clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

An Illustrated History of Los Angeles's Romance With Castles

New, 14 comments
The Chateau Marmont. All illustrations by Nilina Mason-Campbell.
The Chateau Marmont. All illustrations by Nilina Mason-Campbell.

Shielded behind shrubbery, the chateau stands seven stories tall underneath gray shingling. Heavy window hoods shade the windows on the uppermost floor. Above them, a pair of seamless gabled dormers pops out and an octagonal tower rises from the roof. Panels of quatrefoil bedeck the balcony railings. Lush gardens and groves of palm and Eucalyptus trees wrap around the property, shading the private cottages and bungalows below. Inside, arched doorways and windows are relics of a French style centuries old—but the building hasn't yet reached its first century of existence. Thousands of miles removed from the French Chateau d'Amboise that inspired it, this castle resides not in a land of fields and vineyards, but in one of freeways and red carpets. Hollywood's Chateau Marmont is an icon of the city, not only for the celebrities who frequent it, but also for its historic place amongst the urban castles of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, though relatively young compared to the country's East Coast and its pilgrim-led settlements, and perhaps with less of a direct European architectural influence, is full of castles. The story of how these towers became part of the SoCal skyline isn't an entirely linear one.

The initial interest in castle-inspired structures on American soil owes a great deal to two prominent architects of the Late Victorian period. Named for England's Queen Victoria, the Late Victorian period spanned from 1850 to 1910 and introduced into American architecture several connected styles riffing on those of previous British and French eras. One was the Chateauesque style that began gaining ground in 1960, incorporating cylindrical towers capped with roofs, dormer windows, and distinctly French elements. Credit for bringing this style to the U.S. goes to architect Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to study at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, who upon his return designed the base of the Statue of Liberty, the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the block-long Hostelling International building on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, replete with dormer windows along all sides, and several long-demolished mansions for millionaires like the Vanderbilts and financier Henry G. Marquand. His contributions are concentrated on the east coast, in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, including the Grey Towers site in Milford, PA. Constructed in a Neo-Norman style to reflect the French ancestry of the Pinchot family who commissioned it, the residence is true to form: dual circular towers frame a hipped roof with a trio of dormer windows, the building entrance has a row of seven arched doorways, and a third tower sits at another corner. While many buildings built in the Chateauesque style were mansions, a large number were municipal buildings not intended for private residence.

The Scientology castle.

English architect Norman Shaw helped popularize the Victorian style from the 1870s through the early 1900s. After he published a collection of ink sketches in his 1858 book Architectural Sketches from the Continent, the trend for Queen Anne Victorians—itself a revival of the style of architecture that existed during its namesake's reign in the early 1700s—began to take off. Local architecture historian Merry Ovnick points to the 1876 Centennial Exposition for enabling such a deeply British style to make inroads across the Atlantic: a house designed by the architect was featured as a part of the British exhibit. Suddenly they began to crop up across the U.S.. Marked by towers, an asymmetrical exterior, an irregular shape, and the use of a variety of materials, Ovnick notes that "some of these houses were made of stone, others of wood" and several exist across Los Angeles today. Though the Queen Anne trend lost its steam in the U.S. around 1910, Ovnick adds that "in the 1900s to 1920s, even many small houses had 'castle' features. In the 1930s, many apartment houses were built of wood-frame & stucco with turrets, too."

That explains many of the castle-like apartment buildings that sit on streets like Westmoreland Avenue off of Beverly Blvd or on Argyle Avenue heading toward the hills. Still, many of the most prominent castle-like buildings in Los Angeles encroach upon mansion territory, occupying full blocks and missing only the royalty. Hunt's influence never reached this far west and the buildings are too grand to be drawing upon Victorian houses for inspiration. The inspiration for these mammoth properties comes from another direction entirely: the film-making boom.

In designing sets, filmmakers needed to communicate realism and depth to viewers in as condensed a space as possible. (Film sets, as Ovnick explains, were often made in four-fifths scale or less to save space, construction costs, and the amount of time it would take actors to move through unused areas of the set.) "They did this by crowding a sufficient number of identifiers (e.g., castle motifs, tenement trappings, etc.) into the frame of the picture," Ovnick writes. "In a film set in medieval times, the castle behind the actors would offer such identifiers as a moat and a drawbridge, maybe crenellations and a turret—all packed within the frame of the picture."

Hollywood Tower

The appearance of castles on screen led to many of them being built around town off screen, on freshly purchased land lots. "Southern California architects with and without set-design experience won lucrative commissions from stars and directors for movie-set-formed notions of how a mansion ought to look," explains Ovnick.

While during the 1920s castles lined Franklin Avenue, now there are just remnants, including a very prominent chateau on the corner of Bronson Avenue, one of the city's most visible urban castles even if it's shrouded in the privacy of lofty trees. Nestled in the hipster mecca that is Franklin Village, Castle Élysée is just across the street from a host of shops, cafes, and the notorious Upright Citizens Brigade. It is kitty-corner from the upscale grocery store Gelson's Market. The castle's angular turrets, steeply hipped roof, and towering presence are of the past; the signage, advertising weekly movie nights and daily public tours, is more modern.

Chateau Beachwood

The building belongs to the Church of Scientology, which has called this chateau its home—or rather, the home of its celebrity members—since 1969. While the church transformed a former hospital into its headquarters less than two miles away on Sunset Boulevard, the church re-envisioned the castle-like former hotel as its Celebrity Centre.

Commissioned by former actress Elinor K. Ince, widow of Thomas H. Ince (known as the "Father of the Western" and creator of the Inceville Studio, after which current movie studios are modeled), Château Élysée was built in 1927 and said to be inspired by a castle in Rouen, France. Seventy-seven units strong and seven stories tall, Castle Élysée's past includes affairs, a shooting, an alleged cover-up, hush money, and William Randolph Hearst. The gossip has it that Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies were discovered in the throes of passion on Hearst's yacht, Hearst (who was also involved with Davies) brandished a gun, and Ince intervened and was shot. While all involved denied the events, broadsheets ran with it as a front-page story. Hearst was said to have paid off the mortgage on Château Élysée in order to procure Elinor Ince's silence.

The Château Élysée was seen as a residential apartment for talent flocking to Hollywood just as movie studios were cropping up across the city during Hollywood's Golden Age. While it operated like a hotel, it attracted long-term residents such as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant, along with a host of other actors, actresses, and composers; enough to fill the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Even today, many floors of the building are reserved as temporary dwellings for members.

While many of the area's castles draw inspiration from films and the opulent glamour and fortunes that went along with the industry, another castle, the Hollywood Tower complex, inspired Hollywood in turn. Also located on Franklin Avenue and just a stone's throw from the Church of Scientology's Celebrity Centre, the Hollywood Tower has 52 units. Like Château Élysée, its main purpose was to house those in the filmmaking industry, and it also drew its castle inspiration from the French Normandy style. 

The Castle Love

Hollywood Tower is said to have been the inspiration for Disney's Twilight Zone of Terror ride across several of the theme park's locales in California, Paris, and Tokyo. The ride itself is based on the Twilight Zone TV series, but the building clearly culls its design from Hollywood Tower, right down to its signage. While the ride's premise is heavily indebted to the Twilight Zone TV series, the ride itself went on to inspire a movie, the 1997 television movie Tower of Terror, starring Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst. Both the ride and the movie operate around the premise of a malfunctioning elevator in a replica building, but in reality, the elevator at the real-life apartment complex leads you not only to the various units, but to a penthouse terrace that offers an unobstructed view of the Hollywood sign.

"The Hollywood Tower has always been a beautiful historical building in Hollywood, but not until 2009 when new ownership saw it for what it was did the history of the building finally come alive again,"says Hollywood Tower business manager Chad Vasquez. "Tourists come by daily to look at it because of the Disney ride. Everybody who comes to tour our building asks about the relation as well."

Film stars aren't the only ones with a strong link to the urban castles of Los Angeles, but musicians, too. For a period of time beginning in 1966, Arthur Lee of the band Love called a Spanish-inspired villa on Cedarhurst Circle in Loz Feliz home along with four of the members, referring to it as "the Castle." Bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and Frank Zappa—part of Love's sphere—could often be found hanging out in the residence. The home went on to serve as the basis for the song "The Castle" on the group's Da Capo album. "Much of the Arthur Lee mystique is derived from his residency in The Castle," explains John Einarson in Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love. "Although he and his bandmates lived in the house for less than a year, The Castle nonetheless remains crucial to the image of Love and of Arthur as a rock potentate, holding court to all who were deemed worthy of passing through its gothic entrance gate."

Wolf Castle

After Madonna first moved to LA, she took up residence at Chateau Beachwood, a grand castle located on the appropriately named Scenic Avenue where it intersects with Beachwood Canyon Drive. The front of the building features a pair of circular towers with dentils under each cone roof, chimneys that mirror each other on either side, decorative corbels under both balconies and shed dormers that protrude from the multi-plane, hip roof. Originally sub-divided into individual apartments, it was renovated into condos in 1989 after a rich history in which it played temporary home to many an actress since being established in 1937. And for the past four years Moby has called a castle on Durand Drive home, the former residence of Hollywood developer L Milton Wolf, nestled next to Lake Hollywood. He recently flipped the property for a six million dollar profit, selling it to an undisclosed buyer.

Many of the city's original castles have the fallen to time and demolition permits, such as the castles of Franklin Boulevard and a stretch of mid-Wilshire along West Adams Boulevard, all lost in the 1970s. While key to the history of the city, their demolition makes sense in light of residents' changing tasts, just as a change in taste allowed for the inaugural castle revival of the early 1900s. But just as movies and the Hollywood industry are a part of the culture and history of Los Angeles, so are the urban castles that remain, scattered across the city, standing as monuments to an era so integral to Los Angeles' emergence. While their aesthetics might not be authentic in the sense of the castles that inspired them, the history behind how they came to stand on the city's streets is.
· Curbed Features [Curbed LA]
· Castles [Curbed LA]

Château Marmont

8221 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90046