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Bel-Air estate was a nature sanctuary – amid mansions

Environmental IssuesPorterNatureConservationArts and CultureNatural Resources

Imagine it is Labor Day 1924. You've just finished dinner on the porch, the kids are playing next door and the radio just tuned in: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Today's story is about bestselling author Gene Stratton-Porter. At this very moment she's building a castle in Bel-Air and making her garden a bird and wildflower sanctuary."

Today it's hard to imagine native bird Paris Hilton tending buttercups at her family's Bel-Air manse, but a century ago, before the Westside development was paved and clipped, nature conservation was a serious commitment for the rich and famous.

Geneva Grace Stratton was born in 1863 in rural Indiana. She never finished high school, and she married pharmacist Charles D. Porter. Needing extra money, she turned to writing fiction and nonfiction that combined nature essay traditions with 19th century storytelling.

Stratton-Porter published more than two dozen books that were romantic tales set in the Indiana countryside. Her goal, she explained, was to use real-life studies of flowers and trees to describe settings for "moral men and women who are spending their time and strength in an effort to make the world a better place for themselves and their children."

By 1920 the author's literary world of sun-filled houses in flower-filled gardens had made her rich, with an estimated 45 million readers. When poor health slowed her output, she moved to Los Angeles.

Here, Stratton-Porter formed a movie production company for her books. She purchased a lot in Bel-Air, launched in the early 1920s by oil man Alphonzo E. Bell. He based it on East Coast enclaves developed as country retreats for New Yorkers and Philadelphians fleeing dirty cities. Lots from 1 acre to 10, on former rancho lands, left room for bridal paths and nature trails running through shady ravines. By present-day standards, the villas and manors were small, a mere 7,000 to 10,000 square feet.

At 395 Madrona Lane, Stratton-Porter built a fairy-tale pile with five bedrooms, four baths and fireplaces faced with Indiana stone. The house was blandly imposing. The garden, planted with California flowers and shrubs for birds and wildlife, distinguished the 3-acre estate.

The citified world that emerged in Stratton-Porter's childhood brought trauma to American communities. A farming nation watched as small towns with white steeple churches and dry goods stores gave way to industrial centers connected by inefficient railroads. Montana miners gashed open mountains for copper reserves, and Minnesota landowners leveled forests for timber and ore. Steel plants in Pittsburgh and Detroit gushed sludge into rivers, and where wildflowers once fed cattle were Indiana's Wabash Cannonball Trail and the Southern Pacific's Road of a Thousand Wonders.

At the turn of the century women, keepers of home and church, organized to save America the Beautiful from extinction. They founded garden clubs and preservation societies, pushed town councils to restore city parks and lobbied congressmen to save coastal redwoods. For visibility, they exploited the era's new media by bringing photographs of local garden successes to print.

Stratton-Porter was one of these conscientious women. As author, photographer and magazine essayist, she contributed to national betterment. She wrote "What I Have Done With Birds," "Birds of the Bible" and "Moths of Limberlost," about her Indiana cabin where she planted a native garden. Her autobiographical novel, "A Girl of the Limberlost," was a best seller, adapted to film four times.

In December 1924, just weeks before her Bel-Air house was finished, Stratton-Porter died when a streetcar crushed her chauffeured Lincoln sedan as it crossed 3rd Street at Serrano Avenue. She was 61.

The author's only child, Jeannette Porter Meehan, lived in her mother's house until 1935. Since then it's changed hands several times and is now home for Cynthia Beck, Gordon Getty's former mistress. The place survives with the usual luxury additions, but the nature sanctuary, of course, is lost to a swimming pool and pavilion.

Stratton-Porter's faith in nature conservation to heal her America crippled by greed and pollution may seem naive in our America. But she and her crusading friends knew that backyard activism was something men and women could do while waiting for a government that did care about the next generation.

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