In the spring of 1899, all of California’s nascent society was atwitter. A talented celebrity was moving from New York—New York City no less—to humble Los Angeles. And what’s more, he was French! “It would be useless to expand upon his history or his fame,” the Los Angeles Times wrote breathlessly, “both are known the world round.” He was the painter Paul De Longpre, best known for his still life work of “floaters,” bouquets of lush flowers painted upon a neutral background. De Longpre and his family settled into a large mansion at the corner of West Adams Boulevard and Figueroa Street. In lieu of rent, he paid the owner of the home in paintings.
Paul-Gaston-Raoul-Henry-Georges Maucherat De Longpre was born on April 18, 1855, in the village of Villeurbanne, outside of Lyon. His mother was an accomplished Creole heiress and his father a reckless textile draftsman, who quickly spent his wife’s fortune. When De Longpre was still young, the impoverished family, which included eight children, moved to Paris. De Longpre began working at the silk looms to help support the family. When he was sent to school, he often skipped class to paint the fields of flowers outside of Paris.
“I cannot remember when I did not love flowers,” he recalled years later. “When I was a little child, having my first experience at school, I would make drawings of flowers that my fellow-students would buy with their pocket money in place of toffee. Complimentary, was it not? Never excelled by any other tribute I have since received, that group of kids bidding their precious spending money against each other for my sketches of objects.”
As a teenager, De Longpre joined his older brothers in the trade of painting silk fans for fashionable Parisians. In 1874, he married a talented seamstress named Josephine. The two eventually had three daughters: Alice, Blanche, and Pauline. “We were poor then, had no great villa and all you see here,” he remembered, “but we were happy and contented, and well and strong, and what more can there be than that?”
Over the next decades, De Longpre focused on his floral paintings, which eventually were exhibited in exclusive Parisian salons. By the 1890s, he had become very successful and quite wealthy. But bad investments in Panama Canal Securities wiped him out financially.
In 1890, he was invited to do a commission piece in America. He set sail in October of that year, and he never looked back. The commercialism of America suited De Longpre. “America is constantly rising,” he said. “And I want to go up with it.”
A virtual unknown in New York where he settled, he slowly rose through the ranks, finding work illustrating seed catalogs and advertisements. His fortunes greatly increased when the J. Ottmann Lithograph Company used his delicate painting of a spray of yellow roses for souvenirs that they gave to the thousands of tourists who descended upon the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Soon De Longpre’s work was being exhibited at some of the finest galleries in New York City. The New York Times covered one such exhibition at Madison Square Garden in 1896. “Visitors seemed to revel in the possibility that the gorgeous paintings could actually fill their senses with the intoxicating perfumes of spring.”
The charming, publicity-savvy De Longpre also became famous for his aesthetic lifestyle. Features were written about his bric-a-brac filled home at 877 West End Avenue and his country cottage in New Jersey, where he found the flowers that inspired him. He probably came to Los Angeles as early as 1897, staying at the now-defunct fashionable Melrose Hotel on Bunker Hill. Tired of flowerless winters in New York and weak after a serious health scare, he and Josephine decided to move permanently to Los Angeles.
He explained his reasons for moving West to a curious reporter:
Sated with the culture of the Old World, and with the restless ambition of New York, this famous painter of flowers has come to seek new inspiration in the brilliant, sun-warmed blossoms of California. That there is nothing here to stimulate the intellectual life of an artist, M. De Longpre frankly admits, but intellectual stimulus is not what he is seeking. He has had that all his life. What he wants now is sunshine and flowers, and he declares that these will content him as long as he can wield the brush. He intends to spend the rest of his days in Southern California.
They were welcomed by the culture-starved community as if he were Renoir.
Once established in his West Adams rental, De Longpre became a local fixture in village-like Los Angeles. “De Longpre was often seen pedaling his bicycle through the quiet suburbs of Los Angeles with palette, paints, and easel strapped to his back, searching for flowers,” his biographer Nancy C. Hall writes in the book The Life and Art of Paul de Longpre. His travels took him to the blooming rural hamlet of Hollywood, and he was quickly introduced to its founder, the elegant Daeida Wilcox Beveridge.
De Longpre told Beveridge of his dream of having a grand estate and studio, where everyday people could come and enjoy his home and gardens, and, perhaps, buy a painting or two.
“Mrs. Beveridge was intrigued by the elegant French immigrant and a lasting friendship ensued,” Hall writes. “She discretely disclosed De Longpre’s plans to her friends and found that they were quite eager to meet the talented, mysterious newcomer.” Not long after, he bought a large lot on the corner of Prospect Avenue (now Hollywood Boulevard) and Cahuenga for only $10 an acre. He quickly set about designing both the home and gardens of his very own “corner of paradise.”
The large Moorish-style mansion was finished in 1901. Once the family moved in, De Longpre was Hollywood’s most famous resident and often set upon by reporters looking for an atmospheric story. The artist was always willing to talk. “The community is new,” he told one reporter. “But time will change this artworld and center it here. Almost all my work is sent East now, though I will continue my regular winter exhibits in Los Angeles. So, adieu, monsieur, for I must plant before I can paint.”
That same year, the home was added as a stop to General Moses Hazeltine Sherman’s famed interurban railway, commonly called the “Balloon Route,” because of its shape. This tourist trolley line served as a moving advertisement for Los Angeles boosters and developers. Starting on South Hill Street in Downtown Los Angeles, it made a scenic loop to spots such as the Port of Los Angeles, the Old Soldier’s Home on Wilshire, and the Camera Obscura in Santa Monica.
The De Longpre estate soon became the route’s most popular attraction, with many people stopping first at the nearby Glen-Holly Hotel for one of its famed chicken dinners. At their height, the flower-covered grounds were toured by as many as 8,000 people every month. Hall describes the enchanted scene they encountered:
The formidable mansion’s Spanish architectural style lent it broad windows, columns, and tall towers on the second floor. The towers were topped by flagpoles, which regularly flew the American and French flags. The mansion was finished in stucco, its exposed wooden beams protruding beyond the outside wall. In the evening, hundreds of twinkling lights were hung from exposed beams to the delight of visitors. People also marveled at the front entry’s elaborate arabesque arches. These arches were designed exclusively for De Longpre. Once they were completed, De Longpre ordered the molds destroyed to prevent others from copying this unique feature.
The gardens themselves—which expanded greatly when De Longpre received more land from Beveridge in exchange for three paintings—consisted of meandering pathways and “a perfect dream of flowers,” more than 800 varieties of roses and fields of orange poppies. Five fairy-tale-like cottages, which De Longpre called “embellishments,” were scattered across the property, and visitors could buy refreshments and small souvenirs from a kiosk.
De Longpre could often be found walking the paths himself, his trademark tam o’shanter perched on his head and his daughter Pauline trailing behind with a basket of flowers.
“As he walks in his garden in which he has collected almost every plant known to the botanist, there is an indefinable, mystic something about him,” one visitor wrote, “communion with the soul of the flowers, it may be—which easily shows that flowers are the breath of life to him.”
De Longpre was always polite to guests he met in the gardens, which he called his “gold mines,” requesting only that they pick no flowers and stay on the paths. Those lucky enough to have a calling card or scheduled appointment were allowed inside the mansion, where they found him in the formal gallery.
“The walls were covered ceiling to floor with absolutely breathtaking floral paintings, which often made visitors feel as in they were walking into his garden,” Hall writes. “The studio always contained fifty or more finished watercolors for sale, and they were literally hung everywhere. If not displayed on the wall, they stood nestled in chairs or were carefully propped up wherever a few inches of space allowed.”
He and Josephine soon became the most popular hosts in Southern California’s small community of artistic aristocrats and Hollywood elite. They hosted friends, including Beveridge and the famous actress Helena Modjeska, with a “bohemian simplicity”— Josephine served French cuisine, while De Longpre supplied the wines. They also threw their doors open to large social, civic, and charitable events.
De Longpre, the first president of the Hollywood Club, could not have been a better face for the cultured, refined Hollywood that Beveridge hoped to create. “He is success personified,” one friend wrote, “a sunny countenance, blue eyes, wherein merry twinkles chase one another, glad and young of heart, a courtly geniality, and a step that is jaunty, even boyish with enthusiasm, as he strolls among his flowers.”
De Longpre worked tirelessly to promote Southern California. His paintings were still exhibited yearly in New York and Chicago, featuring his California blooms. He wrote to his artistic friends about his glorious adopted home, telling one prominent art dealer:
I have found at last the ideal spot on earth to live and hope to see you in my Moorish house before long. For humanity’s sake, you ought to write all the time about California in order to make it known. It ought to be the rendezvous of the whole world, and yet it is so little known ... the summer is just as beautiful as the winters, and I do not think that the air we breathe is any bit better in Paradise (if you believe in one).
Postcards of the famous De Longpre estate were disseminated around the country. A prolific amateur songwriter, he even penned a popular tune called “Souvenir of Los Angeles.” A movie titled Love Among the Roses, featuring a young Mary Pickford, was filmed in the gardens. A popular booklet was written about the estate, and its first printing was 200,000 copies. His name was used to sell adjacent Hollywood real estate. “De Longpre,” one supporter wrote, “had done more than any other man to make Southern California, and especially its beautiful flowers, known to the world.”
However, everything was not always roses and sunshine. De Longpre (an American citizen since 1899) faced a xenophobic backlash in 1903 when his friends (spurred by the Beveridge family) sought to rename Prospect Boulevard in his honor. The opposition was led by a man named M.G. Goodwin, whom De Longpre had considered a friend. “I was kind enough to receive in my studios all the friends he sent,” he wrote, “and he knew that of 500 visitors to Hollywood, probably 400 come specially to see my place, my home, my studio!”
Never one to rock the boat, De Longpre decided to confront that matter, and let it go. He wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times, which the editors lauded as a “manly,” noble response to the controversy:
I am not aware that it is a crime to be a Frenchman and I take pride in flying the American flag from my house alongside the tricolor of France. The two peoples have fought side by side for liberty. However, if the change in the name of a single street in this growing suburban town is thought by my fellow-citizens to be so serious a matter, I will not stand in the way; and if they decide to drop the matter I will acquiesce with good grace.
Though his friends rallied around him, problematically defending him by saying he was a “Frenchman in name and accent only,” and much taller than his fellow countrymen, the street was eventually renamed the generic Hollywood Boulevard.
De Longpre’s openness also led to a series of thefts inside the mansion. In 1905, many valuables were stolen from the home. “Yes, I think I know who one of the souvenir cranks of last Sunday was,” he told a reporter. “It was a woman, and being a Frenchman, of course, I would not have a woman arrested.”
He did, however, increasingly restrict access to the house. In 1909, his health started to fail, and he focused most of his energy on encouraging the American government to fund the arts. “Art elevates, art is a redeemer, and purifier of the human mind,” he wrote passionately. By the spring of 1911, a recurring mastoid infection had returned, and he was confined to bed in his beloved Hollywood home. Knowing the end was near, he told a friend:
Of course, I should be sorry to leave my flowers. This has been a very, very beautiful world to me. But if I must go on, I am sure that beyond are other gardens and other loveliness, and my regret will chiefly concern those loved ones from whom for a time I must part.
De Longpre died on June 29, 1911, only 10 years after he had completed his beloved estate. Josephine and two of their daughters closed the house and divided it into apartments before selling it and the surrounding property. They then returned to France. In 1925, the Moorish Mansion was demolished. The dream village De Longpre had promoted was long gone.