrounded by a large asphalt parking lot.
Out with the old, in with the new
The 50’s were murder on historic buildings particularly in Los Angeles. The prevailing sentiment of the time was “out with the old, in with the new”. Beautiful hardwood floors were covered with wall to wall carpeting, wood paneled ceilings were covered with ceiling tiles or the dreaded cottage cheese or (popcorn) ceilings that were sprayed on. Historic buildings were torn down without abandon to make way for more modern alternatives.
Bart Lytton hired modernist architect Kurt Meyer to design his Lytton Savings bank as photographed by renowned photographer Julius Shulman in 1960.
I’ve often thought about the person responsible for tearing down The Garden of Allah and how greedy and historically insensitive they must have been. To be honest, I’m still upset about it; however, I’ve since learned Bart Lytton was a patron of the arts and went to great lengths to hire a modernist architect to design his savings & loan. As I mentioned previously, the 50’s were not kind to architectural preservation. I’d like to think Mr. Lytton might have spared The Garden of Allah had he lived today. One will never know.
A piece of history; the truth is often stranger than fiction.
In 1997 hairdresser David Meyer opened a salon called My Haircut Place in a strip mall on the corner of Sunset & Crescent Heights. According to Wehoville David Meyer discovered the model of The Garden of Allah in rather shabby condition in the lobby of the former Lytton bank. The photographs taken by Jon Viscott show how every detail of the hotel was captured.
The manager of the bank apparently offered the model to Mr. Meyer. From what I’ve read, Mr. Meyer has taken excellent care of the model shown above in the living room of his apartment located steps from the strip mall. I’ve also read Mr. Meyer has entertained offers for the purchase of it. I do hope the model is returned to the public where we can all have the opportunity to view it.
The Saga Continues…
To bring irony full circle, Starchitect Frank Gehry (3D rendering above) has proposed a new large, mixed- use structure that would require knocking down the entire strip mall at Crescent Heights and Sunset Blvd. including Chase Bank (previously Lytton Savings). I must say the structure seems out of scale for the corner. LA might appear as one big mish mosh of architectural styles which it indeed is but that makes certain pockets maintaining some of the original charm from years past all the more cherished. I’m not saying the existing strip mall is a thing of beauty, nor do I find (gasp) the Lytton Savings bank to be a particularly architecturally significant building. I’m a fan of some of Frank Gehry’s work, but this isn’t one of them. I think it’s too large and glitzy for the space. Mr Gehry’s buildings seem to fare better as islands where they can be taken in and admired as opposed to being squeezed into an already congested space. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
photographic sources in order of appearance
1. postcard of The Hayvenhurst Estate – Alla Nazimova Society
2. Exterior of The Chateau Marmont Hotel – Architectural Digest
3. Lobby of the Chateau Marmont – Chateau Marmont Hotel
4. Interior inspired by The Chateau Marmont – City of Z Design
5. Exterior Bungalow 3 – The Guardian
6. “Dangerous Game” Movie Poster – Listal.com
7. John belushi – Ranker.com
8. Sunset & Crescent Heights – Photography by Lindsay William-Ross for LAist
9. Sunset Plaza Present Day – SunsetStrip.com
10. Sunset Plaza Vintage – Laurel Canyon Association
11. Alla Nazimova on the set of “War Bride” – Martin Turnbull
12. Swimming Pool at Garden of Alla – DWP
13. Alla Gardening – Alla Nazimova Society
14. Exterior of The Main House – Martin Turnbull
15. Alla Poolside – Moira’s Thread
16. Natacha Rambo – Bizarre LA
17. “Camille” – From The Bygone
18. & 19. “Salome” – The Red List
20. Garden of Allah Under Construction – Martin Turnbull
21. Garden of Allah Neon Sign – Getty Images
22. Lobby – Looking For Mabel
23. Actor Reading Script – Alla Nazimova Society
24. Lupe Velez – Yesterdays-Print
25. Schwab’s Pharmacy – Hollywood Photographs
26. Postcard – Martin Turnbull
27. Nancy Davis – Alla Nazimova Society
28. Good Samaritan – Patricks Mercy Flickr
29. & 30. Closing Night Party – Martin Turnbull
31. Video – Youtube
32. Bart Lytton Breaking Ground – SCPR
33. Julius Shulman Photograph – LA Mag
34. 35. 36. Garden of Allah Model – Photographed by John Viscott for Wehoville
37. 3 D Architectural Rendering – LA Curbed