A Hollywood Ending for Those Who Take This Elevator to the Top

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

High Tower Court is built around a machine in the garden. In this case, the machine in question is an elevator that takes residents from a parking area up to a hilltop labyrinth of bridges, walkways and stairs. These overgrown pathways connect a small community of homes lost in dense foliage.

The machinery that transports you from the world of cars to that of cantilevers is carefully hidden inside a Northern Italian bell tower, so that the romance of the whole thing is even more intense. Like Dorothy, you click your heels and, a few seconds later, you are in Oz.

As is the case for many things in Los Angeles, that experience is reserved for the lucky few who own homes there, and thus, keys to the elevator. For the rest of us, attaining the heights of this hilltop community just over the rise from the Hollywood Bowl involves a little more work. You have to find either Broadway or Alta Loma Terrace, which are narrow alleyways off dead-end streets, and then climb what seem like hundreds of steps.


As you go up the hill, you start to lose the normal sense of what is front or back, or what is public or private. I made a wrong turn and wound up at somebody’s doorstep, and another, and found myself facing the trash cans. This is part of the charm of High Tower Court: By the time you reach the top, you have lost track of rigid boundaries that usually rule the city, so that you feel as if you are wandering through a small village lost in a jungle.

In reality, the lines are drawn quite clearly, with walls, signs for security patrols and awkward plywood screens that protect privacy. It is only the loss of the reference of the street and the proliferation of bougainvillea, orange trees and other lush plantings that makes you forget your place. Most important, there are no cars, no driveways and no garages to ruin the scale and texture of this little idyll.

There is also very little architecture. High Court was laid out in the early 1930s, and between 1935 and 1956 architect Carl Kay designed the four buildings clustered immediately around the tower. He was not, however, responsible for the rather reduced detailing, but for the evocative image of the tower itself. Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd’s son, designed a zigzag structure in the back, but it is almost invisible behind walls and vines.

Kay was no purist, having designed Moorish, Spanish and Streamlined Moderne apartment buildings all over Hollywood, and here he contrasted the reinforced concrete tower with the whitewashed sweeps and strong horizontal lines of a vaguely modernist architecture. You can only see them, however, if you step back--and down. From there, the houses look rather precarious against the hillside, their balconies jutting out tenuously from the earth.

The whole community appears an incongruous collage of Italian, modernist and natural forms. Up close, you lose any sense of these contrasts, as time and changing needs have melded house, hillside and path into a softer pastiche of domesticity.

High Tower Court is one of those archetypal images of a certain kind of Los Angeles. You can imagine Philip Marlowe living here, and it has been the site for several films based on Chandler books, as well as for more recent efforts, such as “Dead Again.”


It reduces the Hollywood Hills to their essence: eclectic residential moments, crammed together as they climb the steep terrain in their escape from the grids of the plains below. It makes the mechanism for this escape clear, separating what you have left behind (the car) from the Edenic aerie at the top. It leaves you with an impression of unreality, but as you gaze out past the tower to Hollywood below, at least you know how you got here.

* High Tower Court: High Tower Drive, Hollywood * Architects: Carl Kay and Lloyd Wright