Laughlin Park : Here Film Pioneers Felt Right at Home
Cecil B. DeMille perhaps is best remembered sitting atop a production perch, where he could keep an eye on the humblest extra in his casts of thousands.
DeMille’s home provided him an equally majestic panorama, for the villa, built by Homer Laughlin, was located on the largest, highest lot in the lushly landscaped private Hollywood enclave known as Laughlin Park.
Twenty-seven years after DeMille’s death, Laughlin Park’s streets remain private, in the tradition of Chester and Fremont places. The area remains well-cared for, largely because of the efforts of the Laughlin Park Assn., and some of its residents continue to be fascinated with the memory of DeMille.
Sometimes DeMille movies are shown at their annual autumn block party. Sometimes they honor members of his family. Honored guests last year were Heddy Gottelow, the DeMille housekeeper of 49 years, and Helen Cohen, manager of the family estate.
Talked About Neighbors
From homes located within the boundaries of Los Feliz Boulevard, Cummings Drive, Franklin Avenue and Hobart Boulevard, guests came to the bend in DeMille Drive to dance to the music of a five-piece band, feast on Mexican fare, including fruit tucked into sombrero centerpieces, and vie for door prizes, donated by local merchants.
Guests talked about their neighbors, the headaches of maintaining private streets and sewers and the history of “The Park,” as they call the area. For every “new” resident of four years or less, there are three who have been around for 30 years--long enough to recall who built what with which architect.
Bernard Flynn’s Cummings Drive home was designed by Roland E. Coate in 1927. Spanish Colonial ornamentation remains, from hand-painted doors and wall murals to a profusely tiled, cloistered courtyard. Flynn has little time to use the vintage swimming pool, for his 83 years do not prevent him from going to work each morning.
Jack Dempsey used to live down the street, and Flynn is in the late boxing champion’s mold--tall and gregarious.
In 1957, when the Flynns moved to the residential park, Helen Cyran and her family were also setting up housekeeping. She has notebooks that document the history of her home, designed by architect Carleton M. Winslow.
Cited by the American Institute of Architects in 1923, it has never become the landmark that Winslow’s and Bertram Goodhue’s downtown Central Library has, except in its native Laughlin Park.
Winslow Left Sideboard
Created in the style most frequently associated with Winslow, the Spanish Colonial Revival, the house was built into a hillside. An eight-inch-thick entry door opens onto a small foyer, from which visitors may step up to a third floor, or down, down, down into the living room.
Winslow left behind an Oriental sideboard, built into a dining room buffet, and an exterior tile fountain much like the one in the children’s courtyard of the downtown library. This is a vertical house and the scant bit of property that remains around it does it little justice.
“It is a crime how the Park has been subdivided,” says Cyran, who retired from teaching after helping create three curriculums for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Two lots were chopped out of my property before we moved in, and up the street, they took four out of the W. C. Fields estate.”
Developers Laughlin and Wilbur Cummings intended their residential park to contain 40 “villas,” but subdivisions have created 60. Although many are Mediterranean-inspired, there are homes with shake roofs, asphalt-and-rock roofs and slate roofs. The former Fields house is topped by tile, and was probably designed by the same William J. Dodd who built half a dozen of the original homes.
Stories About Fields
Because the area has always been private, city building permits for it are sketchy, yet no documentation is needed to categorize the eclectic mix of Pueblo and Spanish revivals in the Fields house.
Fields leased several other homes in Los Angeles, including estates in Encino and Bel-Air, but it was in Laughlin Park, they say, that he hid behind the hedges so he could tell snoopy sightseers to get lost.
The stories about his supposed hatred of his neighbor, adolescent Universal Pictures star Deanna Durbin, are perpetuated by real estate agents and homeowners.
Comedienne Lily Tomlin created a legend of her own several years ago, when she bought the Fields house, and halted construction in the midst of major renovation. When workmen returned, they painted the house and retaining walls a bright flamingo pink.
Organized Block Parties
Mickey and Edith Howard moved into a French Norman-style home a few doors away. It is another of the park’s several Carleton Winslow designs. Permits show it was built by William Warmington, a renowned contractor of the 1920s and ‘30s. When the Howards retired from teaching careers, they threw their ample energy into the block parties.
“We thought they were the solution to getting people together for discussions other than our streets,” Howard says.
Prior to their residence in Laughlin Park, their home was featured in a house tour organized by Harriet Rosen, a neighbor who lives in one of the area’s few Country English homes. A Streamline Moderne house, the only one in the area, it also was on the tour, as was the DeMille house.
Yet residents here have been wary of visitors.
“This is a neighborhood of individualists,” says Joan Laska, who lives with husband, Mark, a dentist, in a hillside Spanish-style house. The two have been active in local affairs, Joan as block-party caterer, and Mark, as the two-term president of the neighborhood association, formed six years ago to incorporate the Cummings Drive Assn.
Talked About Sewers
Sandy Campbell, another board member, was surprised when she moved to Cummings Drive and found people who had been neighbors for 25 years and never met. Her remedy was to throw a party and invite everyone within a block. When 100 came, she was astounded.
“Sewers were the main topic of conversation.” She laughs. “It’s not funny, however, when you live at the bottom of our hill, and the accumulation of the area has seeped into your backyard. It’s happened to more than one resident.”
The quarterly Laughlin Park Times that she edits is filled with stories of street slurry seals and sewer snafus. The Laughlin Park Assn. has negotiated with the city Department of Public Works for years over whose duty it is to X-ray the sewers so that lines can be distinguished. No one, it seems, has a map of the sewer system.
Campbell’s lead stories are reserved for local lore. Recently, she interviewed Steve Lenci for a cover story on his three Linwood Drive properties. The 36-year-old entrepreneur, who made his reputation manufacturing ice cream novelties, has devoted four years to the improvement of his three-acre enclave.
Deanna Durbin’s Home
From the three Dodd-designed residences, to the cascading fountain behind them that was subdivided from the Laughlin house, Lenci’s compound is glitzy enough for a color magazine spread. Sure enough, it has appeared in several.
“Deanna Dublin lived in the main house, where I live, when her salary was the highest in Hollywood,” Lenci claims. “Deanna purchased the easement around the fountain, and all that remained of the original park became hers. There are many legends surrounding the stars who lived here. I tend not to believe most of them. Yet I do put faith in the story that DeMille ran Fields out of the neighborhood.”
DeMile bought homes for all four of his children, with two located in the park. DeMille legend has survived for so many years because his family has continued to maintain his house, and because his daughter Cecilia lived in the area all her life. When she died in 1984 at the age of 76, she had built three homes for herself.
There is not a house in the compound better made for the movies than the residence of jazz pianist Chick Corea. Its original owner was Dr. Isaac Jones, who paid $61,200 for a dwelling faced with Idaho sandstone and teakwood. Many of the rooms were paneled with mahogany. Gordon B. Kaufmann designed it in 1931, the same year he designed the Los Angeles Times building.
The irregular-shaped lot was not an impediment to his creativity, for Kaufmann used the contours of the land as his guide. The Tudor-style house wanders through the narrow streets for blocks, it seems.
Laughlin Park residents tolerate eccentricity, like the bleating cries of a goat walked each morning by a comedienne’s housekeeper. They have run out lawbreakers operating a PCP factory in their living room and they have fought the homeowner who defies association regulations that he get permission each time he rents to a film studio.
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