If someone were to ask what it’s like to live in LA, you’d have to tell them, “It depends.” Because where you live can very much determine how you live. And how you live holed up in the mountains can be very different than someone shacked up in the flats. I would argue, however, that that’s one of the things that makes LA so great to live in and to visit, because either way you can be a tourist of how the other half lives. If you’re not already part of the 1%, there are places where you can actually go inside the manors and grand estates where the grass is always greener—instead of competing with tour busses, paparazzi, and other looky-loos for a glimpse at the high-security compound of some teen pop idol who lives there today.
Here are six great places to explore the opulence of yesteryear and experience the grandeur of a bygone era—from the mountains and valley to the beach.
Greystone Mansion, Beverly Hills
Greystone Mansion is a classic example of money not bringing happiness. Built in 1928 by oil tycoon Edward Doheny for his son Ned, the inside of of the manor featured a recreation wing including a bowling alley, elaborately tiled bathrooms, and a giant kitchen; while the exterior was surrounded by formal gardens and a 14-foot deep swimming pool (which has since been filled in and bricked over). However, despite the chauffeurs and the wealth of the oil boom, the Dohenys saw their share of tragedy at Greystone. A little girl who was a visiting friend of daughter Lucy Doheny fell to her death out of an upstairs window. Servants committed suicide. Ned died in a mysterious supposed murder-suicide (or was it a double murder?). Although summertime is usually booked with weddings and whatnot, the City of Beverly Hills opens the mansion up for ranger-led tours during the winter months for a small fee and maintains the grounds and gardens as a free public park all year. Bring a bucket to take a turtle from the reflecting pool home with you.
Wattles Mansion and Gardens, Hollywood
The Wattles Estate was built in 1907 and designed by Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey as a Spanish-Mission style winter home for Gurdon Wattles, a wealthy Nebraskan who ended up bankrolling much of Hollywood. Before he arrived—and even after—the Hollywood area was mostly farmland, and so he embraced his agricultural surroundings by covering his sprawling parcel of land with a variety of intriguing plantings. Although four of its initial gardens were Spanish like the home itself, there were other gardens—American, Italian, Japanese—and a grove of avocado trees. With his estate and elaborate gardens—which, for the time, was indeed quite grand—Mr. Wattles created a tourist attraction in the middle of the sticks. Unfortunately, those gardens contributed to the estate’s undoing, since squatters ended up taking over the teahouse while the property was falling into severe disrepair after the Wattles family moved out and sold it to LA's Department of Recreation and Parks as a historic site in 1965. Not many Angelenos or tourists have been able to see the inside of it—especially since Hollywood Heritage was evicted in 2009—unless they worked a film shoot or attended a wedding there, but apparently that’s about to change. Wattles Mansion hosted LA’s first-ever design showcase house this year, a move that the City of LA hopes will attract more attention to the site, which is really the last remnant of the grand estates in the area, before Hollywood became “Hollywood.”
El Miradero, Glendale
Airplane parties were numerous in the days of private flying, and Leslie Brand’s El Miradero was central to the era of private flying parties. Brand had his own airfield just south of the 1904 mansion that now constitutes Brand Library in Brand Park, and he’d often block the roads leading to it (including his namesake, Brand Boulevard) so if you wanted to attend, you’d have to fly in. (That was easy enough to do if you actually had a plane, being so close to the former Grand Central Terminal airfield). Brand is often referred to as "The Father of Glendale," though he moved here from Missouri after a short stint in Texas, partially because he’d been instrumental in a lot of Glendale’s railway development, with one of the Pacific Electric lines terminating there. If the Taj Majal-inspired gate and building façade don’t give enough of a clue as to Brand’s financial success and larger-than-life presence, take a walk around the back of the library to find the mysterious Brand Cemetery, with its monumental, pyramid-shaped headstone. Although it was created as a burial ground for the family's beloved dogs who had passed, it’s now where the family is also laid to rest.
Marion Davies Guest House, Santa Monica
In the 1920s, wealthy magnates and movie moguls used to call a stretch of Santa Monica, along the beach by the PCH, home. Others called it the "Gold Coast," a hot piece of real estate to which the Hollywood glitterati flocked. Along that stretch, publishing baron William Randolph Hearst escaped the toils of his East Coast wife and kids at a mansion he built for his West Coast paramour, former showgirl Marion Davies, and partied with luminaries from the silver screen. Mind you, this was after he'd already started building his Hearst Castle in San Simeon, just a couple hours north along the same road. The mansion he built in Santa Monica was sold in the late 1940s to a developer who then unsuccessfully operated it as a luxury hotel. Ten years later, with nothing to protect the failed Georgian-style landmark in an era when everything must be new, it was demolished. All that remains of it is an incredible pool with original mosaic tilework designed by architect Julia Morgan and the original guest house, originally intended for the overflow of guests who didn't fit into the mansion's 100 bedrooms. No longer the site of a private club like the former “Sand & Sea,” you can take a free tour of the Marion Davies Guest House in between dips in the pool during the Annenberg Community Beach House’s summer season (and occasional pop-up open pool days during warm weather during other times of year).
Wrigley Mansion and Gardens, Pasadena
Along Pasadena’s Orange Grove Avenue—better known to some as “Millionaire’s Row”—you can find one of several homes of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who did most of his candy business out of Chicago but liked Southern California so much, he bought the island of Catalina (and also called that home). Wrigley purchased the mansion from its architect, G. Lawrence Stimson, who no longer had use for it for his own family. Wrigley’s wife Ada nicknamed Wrigley Mansion "The Shadows" because no natural light could make it into the house through all of the trees that Stimson had planted. Many of those sun-blocking trees have since been removed, but the gardens are now maintained by the Pacific Rose Society as a public park. The Wrigley Mansion itself, however, is now the headquarters of the Tournament of Roses, the folks behind the Rose Bowl football game and Rose Parade, which passes the house every year on New Year’s Day. It’s not a museum per se, but they sure do have a lot of memorabilia in there, and they conduct free tours throughout the year except August through February. When you go, you can still see Stimson's architectural legacy in the house through its exotic woodwork, ornate molded plaster ceilings, and elaborate fireplaces. Ask the docent to play the organ for you and show you where the pipes are. See furniture original to the Wrigley family's residency in the dining room, and look for the room with silver wallpaper — there was always one in each of their houses, as a reminder of the silver gum wrapper that they earned a fortune off of.
Weisman Art Foundation, Beverly Hills
One of the largest private collections of contemporary art in the U.S. resides at a historic estate in Holmby Hills, the former home of Minnesotan industrialist Fred Weisman. He’d made his fortune first through Hunt Foods and, in the 1970s, as the first stateside distributor of Japanese cars. He bought this 1920s Mediterranean estate designed by Greystone Mansion architect Gordon B. Kaufmann in 1982, as a bachelor looking for somewhere to put all the 20th century art he'd been acquiring with all that money he'd been making. Eventually, after he and his wife Billie had been welcoming lots of visitors to view their art collection (including two Clyfford Stills and a few by Lichtenstein and Ruscha), they moved out to get some privacy elsewhere and left it "as is." The non-profit Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation now conducts free tours so you can see for yourself, up close, works like Willem de Kooning's "Pink Angels," Magritte's "The Mysteries of the Horizon," Picasso's "Mother and Child," Giacometti’s self portrait…The list goes on to include Warhol, Cézanne, Pollack, Rothko, Calder, Klee, Kandinsky, and many, many more. Somehow, it makes a certain sense to view an Alan Siegel chair next to a Keith Haring, surrounded by chintz, woodblock prints, photo collages, a video installation by Nam June Paik, and an infinity mirror and other optical illusions. Outside, the grounds are covered in sculptural art, including several Botero bronzes. In fact, Weisman eventually ran out of room both indoors and out, so he commissioned a post-modern annex to hold some of his larger sculptural pieces. To see it all, be sure to make an appointment ahead of time, as space is limited and access is restricted.