Opening Doors to History
The four houses opened for the first homes tour of the Beverly Hills Historical Society seemed like perfect selections, hinting at the wealth and whimsy of the earliest residents and reflecting the loving restoration efforts of the current owners.
More than 500 people paid $25 each for a chance to see some of the oldest houses in Beverly Hills, providing a sense of the city’s history and the manner in which some of its earliest residents lived. Proceeds of the June 2 tour will help to fund a number of the society’s projects.
The tour began at the home of Winston Millet, president of the historical society, and his wife, Lynette.
Architect Louis Skelton, a society member who researched the history of all the tour houses, said the Millet home was built in 1913 and, like many other homes of that era, was made in a style popular years before. The Millet house was crafted in the style of the 17th-Century Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini.
The house is trimmed with elaborate castings of diatomaceous earth, a compound formed from fossils, creating a marbleized appearance. The balconies and arched windows are typical of grand Italian villas dotting the countryside along the Mediterranean.
Trompe l’oeil, a French term meaning “to fool the eye,” has been used in the entry hall to create the illusion of marble walls. Actually, the design is painted on the plaster. Mythological figures have been hand-painted in oil on the ceiling there and in the dining room. The focal point of the living room is a fireplace cast of diatomaceous earth and depicting medieval scenes. The ceiling beams and a corbeil look like carved wood, but are actually cast plaster.
The third story of the Millet home, which the family calls the penthouse, has been turned over to the eldest son, Steve, a photographer. The ground floor ballroom has been converted to a family room, complete with antique billiard table and pinball machine.
The Millet family has lived in the house for nine years. Roslyn Millet’s favorite spot, she said, is an old fish pond, with its Italian sculpture fountain and water lilies.
The second house on the tour, owned for 15 years by Jeanette and Clark Parker, is a reproduction of an old Dutch house.
Built in 1916, it was purchased in 1918 by silent screen star Charles Ray, who was forced to rent it in 1927 in order to pay his bills. He later declared bankruptcy, and eventually the house was purchased by a shipbuilding family.
The present owners are intrigued with the history of the house. A book in the living room, “Beverly Hills Palaces,” is opened to a page showing Charles Ray playing the piano in what is now the Parkers’ living room.
The Parkers have retained many of the original features of the house, as well as the bay windows which were added to the house by Ray. In the huge entry way, there is a giant checkerboard floor of black and white marble, an iron grillwork door with glass panels, and a curved staircase with an iron and brass balustrade in a floral design that matches the grillwork door.
A large veranda was enclosed and converted to a garden room. The formal dining room opens onto a “lemonalia” or orangery, a room originally used to protect citrus trees, which were brought indoors during cold weather.
When houses such as the Millets’ and the Parkers’ were built, Beverly Hills was merely a stop between downtown Los Angeles and the beach, an area blanketed by fields of wheat and beets. The building of such magnificent homes at that time suggests that the developers must have anticipated the eventual development of Beverly Hills as a mecca for the wealthy.
The third house, Greenacres, was built by comedian Harold Lloyd and has been completely restored by its present owner, Dona Powell. The 44-room mansion was inspired by the Italian Renaissance Villa Gamberai outside Florence, according to a brochure given to those who went on the tour.
In the brochure, Dr. Knox Mellon, former head of the state Historical Register and now consultant for the Greenacres Estate, calls the building the finest example of a Mediterranean/Italian style residential and garden complex in the United States. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The fourth house, that of the Edwin Blum family, is typical of the architectural style of Greene and Greene, who brought together craftsmen to display their works in a design showcase.
Typically, a Greene and Greene house is not box-shaped, but is asymmetrical and allows a free flow of space, with transition spaces between different areas, such as the porch and arboretum, according to architectural historian Skelton.
Beatrice Blum said she and her husband decided to buy the house within one minute after entering it. That was when she realized she could stand in the library-den to the right of the entryway and see through the entire first floor.
The Blums love antiques and their home is filled with them. Early American is their favorite style, but they also have collected pieces from around the world. The Blums’ personality is reflected throughout their home, from the antique Swedish wallpaper in the den and library to the Early American pine Thanksgiving table made of wide pit-sawed planks.
Their house was built in 1913, along what was then the Beverly Hills bridle path and is now North Rodeo Drive. The original owners of the house were Mr. and Mrs. Edmind Locke, who built a clay tennis court in the rear yard.
The Blums, who say they love to do their own work, dug up the tennis court and replaced it with an informal garden. When the Blums bought the house and the rights to all its contents, they were told that the elderly former owner had hidden some jewelry but forgotten where.
For years, they searched for it, and Blum finally found it by accident. When trying to reach a bathroom pipe through a wall inside a closet, he yanked a drawer free and found the long-lost treasure.
Actually, Blum said, “it’s not very valuable, mostly antique stuff.”
Blum has lived in and around Beverly Hills since 1912, and, he said, the home tour gave him a new perspective on Beverly Hills. He said the many people who visited his home were warm and friendly. After the tour, all the homeowners and the more than 100 docents who conducted the tours met for a buffet dinner at the home of the Millets.
“It’s the first time that Beverly Hills didn’t seem like a cold place to me,” Blum said.