April 01, 2016

Photo Essay: Wattles Mansion & Gardens

Sometime a few years ago, back in my early explorations of LA, I tried to go to Wattles Mansion in Hollywood.

I was lured by the promise of gardens; but when I got there, I couldn't get past a locked gate. I couldn't even see the gardens.

I didn't know it at the time, but I wasn't just there on an off day.

The Wattles Estate hadn't been lived in since the late Gurdon Wattles' son sold it to LA's Department of Rec and Parks as a historic site in 1965. And although Hollywood Heritage started restoring it in 1983, they hadn't used it as their headquarters since 2009.

For years, nobody has been able to figure out how to get inside the gate—much less the mansion itself!—without renting it for a wedding.

But that has all changed, at least briefly, and The Wattles Estate is no longer the fortress it once was.

For a few weeks, this rare surviving Hollywood estate (others having been razed and gone the way of public park, like Wilacre and Runyon) is open to the public...

...for the price of a ticket to LA's first-ever designer showcase.

While it had been looking quite shabby since its last restoration—looking something more like Rockhaven Sanitarium than Greystone Mansion—it's gotten quite a facelift from the designers who are showcasing there...

...including, in many cases, new curtains...

...wallpapers or fresh coats of paint...

...and completely restored hardwood floors, which had seen a few too strappy-shod bridesmaids in its day.

Some of the furniture and design pieces are one-of-a-kind, having been created specifically for this showcase...

...and will be sold or at least moved out of the house once the design show is over.

And although the Wattles Mansion is meant to showcase the work of various designers, I found that the designers' work did a pretty great job of showcasing the mansion.

Original mosaic tile in the kitchen was repaired and replaced...

...and everything—whether historic or merely vintage-inspired—felt period-appropriate...

...and downright glamorous.

Each room—from the library downstairs to the master and guest bedrooms upstairs—was brought to life with its own theme, somehow inspired by the very broad concept of "Hollywood."

There's the Leonardo Di Caprio dining room, the Brigitte Bardot living room, the Midnight in Paris upstairs gallery, the Carole Lombard master suite, the Audrey Hepburn master bed and bath, and the Rock n Roll High School guest room.

The designers even spruced up the balconies, patios, and other exterior landings with some nice greenery, a complement to the fresh flowers that get changed out inside every week.

As much as I loved seeing the new bathroom fixtures, replica honeycomb floor tiles and layers of muck covered up on fireplace mantles...

...I was constantly looking for what was original to the 1907 Spanish-Mission style winter home for Mr. Wattles, a Nebraskan who ended up bankrolling much of Hollywood.

Even the view has changed quite a bit.

Before Wattles arrived—and even after—the Hollywood area was mostly farmland.

With his estate and elaborate gardens—which, for the time, was indeed quite grand—Mr. Wattles created a tourist attraction in the middle of the sticks.

Compared to modern McMansions in the Malibu hills—or even other historic mansions like Greystone or Fenyes—the Wattles Mansion might seem quite small or understated...

...despite its five bedrooms and three baths upstairs.

But it suited Mr. Wattles just fine at the time—so much so that his ghost is probably still hanging out here, either in the library where he was found back in 1932, or wandering through the halls, switching lights on and off and filling bathtubs with water.

The estate's residence was designed by the architectural team of Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey—who, together and separately, were responsible in one way or another for a number of LA area landmarks including the Ambassador Hotel, the Huntington, Mount Wilson Observatory, Caltech, the Rose Bowl, the Mission Inn, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Pasadena Playhouse.

But the gardens' designs were driven by Mr. Wattles himself, who was inspired by his many trips out of the country.

Although four of the initial gardens were Spanish, to go along with the architecture of the house...

...there was also an American, an Italian, and a Japanese garden...

...with a teahouse that tended to attract squatters and other ne'er-do-wells while the property was falling into severe disrepair.

Although the mansion was once surrounded by avocado trees and various types of miniature farms, now there's the formal garden in the back...

...where the roses are in bloom...

...and the cypress trees intermingle with palms...

...and a bit of overgrowth around the perimeter.

Apparently, a portion of the grounds was reopened to dog walkers, hikers, and other members of the public back in 2013—but it must've been without much fanfare, because I'd nearly completely forgotten about Wattles Mansion until I heard about the design showcase a couple weeks ago.

It's nice to see that some people haven't forgotten about it—though there's still plenty of work to be done, both inside and out.

But with so few signs remaining of the Hollywood days before the film studios, Wattles Mansion and its gardens are a treasure, no matter what shape they're in—or what goes on inside of it.

For more information about the individual room themes and their respective designers, click here and here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Inside Greystone Mansion
What Does It Mean to Save Villa Carlotta?

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