Luxury Inn Began as Con Man’s Vision

Times Staff Writer

La Venta Inn, a Mediterranean-style villa with a 53-foot watchtower overlooking Santa Monica Bay, began as a sales tool for one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest areas, the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Despite its posh surroundings -- and a glamorous connection to the Hollywood crowd in the 1930s and ‘40s -- this historic landmark owes its existence to a con artist and felon.

Edward Gardner Lewis was a visionary, though. Newspapers of the era described him as “the man who dreamed in $50-million figures.”


Lewis arrived in Los Angeles in 1921, at age 53, with a reputation as a builder of cities -- University City in Missouri and Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County. But he was $7 million in debt and running from thousands of creditors and investors.

He already had made and lost a fortune as a mail-order magazine publisher, founder of a bank-by-mail service and builder of a vegetable-dehydration plant. He also dabbled in high-risk mining and oil ventures.

Like most problem gamblers, Lewis believed he needed one big score to put him back on top. He considered the Palos Verdes Peninsula his ace in the hole.

In August 1921, Lewis formed a partnership with Frank Vanderlip Sr., a wealthy New York banker, to develop the 16,000-acre peninsula. Vanderlip had purchased it eight years before, sight unseen, for $2 million, intending to develop it himself in a more modest way. He gave Lewis an option to buy at $5 million -- $312.50 an acre.

Lewis, a land developer, smooth-talking dreamer and schemer, advertised the barren bluff top as “Utopia” and the “Riviera of the Pacific.” The clubhouse was to be a wayside manor for wining and dining prospective buyers. It became known as La Venta, meaning “the sale.”

Lewis envisioned the Riviera of the Pacific as a community of 150,000 residents with small and large estates. Design restrictions were to be built into every homeowner’s deed. A private art jury composed of architects, planners and engineers would enforce the regulations. Homeowners would need the jury’s approval for every exterior feature, including color, lantern style and shrubbery. Much of this came to pass, and the art jury persists today.

Lewis hired a team of noted architects and engineers for the inn, including the architect brothers Walter S. and Pierpont Davis. He also called in landscape artist Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., whose father had designed New York’s Central Park. The younger Olmstead designed a park and even built himself a home above Malaga Cove.

Promotional work began, a huge relief model was constructed, ads for the master-planned community appeared in Los Angeles newspapers, and the money started to roll in. Then someone blew the whistle.

On March 30, 1922, the Los Angeles Examiner published a telegram it had received:

“Suggest you investigate E.G. Lewis before running any more of his adds (sic) if you honestly wish to protect your readers. In one set of circulars he holds out gigantic promises and in another set he sidesteps past due obligations to his thousands of old oil investors.... In my opinion he is paying for his big Palos Verdes advertising campaign with money diverted from investments in his huge unsuccessful doodlebug oil promotion in Montana.” The cable was signed J.E. McDonald. His history with Lewis was unclear, but he appeared to be a previous victim.

Questions and confrontations ensued, but Lewis was undaunted. He smooth-talked his way through the project for almost a year.

“And I tell you that $30 million, which will be spent in the construction of the city of Palos Verdes, is equal to $250 million spent in the way any other city has ever spent it,” Lewis told a group of worried investors.

As construction was ready to begin on the clubhouse, the title company became uncomfortable with Lewis’ complicated financial plan which, among other things, promised him a $25-million profit, and it backed out.

Vanderlip examined Lewis’ accounting and found chaos -- unsecured promises and advances to Lewis on future commissions. Investors forced Lewis out in February 1923.

The Palos Verdes Project was scaled down to the 3,200 acres that would become Palos Verdes Estates, derived from Canada de los Palos Verdes (ravine of green trees). The rest of the acreage reverted to the Vanderlip syndicate and eventually was subdivided into the three other cities on the peninsula: Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates and Rolling Hills.

In January 1924, La Venta opened with little fanfare. Lewis’ name had become such an embarrassment that it was purged from the project’s public records. Soon he had legal troubles galore, civil and criminal both.

The notoriety didn’t keep the community from embracing La Venta, however. Nor did it keep guests from embracing; the inn earned a reputation as a love nest. Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Rosalind Russell, Gloria Swanson and Cary Grant were among Hollywood celebrities who spent lazy days and long nights of revelry there in the 1930s and ‘40s. Even flamboyant Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson reputedly took a break from raising money and saving souls to spend a few nights there.

During the fearful days of World War II, the military took over the inn’s watchtower to keep a lookout for enemy ships.

After the war, La Venta became a private residence, then a popular party place for sorority teas, fraternity dances and storybook weddings, which continue there today. In 1989, it was designated a state historical point of interest.

As for Lewis, his creditors sued for $20 million and he filed for bankruptcy in 1925. Deeply in debt and feeling persecuted, he headed home to Atascadero. He fought and lost a series of legal battles, including federal mail-fraud charges. In 1927, he was sentenced to six years in federal prison for bilking thousands of investors in various schemes, including a magazine, a dry oil well and almond trees.

Lewis always blamed others for his many acts of deception. While in prison he wrote his autobiography, “E.G. Lewis -- Fraud or Friend?” In the book, he maintained that his problems were caused by overzealous government regulators who did not understand his business.

He was paroled in 1931 but was sent back to prison for violating parole. Released again in 1935, he returned to Atascadero, where he spent the rest of his life as a penniless recluse and died in 1950.