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Temples to white supremacy

To cement their social status, wealthy landowners and movie moguls modeled their homes after Southern plantations

Phineas Banning, known as the “father of Los Angeles Harbor,” had been an enthusiastic operator in Southern California since he arrived via cargo ship in 1851. A native of Delaware, Banning and his wife, Rebecca, who was originally from Missouri, were on opposite sides of the Civil War: he pro-Union, she pro-Confederate. But they were of one mind about how to establish themselves as business, civic, and society leaders in rough-and-tumble LA County.

In 1864, they started construction on a Southern plantation-style Greek-Revival mansion in port-side Wilmington. Among ramshackle shanties and adobes, the white mansion, with its deep porches, widow’s walk, and slender columns, soon became the center of an imitative elite “society.”

“No man in our State has given so many banquets and balls, dinners and receptions as he,” a contemporary wrote of Banning. A Los Angeles Times article described one such ball held at the mansion: “Gorgeous flowers in profusion were in all the rooms, their fragrance lending a Riviera like atmosphere... A Dresden effect was carried out in the dining room with its old-fashioned furnishings and the ballroom, where guests danced to snappy music, was like a summer house with vine-covered trellises.”

As the Anglo-American population exploded in Los Angeles County during the last two decades of the 19th century, they would increasingly mimic Banning’s ideas, bringing colonizing architectural principles to the land of Mexican and Spanish structures.

Newly monied or simply middle-class homeowners, business owners, and government officials built in neoclassical revival styles, be they Georgian Revival, Federal Revival, Grecian Revival, or the elegant mishmash that is Beaux-Arts. In doing so, they embraced a style that had been used for decades by those those who believed in patriarchal American exceptionalism and white control of the Great Republic.

Nothing said “America” more than neoclassical architectural styles found on every grand plantation.

Early American immigrants to Southern California, such as the Bannings, had been raised to emulate and honor their revolutionary country, and nothing said “America” more than neoclassical architectural styles found on every grand plantation and, most importantly, in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C.

“Angelenos, and not just the wealthy, may have moved to the edge of the continent,” says Peter J. Holliday, author of the masterful American Arcadia: California and the Classical Tradition. “But they still identified as Americans, and architecture is a very effective way of fashioning one’s identity.”

In many ways, the adoption of classical styles in SoCal made a great deal of sense. As Holliday notes, here was a chance to start the American experiment over, in a truly idealized setting, a chance for these homeowners to become the powerful and prestigious people who had typically shut them out in their home states.

“Every product of California schools will recall that in fourth grade, right before we got to the missions, we learned that California enjoys a ‘Mediterranean climate,’” Holliday says. “Our topography evokes the shores of Greece, the hills of Tuscany, and the fields of Sicily, features that were played upon by early boosters of the region. In a very real way, classical architecture makes more sense here than in almost any other part of America, certainly more than in Washington, D.C.”

There was also the belief that manifest destiny had brought new American settlers to these sunny shores, much like the heroic traveler in ancient Greek and Roman epics.

“This stream of new blood passes along the main artery through Los Angeles,” one advertisement for the Sunset Line exclaimed. “And here, many of the new Argonauts will take up their abodes. It will be like those famous Greek wanderers of old who found the Lotus Land. Once here they will find no enticement sufficient to cause a resumption of their wanderings.”

The roots of neoclassicism in California stretch back to the American experiment itself. “When the designs for the first buildings in Washington, D.C., like the Capitol or the White House, were produced, it was an era of Roman classicism, or classical revival,” says Kenneth Breisch, associate professor at the USC School of Architecture.

“America was founded in the 18th century within the larger context of the European Enlightenment,” Holliday says. “In art and architectural history, this coincides with the period style known as Neoclassicism, which was embraced for its perceived connections with Greek democracy and Roman republicanism, its lack of associations with modern religious practice, and was further stimulated by the contemporary rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum.”

Of course, these “democratic” buildings in Washington, D.C., and the original American colonies, constructed to signify liberty and equality, were built mostly by enslaved African Americans and other disenfranchised citizens.

America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was also a self-trained architect, who used classical building principles at places like his home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia that were considered cutting-edge in the Anglo-dominated Western world.

Behind his architectural preferences was a belief that that white Americans were the ideological descendants of “white” Romans and Greeks.

As Sarah Teets notes in her essay Classical Slavery and Jeffersonian Racism, Jefferson often cited the superior Greek and Romans enslavement of multitudes as a justification of the American system of slavery. UVA, with its Neoclassical “Academical Village,” topped by the famed Rotunda—modeled on the Parthenon—was not the there to educate anyone who wanted to study, and certainly not people of color.

“UVA was conceived at least in part as a training ground for statesmen,” Teets writes. “White, male, and educated to completion in the classical tradition, these UVA alumni were to hold positions of power in a Virginia which, as historian Annette Gordon-Reed has demonstrated, can accurately be described as a white supremacist regime.”

Not surprisingly, plantation owners would embrace the Roman tradition, especially that of the seemingly elegant agrarian villa. “In its opulence, a villa is the antithesis of a utilitarian farmhouse—a sort of bourgeois folly built to cocoon its wealthy inhabitants in pastoral pleasures provided by the labor of others,” C. Morgan Babst writes in an Oxford American essay titled The House of Myth. “The planter’s house stands alone at the end of this archway of boughs, a telos and a temple. Great white columns rise two stories from their plinths, support a pediment that drags its tip against the sky. It looks for all the world like a Roman temple. And who lives in temples but the gods?”

The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 reestablished neoclassical styles as the byword for authority and class.

However, for 20 years in Southern California, the emulation of the gods would be put on hold. For a time, the Banning home would be an anomaly in far-off LA County. For much of the second half of the 19th century, Americans, including those in Los Angeles, embraced more ornate, chunky styles of architecture: Victorian, Romanesque, Neo-Gothic, and Queen Anne.

According to Teresa Grimes and Elysha Paluszek, authors of Survey LA Citywide Historic Context Statement: Architecture and Engineering; Theme: American Colonial Revival, 1895-1960, it was the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia that first revived significant interest in the Federal and Georgian styles of classic architecture.

“The country was in the midst of an economic depression, and Americans looked back to the eighteenth century idealistically as a time when life was purer and simpler,” Grimes and Paluszek write. “This was also a reaction against the increasing industrialization of the nation in the decades after the Civil War.”

But it was the famed World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, that would reestablish neoclassical styles as the byword for authority and class. Featuring the “White City,” a campus of neoclassical Beaux-Arts-style structures gleaming white (to mimic worn Roman ruins—which had actually been brightly colored), it embodied the principles of the “City Beautiful” movement, which sought to combat the smoky chaos and confusion of industrialized cities with well-ordered palazzos in the Roman tradition.

“The Columbian exposition... was a projection of power and wealth,” says Briesch. The pristine, orderly buildings signified “the idea of America coming into its own as a great world power that can compete with Europe.”

What had originally been a style that symbolized republican principles of democracy and personal white power now took on a new set of sinister undertones. In American Arcadia, Holiday writes:

America was a world empire by the 1890s. Its citizens saw no irony in demanding that American architects and landscape designers design public buildings increasingly evocative of the military and cultural might of imperial Rome, rather than the simplicity and probity of the earlier Republic. They overlooked the authoritarianism implicit in the style in their desire for civic monumentality. Thus in the decades following the Chicago Fair, the principles of Beaux-Arts design became the standard for “significant” architecture and dominated nearly every American city, including those in Southern California, where much about the Anglo ascendancy derived from Eastern and Midwestern roots.

There was also the fact that America was becoming a land of immigrants—not the type of immigrants many prejudiced Anglo-Americans preferred—whom the government sought to “Americanize” as quickly as possible.

“It’s very important to remember that the East Coast in particular was being overwhelmed, they thought, by European immigrants, Eastern Europeans, Jews, the Italians... And so they wanted to present a model of what they thought of as European culture—high European culture,” Briesch says.

Conrad Hilton’s Bel Air mansion, 1979.
Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

One man who seems to have realized the transformative power of a neoclassical home was John Elridge Sterns. As LA historian Duncan Maginnis explains in St. James Park Los Angeles, Sterns, who had made a small fortune in the Midwest, came to Los Angeles ready to make a big social impact.

In 1900, Sterns commissioned legendary LA architect John Parkinson to design a refined Colonial Revival-style mansion in the West Adams enclave of St. James Park, advertised in the LA Times as “the most elegant location for private residences in the city.” So closely aligned was the mansion to upper-crust East Coast homes it was used for the estate of Bostonian “Jervis Pendleton” in the 1919 Mary Pickford silent film Daddy-Long-Legs.

Another standout was “Sunshine Hall,” built for Jeanette Donovan in 1910. “Theodore Eisen’s Donovan House in the Windsor Square district strives for archaeological accuracy,” Holliday says. “A Roman temple portico with Ionic columns dominates the two-story facade, and the interior incorporates two marble fireplaces brought from the Virginia house of Civil War general J.E.B. Stuart. Here the style was meant to recall the East Coast roots of the client.”

Like the Sterns home, Sunshine Hall was also used in films, standing in for a Mississippi plantation on one occasion. “Beaux-Arts classical imagery helped municipalities project a sense of prosperity to attract investment and growth and of probity for their citizens to emulate; the deployment of classical motifs allowed insurance companies, banks, and other financial institutions to give the impression of longevity and stability,” Holliday writes in American Arcadia.

One prime example is the 1893 Farmers and Merchants Bank, a classical revival temple in Downtown LA designed by Morgan and Walls, which gave one the sense that the institution had been around much longer than 1871.

But nowhere in Los Angeles County adopted the grandiose neoclassical styles more than the city of Pasadena, settled by wealthy, white, retiring Midwesterners striving for Christian gentility mixed with a sunny status. Spearheaded by the fascinating astronomer George Ellery Hale (member of the Pasadena city planning commission), the city center was laid out based largely on “City Beautiful” principles.

The center was capped off by the magnificent 1927 Palladio-style Pasadena City Hall. Stately patrician homes, such as the Wrigley Mansion (now home to the Tournament of Roses), also dotted the famed Millionaires Row of Pasadena and the monied enclave of San Marino.

By the 1920s, the newly rich and wannabe powerful in the real estate and movie industries were increasingly using in-vogue classical architecture to denote status and demand respect. In 1924, Francis Montgomery built Sunset Plaza on what became the Strip, anchoring what was essentially a shopping center with four white Georgian Revival structures.

At his studio in Culver City, film pioneer Thomas Ince would build a Southern Colonial-style administration building modeled after George Washington’s Mount Vernon. According to Holliday, Ince chose the style as a respectable response to the scandals that had plagued Hollywood. “Classical allusions could impart to non-governmental agencies, like an electric company, a power and authority that they were not actually entitled to, and lend legitimacy to a dubious enterprise like filmmaking,” he says.

Self-important film moguls also increasingly turned to neoclassical styles for their personal palaces. In 1926, newspaper magnate and aspiring politician William Randolph Hearst built his mistress, actress Marion Davies, a 100-room Georgian Revival mansion, designed by William Flannery, on the beach of Santa Monica. Called the “White House” by those aware of Hearst’s political ambitions, it is today the site of the Annenberg Community Beach House, which has columns in honor of the long-gone mansion.

The also built higher and higher into the hills—gods of industry on their very own Mount Olympus. The cofounder of Warner Bros. built a similarly authoritative seat of power. “In 1935, Jack Warner engaged Roland E. Coate to convert his Spanish Revival house into a columned plantation to provide his former mistress and second wife, Anne Boyer, a recollection of her Louisiana heritage,” Holliday says. “Its sober Doric columns and massive pediment continue to impress those who get past the gates of this estate.”

Another stand-out was the Gordon B. Kaufmann Georgian Revival mansion designed for Hollywood power player Edie Goetz, the daughter of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, in Holmby Hills. Her sister, Irene, built a similarly performative Roland E. Coate-designed Colonial Revival mansion with her husband, super-producer David O. Selznick, who had also purchased the Thomas Ince Culver Studios.

Neoclassical-style homes can be found in some of LA’s wealthiest neighborhoods, from Pasadena to Hancock Park to Beverly Hills.

Movieland owners may have used these neoclassical and neocolonial homes to denote more than superhuman power. The architecture might have also been an assurance or statement to nervous bigots that they were good, anglicized Americans.

“Many of those who commissioned houses in various classicizing colonial styles were pioneers in the film industry of eastern European Jewish heritage,” says Peter J. Holliday. “Did they commission mini-Mount Vernons to proclaim their allegiance to their new home, or to deter potential anti-Semitism (a very real fear in light of the poverty and pogroms they had fled)? Were the outsiders using their houses to project their patriotism? We can only conjecture.”

By the mid-1930s, those attempting to climb into Hollywood society were following the lead of the entertainment industry pioneers. In 1936, the striving Hilda Olsen Boldt Weber, the newly rich wife of a bottle maker, swooped into Los Angeles. Already shunned by the snobs of high society in Santa Barbara, she was determined to become a success in the equally newly monied emerging aristocracy of Hollywood.

According to Holliday, Weber bought a commanding lot high on a hill in Bel Air, overlooking the Bel Air Country Club. For the main house, she hired architect James E. Dolena to design a blindingly white 30,000-square-foot neoclassical mansion, the likes of which LA had never seen.

The many-columned manse projected importance, stability and elegance, and eventually lured the cafe society luminaries to its hostess’s elaborate parties. “If I had not gone inside myself,” MGM head Louis B. Mayer once said, “I would not have believed such a residence existed in the world.”

Weber’s home would eventually be purchased by Conrad Hilton, one of America’s self-made capitalist kings, who renamed it Casa Encantada. “The House of Enchantment is a house of character, too. Its style is modern Georgian, with clearly discernible Greek influences. Its lines sweep in regal beauty and with them carry a classical motif into the interior through columns of Doric and Ionic simplicity,” Conrad Hilton himself wrote in the self-published House of Hilton, Casa Encantada. It was extravagantly American, a perfect combination of East Coast stolidity and West Coast dramatics.

Revival styles were particularly popular in neighborhoods including Hancock Park, Bel Air, West Adams, and Beverly Hills, which often had strict restrictions keeping out people of color. “These larger residences lent themselves to emulations of the eighteenth-century houses of the upper classes,” Grimes and Paluszek write. “More modestly-sized bungalows and residences, on the other hand, simply borrowed design elements such as columns or entryway detailing.”

Ironically, one of the masters of neoclassical style so popular with the titans of industry was none other than the legendary Paul R. Williams, LA’s first prominent black architect, who Holliday notes would not have been allowed to live in many of the neighborhoods he designed for due to restrictive deed covenants.

Grimes and Paluszek point to the Paley Hilton Estate, constructed in 1936, in Bel Air as a prime example of Williams’s work in the genre. “The twenty-room, two-story residence was constructed for businessman Jay Paley, co-founder of the Congress Cigar Company, and his wife Lillian,” they write. “The residence, which was one of Williams’ most celebrated designs, combined Georgian Revival design elements with an increased emphasis on indoor-outdoor living.”

According to Grimes and Paluszek, this style would remain popular in Los Angeles through the 1940s, “in great part because it appealed to Americans’ sense of patriotism.” Eventually, it was overtaken by more modern, California-grown styles, which looked to the future instead of the past.

But the lure remains strong. It seems to this day the neoclassical style still appeals to those looking for a power perhaps as big as the presidency. In February, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Jack Warner estate from David Geffen for a record-setting $165 million. That’s a lot of American might.

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