Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Garden of Allah: An Editorial About the Preservation of Architecture in Los Angeles

Whenever you read about a famous building in Los Angeles, you are pretty sure that the story is going to have an unhappy ending. Los Angeles as a community, as an economy, and as a culture is very clear about the buildings and architecture that at one point made it famous: it doesn't give a fuck. LA will tear down anything to make a fast buck, no matter how significant, architecturally or culturally.

It is easy to be critical of this policy, but I think it misunderstands what Los Angeles is all about, and tries to make it something that it is not. The people of Los Angeles are not pretending to be shallow, they are shallow. They are not pretending to be stupid and corrupt, they are stupid and corrupt.

Once you understand this, then the clouds of confusion will lift and a positive spin can be placed on what otherwise might seem to be an obscene and offensive disregard of their responsiblity to preserve cultural resources of our civilization that happen to be placed in their district.

In other words, destroying buildings that are an important part of Los Angeles history is not in any way a bad thing, it is a good thing, because it is the true and valid expression of the beliefs of the people who own and run Los Angeles. To save historically significant buildings would be false to their nature, and hypocritical.

I spent about 10 years or so of my life (1982 - 1992 or so) in a little cabin up Laurel Canyon, 8726 Lookout Mountain Ave. My landlady had been married to Bundy Marton, 2nd Unit Director of Ben Hur (1959). My neighbor across the street was Eddie Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten. This was not a rich neighborhood, this was a funky neighborhood. I lived up the street from Pat O'Neil of Lookout Mountain Films, and when we did our test for The Abyss, we shot the footage in that cabin with the YFS camera and took the footage to Pat for compositing.

I had a bank account at an anonymous little branch of some appalling financial institution in an undistinguished building on Sunset Boulevard, a block or two west of Crescent Heights. In the lobby of this branch, against the wall, was an architectural model of some building enclosed in a glass case. One day I looked closer, and I saw that it was a model of a small cluster of buildings, called, rather grandly, The Garden of Allah.

The Garden of Allah had apparently been an apartment complex made up of many, 20 or more, little cottages, what we call bungalows, each of them themed, it seemed to me, as something out of the Thousand and One Nights. Although it did have an Arabic feel to it, it also felt right at home in the Hispanic bungalow tradition of that part of town. A sign next to the model at the bank explained that this was a famous apartment complex that used to be located on this site that it had been torn down to build this bank, and that it had something to do with famous actors, actresses and writers of Hollywood in the days of silent pictures.

That was an understatement.

This was The Garden of Allah.

Our story begins in 1879 when a young girl named Miriam Leventon was born in Imperial Russia, which in case you did not know, was not the best place in the world to be born, particularly if you were Jewish. She decided to become an actress and studied with Stanislavski at the Moscow Arts Theatre, which is incredible just in itself. Moving to NYC in 1905 she co-founded with her boyfriend a Russian language theatre on the Lower East Side. It was not successful, she broke up with her boyfriend, he returned to Russia but she stayed. The director and actor Henry Miller discovered her and placed her in a play in 1906. She had a very successful Broadway career for 10 years under her stage name, Alla Nazimova.

So one more time we have a brilliant but poor immigrant who comes to America to fame and fortune. But our story is just beginning.

She was brought to Hollywood's attention in the very early days and from 1916 to 1918 she was a successful actress under contract to Selznick. She made a fortune, and apparently threw it away making her own films that were not commercially successful. Easy come, easy go, I guess. But with a few million left in the bank,  a financial advisor suggested she do some real estate development as a long term investment and income property.

So at last we come to the part of the story which is The Garden of Allah.

Alla Nazimova developed a property on Sunset Boulevard that was a themed hotel and apartment complex whose name, The Garden of Allah, was a pun on her first name, Alla. I don't completely understand the sequence of events, but she went broke building it, sold it to someone, but continued living there in one of the Bungalows for the rest of her life.

And her life was very colorful. For those of you who find the stories of wild Hollywood sex with famous celebrities interesting, you could do worse than study Alla. She was apparently a pioneer of the Hollywood lesbian subculture and a very active participant. It was she who came up with the term "ladies sewing circle", and there are apparently many rewarding chapters of her activities in this area for those who study such things.

Many stars, writers and producers, stayed at The Garden of Allah if they were working in Hollywood temporarily.  

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Parker.  Not to mention Ernest Hemingway, Robert Benchley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Kaufman, Charles Laughton, Frank Sinatra, Tallulah Bankhead, John Barrymore, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, Errol Flynn, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers.   Dorothy Parker was staying at the Garden of Allah when her husband died. When a neighbor asked if she needed something, she famously said "Another husband".

The Garden of Allah had a main building with lobby, a restaurant, the bungalows, presumably some rooms in the main building and of course a swimming pool and some palm trees. It was torn down to build the most stupid of boring boxes that we put banks into here in Los Angeles. You can see this atrocity even today.

So let us be clear. The Garden of Allah was a distinguished and important landmark of early Hollywood. To tear it down would make as much sense as tearing down the Chelsea Hotel in NYC. Those who did so should be held accountable, even if they are dead.  There are lots of ways of punishing the wicked after they are dead and we will write a separate essay on how to do so.

Los Angeles, if it wishes to be held in any respect by the rest of the world, needs to start paying attention to these landmarks and not destroy them. They must stop their cultural vandalism in desperate search of a fast buck, but they never will. This is who they are, this is who they want to be.

Shallow criminals who do not give a fuck.

Today, if you wish to see the Garden of Allah, you must go to Universal Studios Florida where they built a replica in their park. It stands unused, mysterious, alone, in Orlando.

Maybe Alla walks the abandoned halls at night.


A write up of Gardens of Allah

A description of the Garden of Allah at Universal Studios Florida

The Youtube (unofficial) tour of the Garden of Allah at Universal Studios Florida

Reviews of Alla Nazimova

Someone's partial list of lost Hollywood

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