Only a handful of Beverly Hills houses have ever rivaled the Warner estate. With its 13,600-square-foot Georgian-style mansion, expansive terraces and gardens, two guesthouses, nursery and three hothouses, tennis court, swimming pool, nine-hole golf course and motor court complete with its own service garage and gas pumps, the nine-acre property was— and still is—the archetypal studio mogul’s estate.
Few homes, moreover, compared with the Warner estate as a social milieu in the thirties and forties. “I remember one New Year’s Eve party in 1939 or 1940,” Olivia de Havelland has recalled. “All the men were glorious in white tie. Errol Flynn was behind the bar, Howard Hughes was my date, and Jimmy Stewart was seated on a stool. Just the four of us having our first drink of the evening. All those beautiful women dressed in wonderful elegance. Dolores Del Rio in a white satin gown that contrasted her dark hair and dark eyes. Ann Warner, herself a striking presence. Those beautiful women, looking marvelous in this wonderful setting.”
Unlike most of his famous neighbors, Warner did not build his estate in one grand gesture. Instead, he created his home step-by-step over an entire decade according to the changes in his business affairs and personal life.
This estate, like so many other studio moguls’ houses, was the symbol of Warner’s hard-won success. The sons of a Polish immigrant shopkeeper, Jack, Harry, Albert and Sam Warner entered the movie business when they purchased a nickelodeon in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, in 1904. Jack Warner entertained the audiences during intermissions. During the next two decades the Warners expanded into film distribution with varying degrees of success, and in 1923 they formed Warner Bros. In the early twenties Warner Bros, had been a distinctly second-rank studio, whose best-known star was Rin Tin Tin. At times, the studio was so hard-pressed that Warner left his office by the back door in order to avoid creditors. But by 1926 he felt comfortable enough to purchase three acres of former farmland in the gentle foothills a half-mile north of the Beverly Hills Hotel and to start construction of a house. Two years later, Warner and his family moved into a new fifteen-room Spanish colonial-style mansion.
Within several years, however, the home seemed inadequate to Warner. The studio’s financial condition had improved considerably after its highly profitable introduction of the talkies with The Jazz Singer (1927). Warner Bros, subsequently enjoyed a string of financial and critical successes with gangster films like Little Caesar (1930) and Public Enemy (1931), the Busby Berkeley musicals and socialconscience movies like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Warner had become so rich that he bought an adjacent parcel of land that had been subdivided into building lots, and installed a pitch-and-putt golf course with two ponds. He then acquired—and demolished—three nearby mansions and added those lots to his estate. (The three houses, it is estimated, would today have cost ten million dollars.)
Warner completed the grounds of his spectacular estate in 1937, a year after his second marriage, to Ann Page, an occasional screen actress.
The existing Spanish-style mansion, which had been the height of architectural chic in the mid-twenties, looked outdated by the mid-thirties, and it reminded the brash studio head of his failed first marriage. Warner consequently enlisted architect Roland E. Coate, who enlarged and rebuilt the mansion in the Georgian style with an impressive Greek Revival portico. Coate was well known in the conservative San Marino and Pasadena social circles during the twenties, but after designing producer David O. Selznick’s nearby house, he had begun in the thirties to work more and more in flamboyant Beverly Hills.
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