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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 Hollywood Boulevard the house, with its circular terraces and white retaining walls, looms upon the view like a vision from the skies of the celestial kingdom itself, transformed through some miraculous exaggeration of the mystifying laws of reflection and refraction into the clear air of our own California.--Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1914 1
Yesterday, the wonder-house of California was opened for inspection, fit, in the luxury of its appointments, to be the adobe of a Mutsuhito, but in reality to be the home of two New York cotton importers- Adolph and Eugene Bernheimer. It crowns a lofty hill off Hollywood Blvd., a feudal fortress with a metropolitan setting. Travelers who have toured through Nippon-land conceded that there is nothing in native Japan to surpass the marvelous beauty of the Bernheimer villa, a replica of all desirable in a Japanese dwelling place. And with the striking strangeness of it all, there comes a touch of sinister romance, for the hosts there are bachelors, and it is rumored that they have made a pact that no woman shall ever enter the place as an invited guest.--Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1914 2

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:

Architecturally, the house is a modification only in the sense that its sanitary arrangements and household appointments are American and modern. In every other line of construction and detail of finish it is entirely Chinese. To date, only the walls, partitions and roof have been finished. Heavy timber plays an important part in the construction throughout, and the large amount of carved woodwork constitutes a novel feature. Painters are now engaged in coloring and gilding the innumerable features that will give the house the quaintly oriental character that it is destined to take on. 4

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:

Off the den is the bedroom, so wonderful that a woman should see it. The carved lacquer furniture is in abundance, tooled with the exhausting skill of the oriental, so delicately wrought and so highly polished that It looks almost like playthings ... For pure magnificence the reception room, concealed by one silken tapestry that must have cost so much that only such a setting would be worthy, surpasses. Across the ceiling stretch several limbs of carved lacquer wood, with pure blossoms in full bloom burgeoning. The lighter limbs of the plum tree are relieved by the dark figure of a dragon that squirms amid the foliage. Like the other rooms in the house, the walls here are entirely covered with the tapestries, scenes of an army marching to war, a triumphal procession and other episodes in Japanese life being shown. On the floor is the finest carpet that was ever made in Japan, designed and colored to harmonize with the subdued golds and amber of the rooms, with a saffron touch near the edges. 5
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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:

...the eccentric brothers soon were accused of espionage. They were accused of smuggling in a German spy, of gun smuggling, of digging mysterious tunnels and of signaling German aircraft with the lights from their driveway. To quash the tales, the brothers called in an FBI agent and a reporter with the Examiner newspaper to inspect their home and report. While Los Angeles soon dropped its suspicions, the brothers never forgave the community and were particularly angry when the city built an unsightly water tower behind their exotic fortress, substantially reducing its aesthetic appeal. 6

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

Hollywood's elite in the motion picture world were welcomed yesterday afternoon at the first housewarming of the new screen club, "the four hundred club," which is to be housed in the famous Bernheimer Japanese estate of Hollywood, considered to be one of the finest examples of oriental architecture and landscape gardening in the world. More than a dozen celebrities prominent in the film industry acted as hostesses in greeting the guests ...The reception yesterday was said to be the largest gathering of individual stars on one occasion that has been held in Hollywood for several years. The entire estate was thrown open to inspection, including the collection of Japanese art treasures in various rooms, Japanese girls in costumes of the flowery kingdom served the guests while an orchestra, hidden in a bower of wisteria off the patio, rendered the music.--Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1925 7

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:

They have homes, neighbors, babies, back yards, automobiles for the first time in history -- and dog-gone-it, they are better than anyone else's. They are much grander and they cost millions more! 8

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:

So there you are, when both the official blue book, the country clubs, and their own screen nabobs so gracelessly ignore the profession socially -- well I ask you, wasn't it time someone put this thing on a sound, authoritative society basis? So far so good. Behold the benefactor, Frank Elliot, with a supper club upon his hands, with architects busy transforming it into a social club set of ultra-sensational gorgeousness, with the thing fully financed beyond the wildest dreams of avarice and splendor- and no blue book references to aid him in the difficult and delicate task of inclusions-and exclusions. Two hundred members are already safely in and nearly 400 applications await judgement. 10

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:

Bebe Daniels showed a sense of the eternal fitness of things when she wore a gorgeous mandarin coat to the reception, and Jack Gilbert for one seemed to realize how prettily she fitted those surroundings. Indeed, Bebe looked as though she might break out into a Mikado melody at any minute. Quite a bachelor lot assembled in a sort of little tea room- Buster Collier, Roscoe Arbuckle, whose wife wasn't with him just this once, and Rudy Valentino ... We heard music coming from the little open music room at the end of the patio, and somebody was dancing the Charleston. "Or course, it is Priscilla Dean and Ruth Roland," commented Stella, and sure enough it was. "I saw them only last night Charlestoning at the Sixty Club at the Biltmore. Now the question is, where did these indestructible Charlestoner's Charleston in between times?" 11

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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