September 13, 2016

Photo Essay: The Estate and Gardens of the First Lady of Beverly Hills

You never really hear about the Virginia Robinson Estate and gardens in Beverly Hills until tickets go on sale for its annual garden party—which is such a fabulous affair, few of us could ever afford it.

And it's so tucked away in Holmby Hills' Peavine Canyon, between Greystone Mansion and the Weisman Art Foundation, that you're not likely to just happen upon it.

And even if you did, you wouldn't get past the gate or up the winding driveway without an advance reservation.

And with all of the recent renovations, private parties, and weddings, those reservations have been hard to come by.

In truth, I'd been trying to get into the Virginia Robinson Gardens for a year and a half, with no luck.

But when I finally made it through that archway, past those doors with the giant knockers, I knew it would be worth the wait.

This is a periscope into the "Golden Days of Hollywood," where Virginia and Harry Robinson (son of J.W. Robinson and heir to the Robinson's department store fortune) were as "Hollywood" as any movie star couple.

And their fabulosity just kept growing—first with their 1911 Mediterranean Classic Revival house, and then with their 1924 Renaissance Revival pool pavilion.

Even without much weather here in Beverly Hills, the historic property has taken somewhat of a beating over time.

The pool pavilion was modeled after the baroque Venetian Villa Pisani, though on a much smaller scale.

When you pass under the sgraffito wall details and through its Roman arches... find yourself in the solarium, where you can imagine a number of pool parties taking place.

Because of her love for parties and entertaining, Virginia Robinson was known as "The First Lady of Beverly Hills," and her former home is widely considered the first luxury estate of Beverly Hills.

She was also a generous philanthropist, hosting a number of benefits at the estate and on the Great Lawn.

She certainly held up her half of the power couple—her uncle being Leslie Brand, the "Father of Glendale," and her father being Nathaniel Dryden, the architect of Brand Library and of the Robinsons' estate.

No detail went unnoticed in the design and decoration of the estate.

From the billiard room... the pocket doors of the servants' kitchen...

...every last corner is adorned.

The same goes for outside...

...where statuary intermingle with plantings...

...and the fountain is only dwarfed by the swimming pool, tiled in blue.

The newer pavilion area is connected to the original residence... the Formal Mall Garden, bordered by perennials...

...and lined with cypress trees, whose tops have been cut off to give the illusion of forming a straight line.

The house is full of historical artifacts and art collected from around the world by Virginia herself—and they're so valuable that they can't be photographed (and only a portion of the house can even be toured).

Outside, there are a few pieces of history as well, like original chairs (not for sitting)...


...and a lilypad-filled pool that provides a stream of running water... the "musical stairs" that lead visitors down into the canyon to the estate's other gardens.

Down below, you're surrounded by citrus and pomegranate trees...


...and various rare and heirloom species of plants, trees, vines, and flowers in the Italianate terraces.

The gardens seem to stretch on forever.

And then, out of nowhere, there's a pipe organ cactus.

The Robinson botanic gardens can be elegant and European, but they can be tropical, too.

In fact, there's also a grove of King Palm trees from Australia...

...which is reportedly the largest in the U.S.

It's a dense forest of the tropical kind...

...and so of course Virginia used to house some tropical birds in a small aviary. There also used to be real monkeys on the property, and some beloved pets are buried in a tiny cemetery on the grounds.

These days, the creatures that you see hanging around the gardens tend to be more cherubic in nature...

...though it's not unusual to see a stern face spitting water out at you.

Just when you think you must've seen the entirety of the property, you come upon a jardin potager—or, a kitchen garden of vegetables and herbs. And it's as though you've time-warped or teleported to a different residence entirely.

And in a way, you have.

It's the nerve center of the estate, where all of the necessary operations took place—in the laundry room, the pantry, and so on.

It's just around the corner, but it's a world away from the tennis court where Charlie Chaplin worked on his backhand.

The estate wasn't in such good shape when Virginia died in 1977, but it's been dramatically restored and continues to have work done (as many do, here in Beverly Hills). A wildflower garden has been planted in the front.

And that's mostly thanks to the work of the Friends of the Virginia Robinson Gardens and its patrons, who've taken on the stewardship of the estate since Virginia left it to LA County.

Although Virginia lived to be the ripe old age of 99 (and died literally while planning her 100th birthday party), she lost Harry in 1932 without ever having any children with him, and without ever remarrying.

Their legacy does, however, live on in other ways. You can thank Virginia and Harry for donating seedlings from their South African coral tree so that more could be planted along San Vicente Boulevard between Brentwood and Santa Monica.

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