A Tourist Mecca That Geology Helped Obliterate
“The only true paradise is a paradise lost”
-- Marcel Proust
The traces are subtle and hard to spot--a handful of fragments straggling across a lushly overgrown bluff overlooking the Pacific.
All that remain are jagged bits of concrete wall, eucalyptus, pine and palm trees that now tower over the site.
Yet those simple remnants--doggedly located by a mother-and-son team, historian-writers Betty Lou and Randy Young--unlocked the secrets of how time and geology had conspired to all but erase the very memory of what was once one of Los Angeles’ most popular tourist attractions.
Generations of poets have extolled the Pacific Palisades’ parched beauty, and it was there, early in the 20th century, that millionaire silk importer/antique dealer/horticulturist Adolph Bernheimer transformed a scrubby parcel into a stunning Japanese garden.
Bernheimer was far from alone in his fascination with things Japanese. By the early part of the century, a Japanese garden had become a sign of sophistication for the social elite, following the rage for Japanese art that swept Europe and, particularly, England during the so-called Aesthetic Movement in the 1880s.
In 1911, after New York-born Bernheimer and his brother, Eugene, arrived in Los Angeles, the bachelors hired New York architect Franklin Small to design a reproduction of a Japanese temple villa on 12 acres of lush gardens atop Sycamore Avenue in the Hollywood Hills. The project incorporated antique walls imported from Japan and a 600-year-old pagoda.
For almost a decade, the brothers lived in the Hollywood enclave. Meanwhile, they traveled throughout Asia and returned from each trip with a treasure trove of Oriental art. Angelenos paid 25 cents apiece just to see their collection when it was displayed.
Strong anti-German sentiment arose during World War I, and the eccentric brothers soon were accused of espionage. They were accused of smuggling in a German spy, of gun smuggling, of digging mysterious tunnels and of signaling German aircraft with the lights from their driveway.
To quash the tales, the brothers called in an FBI agent and a reporter with the Examiner newspaper to inspect their home and report.
While Los Angeles soon dropped its suspicions, the brothers never forgave the community and were particularly angry when the city built an unsightly water tower behind their exotic fortress, substantially reducing its aesthetic appeal.
In 1922--the same year that a group of Methodist visionaries laid out Pacific Palisades--the brothers decided to look for a more friendly and scenic location.
(Over the years, their vacated Hollywood residence would become home to “The Club of the 400,” a group of silent film stars and directors. It also was a military school, a brothel and an apartment house before it was ransacked in the violent upheaval of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II. In 1948, it was rescued by developer Tom Glover and turned into the landmark Yamashiro restaurant and hotel.)
After his brother Eugene died unexpectedly in 1924, Bernheimer chose as a refuge the isolation of the highest ocean bluff in Pacific Palisades, eight acres of a former mule camp sandwiched between what is now Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, near Marquez Place.
Instantly seduced by its natural beauty, commanding view and $100,000 price tag, Bernheimer was undaunted by Native American beliefs that “evil spirits” were buried deep below his beloved mountaintop.
For centuries, the Chumash Indians had dubbed the site “Burning Mountain,” because of the smoke and sulfurous odor that was emitted and an eerie reddish glow it cast at night. Geologists later attributed the phenomena to oil and gases percolating in the earth below or methane gas seepage from deep fissures and subterranean oil vaults.
According to legend, the Chumash routinely conducted rituals to ward off the evil under the bluff.
Undeterred, Bernheimer constructed a reproduction of a Japanese mountain palace and helped lay out surrounding gardens with a waterfall cascading down into stone-filled ponds, containing exotically colored koi and spanned by little concrete and wooden bridges.
A half-ton bronze sculpture of Tenjin, a 9th century god of heaven and patron of scholars and writers, mounted on a water buffalo--now part of the Dabney Garden at Caltech--guarded the gatehouse and entrance. The palm-lined path led more than 2 million visitors to the main house and a group of one-room Japanese-style houses, which were painted in black, mauve and gold,connected by pergolas.
Bernheimer also installed a bronze miniature of Chinese philosopher Lao-tse, mounted on a horse and a herd of bronze elephants that attracted live mountain lions.
When he opened a tearoom, surrounded by beds of roses, tuberous begonias, primroses, fuchsias and annuals, he began charging admission.
Quiet and reclusive, Bernheimer seldom mixed socially but was known to occasionally share a sweeping Pacific sunset with a few friends and a Gibson cocktail or two.
His solitude was temporarily interrupted in 1932, when the devout 65-year-old bachelor was sued for breach of promise by a woman who alleged that he had seduced her, then shared her bed for eight years before he finally abandoned her.
But a series of misfortunes settled on the site in the years around World War II. Patronage fell, in part, because of gas rationing. But it is doubtful that even free gasoline would have drawn many people to a Japanese garden owned by a man of German descent at that time. Popular curiosity again gave way to hostility. As Bernheimer’s health declined, he hired Mrs. O. D. Halstead, a nurse-turned-entrepreneur and gardener. In generalissimo-style, she managed the estate and set up a demonstration Victory Garden, offering plants, bulbs and seeds to the locals.
In 1944, his postcard-perfect property began literally slipping away. The slowly crumbling ground of the Palisades sent Bernheimer scurrying to file a lawsuit against the city, but not quickly enough.
Although the state acknowledged that work on the coast highway had caused slippage and agreed to pay $50,000 for restoration, Burnheimer died within weeks of that decision. Less than a month later, two more major landslides occurred, burying the highway and obscuring the mouth of the canyon and all traces of its legendary “evil spirit.” The heavy weight of the garden’s waterfall and lagoons also contributed to the garden’s demise, according to Randy Young.
Today, all that remain are the fragments of Adolph Bernheimer’s lifelong passion and the occasional puffs of smoke from the ground to remind the solitary passerby of the malign forces--geological or spiritual--that sent his dreams sliding into thin air.