Houses of Los Angeles

The purpose of Sam Watters’s monumental tome was to document the grand estates built in the Los Angeles area between 1885 and 1935. In the process, he has also captured the gardens around some of the largest and most elegant houses of the period. During this time, rich tycoons, real estate developers, and Hollywood stars “discovered” the thrill of creating gardens on their large properties. As the author remarks, “…integrating indoor and outdoor spaces—a defining aspect of the historic Mediterranean garden—determined the development of the California landscape in the first half of the 20th century.” Watters recorded these gardens beautifully in the 800 archival photographs that he found to fill his magnificent volumes.

When bold and extensive advertising sold Easterners on the wonders of these sunny lands, the steady stream of visitors (many of them rich beyond the dreams of avarice) arrived, and many stayed. Others built winter homes, far away from the cold. But nearly all of them spent great sums on their houses and their gardens. Watters has done a superb job of collecting historic photographs of these striking houses and gardens, some of them built on the scale of European chateaux. It is not always easy to identify the plants, as the images are in black and white, but the scale of the landscapes is breathtaking.

Through the photographs, one can trace the use of exotic plants, many of them imported to California by the wealthy property owners. The best landscape designers in the United States were asked to create gardens that set off the elegant buildings. Florence Yoch, a brilliant local landscape architect, worked on many of the gardens, as well as on the sets for movies filmed in the area.

Of particular note, horticulturally, is the extensive use of Mediterranean plants, regardless of the fact that plentiful water was available at that time. Palms dotted nearly all of the gardens, many of them brought from Cuba, Guatemala, and Mexico; I recall the streets in Beverly Hills, during my youth, lined with Mexican and California fan palms (Washingtonia robusta and W. filifera). Full-sized trees were transplanted to streets and gardens, once techniques were developed for moving them in large sizes.

Orange trees in Pasadena bloomed at the time of the annual Rose Parade, and we could smell the flowers as we sat waiting for the floats to pass. Avocado groves, exotic specimen plants, banana trees, oleanders, poplars, acacias, Italian cypress, pepper trees, cactus gardens, and lawns everywhere: these fill my memories of growing up there in the 1930s, and all can be seen in Watters’s collected photographs.

When I was ten, my grandmother took me to Harold Lloyd’s house (he was then retired from movies), where I saw his extensive garden with its cascading waterfall, pictured in Watters’s book. The author notes that the actor kept a staff of sixteen gardeners for many years. Of course, the point of much of this display, in Lloyd’s and similar gardens, was to impress others. It still impresses today, even in black and white.

Houses of Los Angeles is a perfect companion to Victoria Padilla’s Southern California Gardens (1961, reprint 1994), with its illustrated history of the plants and gardens of the region.

William Grant, garden writer and rosarian
Aptos, California