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Yamashiro: A Feudal Fortress in the Hollywood Hills

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The hills of Los Angeles are dotted with secret utopias. There are thousands of "exotic" estates, the size of small villages, so well protected that we mere mortals can only guess what exists behind their high, vine covered gates. Personally, I lost my general fascination with these American castles long ago, after finding that all homes generally produce the same results. Whether you live in a faux castle with five pools or a cramped studio apartment on Franklin Avenue, on any given night, you are probably sitting on your couch watching whatever sports playoff game is on TV.

There are exceptions to my rule. One of these is the legendary Asian-inspired estate of the bizarre Bernheimer Brothers, now the CalAsian fusion restaurant Yamashiro, which sits on a summit looming above the Magic Castle in Hollywood. It is easy to imagine mysterious shenanigans and otherworldly activities as you drive on the curving road that takes you up to the property, past overgrown foliage and a dilapidated sentry gate. The main building, like a Disney version of an Asian Temple, lords over a hilltop with one of the best views in Los Angeles. Kitschy quirks are everywhere -- inside the foyer is a secret nook that now holds an ATM, but was allegedly a spot of assignation for swinging sixties politicians. Dining tables surround the koi pond and garden in the inner courtyard. Outside, a 600 year old Pagoda (the oldest structure in Los Angeles) accents a swimming pool that was once a "lake" for exotic black swans. So many visitors molested the antique Buddha, sitting contentedly in the summer house on the hillside, that a sign has been put up reading "Do Not Climb on Buddha."

The history of Yamashiro is as odd as its atmosphere. For once, it appears that the people within lived up to the architectural pretensions without.

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Like a Vision from the Skies of the Celestial Kingdom

From the beginning, Hollywood was suspicious of Adolph and Eugene Bernheimer. Of German Jewish descent, the brothers were from a large, wealthy family of dry goods importers based in New York. Usually together, they travelled the world for Bear Mill Manufacturing Co. and other business concerns, which included importing "oriental goods" for the American market. Along the way, they became fascinated with Asian silks and antiques, and amassed a collection of artifacts said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1912, the middle-aged bachelors purchased 12-acres on the crest of a large Hollywood hill from developer H.J. Whitley. On it, they began constructing an Asian-style estate designed by NYC architect Franklin Smalls. It was said they had been planning its construction for twenty years. Why they chose unfamiliar Los Angeles as the place to build it remained a mystery.

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Almost as soon as they arrived, stories about the Bernheimers began circulating around Los Angeles. They stuck with themselves, their devotion to each other becoming one of the "beautiful legends of Hollywood." 3 It was claimed that "hundreds" of Asian craftsmen had been brought over to construct their estate, which they named Yamashiro. The hillside was landscaped into terraces, and thousands of exotic plants and trees were planted. The pagoda was installed in front of the artificial swan lake. A creepy tunnel led into the cave-like "Monkey House," supposedly built to house a collection of monkeys. A waterfall-lined switchback walkway led to a Tea House, filled with priceless antiques. The main house, although supposedly based on a palace in the Yamashiro mountains near Kyoto, was actually a fanciful mish-mash of Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian architectural elements. In fact, early articles about the mansion identified it as being Chinese in design:

Once the mansion was finished in 1914, each brother lived on one side of the house, which opened onto a central garden courtyard. There were countless treasures -- tapestries of Japanese wrestlers lined the hallways, priceless warrior helmets were mounted in the smoking room, and in the bedroom pendant lights hung from the lips of a carved man swinging on a trapeze. Hollywood residents, long fascinated by the mountain palace rising amidst the bungalow dotted hills, were particularly titillated by the rumor that no woman would ever be allowed inside:

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The Bernheimers had very little time to enjoy their long planned utopia. With the outbreak of World War 1, the brothers' German roots made them suspicious figures in Hollywood. Yamashiro's large retaining walls and extensive acreage seemed perfect for a German stronghold. According to Los Angeles Times historian Cecilia Rasmussen:

Furious with provincial Hollywood residents, who they also attempted to appease with a $5,000 war bond contribution, the Bernheimers sold Yamashiro in 1924. In December of that year, Eugene, described as a "retired capitalist," died suddenly in San Francisco. Adolph moved on to the Pacific Palisades, where he immediately created another "oriental" garden that would become one of the public showplaces of Los Angeles. He died there in 1944.

The 400 Club

The Bernheimer estate bounced from one kind of disenfranchised aristocracy to another. If the brothers were never accepted in Hollywood because of their unconventional ways and German roots, the flourishing film colony found itself repeatedly snubbed by the old Los Angeles smart set of the Bannings and Chandlers. By the '20s, actors, directors, and moguls were famous the world over, with wealth far surpassing the old money families. Actors were no longer "rogues and vagabonds," one columnist cried, tongue in cheek:

But despite their opulent mansions and lavish lifestyle, movie folk were kept out of official SoCal society -- never listed in the infamous Blue Book, rarely invited to join country clubs or private societies. The few who broke through, like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood's "King and Queen," often seemed to snub their motion picture brethren for more established, blue blooded folk.

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In the mid-20s, Frank Elliot (allegedly the inventor of the "sunlight arch" used in early motion pictures) attempted to change this. In 1924, he founded the "60 Club," a group of the crème de la crème of filmdom, who met for a dinner dance once a month at the Biltmore Hotel. This exclusive event was such a success that he upped the stakes and formed "the 400 Club." The time had come," he explained, "to provide the motion picture industry with its own superior social background, to establish social leadership, to create a permanent central rendezvous for the best elements in motion picture society." 9 Partnering with the new Yamashiro owner, restauranteur John Tait, he decided the lavish twelve acre estate would be the perfect clubhouse (think SoHo House, twenties style) for his new society. Stables, bungalows, a ballroom, theater, a riding club, and swimming pool were all planned as future additions. Columnist Alma Whitaker heralded Elliot's creation:

The fee to join was $500. Founding members included Buster Keaton, Irving Thalberg, and Cecil B. DeMille. The October 11, 1925, opening reception of the club reads like a who's-who of roaring twenties Hollywood. Hostesses included Pola Negri, Alla Nazimova, Florence Vidor, Norma Shearer, Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn, Adela Rogers St. John, and Mrs. Sam Warner. One amused columnist noted, "Of course, I shouldn't like myself, to awaken in the morning and find myself gazing at those goofy dragons carved on the walls, but at the same time, dearie, I'm sure that up here two Hollywood romances will bloom where only one bloomed before." The exclusive Hollywood set were soon up to their madcap antics all around the property:

Despite its auspicious start, it seems the club to end all clubs lasted a very short time. By 1926, the property was being rented out to pedestrian social clubs. In 1929, a story about two new cinema societies noted that "the fact that the once stylishly heralded Sixty Club and the even more ambitious 400 Club in the old Bernheimer residence, are now defunct, doesn't faze them in the least." 12

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Mistresses and Moonlight and Mystery

The next two decades were tumultuous ones for Yamashiro and the world around it. During the '30s, the estate was used by various social organizations for events. It is said the grounds were opened to the public for 25 cents. It is also rumored to have been a brothel -- though no proof of this has ever been found. During World War II, intolerance came to call on Yamashiro again, this time in the form of anti-Japanese sentiment. Asian features were painted over, and the property was ransacked by vandals. Rumors spread that Yamashiro was actually a signal tower for the Japanese. The property became a boy's school for a time. The main mansion was then expanded and converted into fifteen apartments.

In 1948, Thomas O. Glover bought seven acres of Yamashiro, intending to tear down the mansion and develop a hotel and new apartments on the property. Once he discovered the silk hangings and intricate woodworking hidden under decades of black paint and plywood, he changed his mind. He began to restore the main house. Apartments were built by the pool, and eventually the property also came to include the famous Magic Castle and Hollywood Hills Hotel, both developed by Glover. The compound, with its kitschy grounds, became a hip place to live and visit. Even the Monkey House was converted into a residence. Many movie actors lived in the Monkey House, including Randy Young, who threw epic parties there in the late 1950s. The Tea House was also converted into an apartment and occupied by TV actor Pernell Roberts for twenty years.

Story continues below

Like everything to do with Yamashiro, the origins of the restaurant are murky. It seems it was initially a back bar for residents and guests. In 1960, Glover's son, Thomas Y. Glover (who managed the property for decades) began serving hot hors d'oeuvres to guests at the bar. What started out as a four table restaurant slowly took over the entire mansion. During the '60s and '70s, it was known primarily as a dark, secluded spot to take your mistress for exotic rum drinks and dazzling views. Today the restaurant seats over 500 people and hosts numerous weddings and movie industry events. Apartments on the property are coveted and continually occupied.

The enormously valuable estate, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was almost sold by the family in 2007, and was listed again in October 2014. This year, director Ben Strang made a short film called "The Sale" about the warring Glover descendants, who have been fighting for years over the fate of Yamashiro. Fittingly, the future of Yamashiro is as uncertain as its past.

Photos courtesy of and special thanks to Yamashiro Hollywood.

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1 "Borrowed from the Far East" Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1914
2 "Palatial home is finished, crowns Hollywood hill like shogun's castle" Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1914
3 "The Four Hundred Club" Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1925
4 "Borrowed from the Far East" Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1914
5 "Palatial home is finished, crowns Hollywood hill like shogun's castle" Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1914
6 "L.A. Then and Now: A tourist Mecca that geology helped obliterate" Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2000
7 "New screen club holds open house" Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1925
8 "Cinema society on warpath" Los Angeles Times, November, 8, 1925
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 "The Four Hundred Club" Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1925
12 "Haute monde invades colony" Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1929
13https://dinaheng.wordpress.com