YAMASHIRO, CASTLE ON THE HILL
By Mary Mallory
Here in Asian-Pacific History Month, we have two German brothers to thank for one of Hollywood’s most exquisite structures, Yamashiro. New York importers of Oriental goods, Eugene and Adolph Bernheimer purchased a prominent Hollywood knoll from the Whitleys in 1912 on which to construct a summer home that the January 11, 1914 Los Angeles Times described as “designed after the mansions of lordly Chinese (sic) mandarins,” a delicate jewel twinkling over the conservative little burg. Now over 106 years old, the elegant dowager has served as residence, clubhouse, scenic garden, military school, and restaurant.
The April 7, 1912 Los Angeles Times featured an illustrated drawing of the planned residence by New York architect Franklin M. Small, called “a student of Oriental architecture.” Announcing that the brothers intended to spend $100,000 on construction and furnishings, the story outlined the proposed 110 square foot home’s construction. Featuring a fifty foot square central courtyard, the home would employ teak wood exterior walls with gilded and colorful carvings and what the paper called a Chinese tile roof, though in actuality all of Japanese design. Interiors would consist of teak, mahogany, ebony, and enamel, and the lavish hillside gardens would contain Asian trees, shrubs, bridges, and other decorative features.
On September 7, 1913, the brothers finally pulled a building permit for the elegant property at 1995 Orchid Avenue, announcing their intentions to build a $40,000 residence under the management of contractor E. D. Tyler and supervising architect Walter Webber. Not only did they intend to construct an exotic residence, the brothers also planned grounds mimicing that of a Japanese palace. They imported a 600-year-old Pagoda from Japan to add that extra touch of authenticity. Grounds contained koi ponds, waterfalls, arches, gates, and other decorative touches laid out by landscaper Andreas C. Orum. After spending anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 to complete their mini paradise, the Bernheimer brothers retained the right to build other large homes around their exotic estate.
Acknowledging the jewel’s scenic and striking appearance upon completion, the Times stated, “Inspected from close range, the residence presents only the aspect of a structure in the rough; but from Hollywood Boulevard, the house with its circular terraces and white retaining walls, looms upon the view like a vision from the skies of the celestial kingdom itself… .”
By November 1914, newspapers claimed that residents pointed out its prestigious location and were calling it “Yama Shiro,” or “large house on the hill.” The brothers entertained celebrities and politicians at their regal estate, promoting their love of the Orient at the same time. As the State of California passed the 1913 Alien Land Law, forbidding Asians, but particularly Japanese, from owning land or possessing long term leases on agricultural property, the Bernheimer property illuminated the elegance and beauty of Oriental art and culture.
On December 26, 1924, Eugene Bernheimer died in San Francisco after a short illness. The delicate home and grounds appeared threatened, but soon found a new owner. Shortly before Bernheimer’s death, newspapers reported that real estate men Joe Toplitzky and Marco Hellman purchased the property.
By 1925, the elaborate estate operated under the name “the Japanese Gardens,” which the ad in the January 31, 1925 Los Angeles Evening Express called the “Most Unique, Spectacular and Romantic Estate in America - The Show-Place of California!” Grounds opened to the general public for a small charge, allowing them to tour the pathways once trod by movie stars. Later that summer, Toplitzky advertised to the International Shrine Conclave meeting in Los Angeles by buying a half page spread in the Los Angeles Times sprinkled with fairly tale-like photo postcard images of the property. John Talt, San Francisco and Los Angeles restaurateur, negotiated buying the property and home furnishings in June 1925 to promote the beautiful art and architecture, but the deal collapsed. Capitalist William Clark Crittenden purchased the property for $1 million on behalf of the “400” Club, an exclusive Hollywood social group organized by actor/reviewer Frank Elliott, creator of filmdom’s Sixty Club.
By October, the group moved in, turning it into an exclusive, sophisticated clubhouse for film elite as well as behind-the-scenes players. The estate hosted Sunday luncheons, teas, garden parties, and dressy open houses for Hollywood stars looking for a chance to mix and mingle away from prying eyes. A few months later, however, when the group began inquiring about charging $1,000 dues, the organization disbanded.
In the 1930s, the former Bernheimer property once again focused on its Asian heritage, operating as Hollywood Scenic Gardens or Hollywood Japanese Gardens, an exotic tourist attraction. People from around the world visited its delicate grounds, meandering along its tiny waterfall, brook, and garden paths. In September 1941, owners changed the name from Hollywood Japanese Gardens to Hollywood Oriental Gardens, trying to protect it as tensions flared over Japanese aggression in the Pacific. It finally closed after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, leading to war.
Owners put the property and furnishings up for a two-day auction in mid-December 1944, declaring that its zoning would allow construction of a height-limit building or even development of homes. Ads promoting the auction stated, “The home consists of 18 rooms and is modeled after the Peking summer palace of the last Empress Dowager of China.” (sic) Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. real estate broker Joseph M. Gross purchased the eight-acre property February 10, 1945, intending to convert it into a hotel with 30 cottages for guests. Gross announced his intentions to spend up to $350,000 to renovate the property. A month later, however, he signed a long-term lease with the Riviera Airborne Military School for $100,000. By July, the property appeared once again on the market.
A survivor in more ways than one, the property escaped a brushfire in November 1948, with flames passing within 50 feet of the grounds. It soon appeared in several feature films, including Sayonara, The Annapolis Story, Teahouse of the August Moon, Memoirs of a Geisha, Playing God, and Blind Date.
A savior arrived in 1948, businessman Thomas O. Glover. He purchased the hill, gardens, and buildings, opening the home as a Japanese restaurant under the name “Yamashiro.” The Glover family remained dedicated to preserving the site’s history, and operated the property for decades until selling a few years ago. In 2012, the National Park Service named the Yamashiro Historic District - home and gardens - to the National Register of Historic Places. Fantasy and fortitude combine in the jeweled grounds and temple-like setting of Yamashiro, an exotic Hollywood estate saluting the beauty and serenity of Japan.# # #