Los Angeles came late to the historic preservation movement. The landmarks that have fallen to the wrecking balls is nothing less than tragic. The Sunset Strip has been luckier. Chateau Marmont and the Sunset Tower are standing and in fine fettle. Low-rise apartment building where notables like Marilyn Monroe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Dandridge lived are still in use. The building made world-famous as Ciro’s night club in the 1940s was repurposed decades ago as the Comedy Store. Even the one-time home of Cafe Gala, Judy Garland’s favorite gay bar, on Horn Avenue north of the Strip, is still standing, although it has dark since Spago’s vacated the building and moved to Beverly Hills location.
One significant loss, however, was the Garden of Allah, the most legendary and notorious of all the Strip hotels, which was razed in 1959 to make way for the bank building that is there now.
The Garden of Allah was originally an estate called Hayvenhurst, built in 1913, at 8150 Sunset Blvd. [map], at the northwest corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset — at the western terminus of the Sunset trolley line — it occupied a 2.5-acre park-like campus of villas built around an enormous swimming pool and the main house, which housed the restaurant and bar.
The buildings were torn down, the landscaping ripped out and a concrete parking lot was poured on top of the once-magical grounds — an event that was thought to have inspired the line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” in Joni Mitchell’s song, “Big Yellow Taxi.” Mitchell, who moved to Los Angeles well after the shopping center was built, has said she was writing about a trip to Hawaii.
In January 1927, the opening of the hotel was celebrated in typical Hollywood style, as described in the Los Angeles Times many years later:
The town’s big blast on Jan. 9, 1927 … was the merry marathon at Sunset Blvd. and Havenhurst Dr. It heralded the birth of the Garden of Allah.
There was joy afoot, caviar at hand and bubbles in the air — for 18 hours. By midnight, the waiters were harmonizing with the guests and wandering troubadours played madrigals from the middle of the pool.
It was climax piled on climax, including a virtual state dinner at which the mistress of the Garden of Allah, Yalta-born Alla Nazimova, dedicated the plush three-acre plot.
Nazimova, then Metro Pictures’ highest-salaried actress, first leased the estate in 1918 and then purchased it outright the next years.Legend has it that Nazimova selected the property because of it was across the Los Angeles city limits in the unincorporated “County Strip,” which is now the city of West Hollywood. But that is not true. The property was, and is, in the city limits of Los Angeles.
In many ways, Alla Nazimova could be considered one of the Founding Mothers of West Hollywood. For one thing, Nazimova was, for her time, quite openly bisexual. While she had a lavender marriage with gay actor Charles Bryant, she had affairs with celebrities including Mercedes de Acosta, stage actress Eva Le Gallienne and movie director Dorothy Arzner. She also introduced Rudolph Valentino, the screen’s first great lover, to the two women he married, both of whom were also her lovers.
It was Nazimova who built the pool, which was meant to remind her of her girlhood on the Crimea, and stories that circulated around town about naked women frolicking by Nazimova’s pool contributed early on to West Hollywood’s racy reputation. By the end of the 1920s, Nazimova found herself facing a cash crunch. Her solution was to convert her estate, with its prime Sunset Strip location, into a hotel. The Times’ Swinton writes that in the “big revamp, [Nazimova] showered $1.5 million on the place, built 25 unique villas of Spanish design and packed them with the last word in charm and fashion.”
It was a concept that proved to be phenomenally successful, but not for Nazimova. She was considered an artistic genius, but she was no hotelier. She sold the property a few years later to company that added improvements that helped it become a favored Hollywood stopping place for everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Igor Stravinsky and Groucho Marx to Ronald Reagan.
In the early 1938, Nazimova returned to Hollywood and made a few movies, performing bravura supporting roles in “In Our Time,” with Ida Lupino and Paul Heinried, and “Since You Went Away,” her final film, with Claudette Colbert. Nazimova even moved back to the Garden, living in Villa 24 until she died in July 1945.
In 1959, before the bulldozers moved in, there was one last party at the Garden of Allah. Among the over 1,000 guests were former silent star Francis X. Bushman, star of the original, silent version of “Ben Hur,” and his wife, who had attended the grand opening soiree in 1927. As a final tribute, Nazimova’s 1923 version of “Salome” was screened.