In 1925, Mack Sennett had been producing comedy films for over 13 years, creating such comedy superstars as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, and Charley Chase along the way. He even possessed his own elaborate studio with Cyclorama on Glendale Boulevard in Edendale. Sennett had gotten his start as an actor/comedian in films under the tutelage of the early cinema master, D. W. Griffith.
While he had lived in Los Angeles for years, he had never owned a house, but rented elaborate mansions all over the city. These were convenient places to throw a party or to spend a night, but not really places one could feel truly at home. In 1925, Sennett decided to finally settle down and build his own estate high in the hills of Hollywood.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had renovated and finished their 42-room mansion called Pickfair just a year earlier on Summit Drive in Beverly Hills. In 1923, Harold Lloyd bought property to build an ostentatious estate named Green Acres just a short distance away. It would be composed of 15 acres with nine-hole golf course, 900 foot stream with waterfall, elaborate outdoor fountains, open-air theater, tennis courts, bowling green, and a 50 x 150-foot swimming pool.
Sennett decided to compete in the construction game with an out of this world home above one of the most visible billboards in town, the giant Hollywoodland Sign. Recognizing the opportunities for promotion and filming as well as gaining a discount on construction, Sennett struck a deal with the developers of the Hollywoodland development to build a palatial home at the peak of the development, above the sign. This prominent location would be visible to people in the San Fernando Valley as well as the Hollywood/Los Angeles side of the hill. A person couldn’t ask for a more standout location. As the Sept. 20, 1925, Los Angeles Times hyperbolically stated, “Some conception of the view to be obtained from the Sennett home can be gained when you realize that from the terraces can be seen the entire San Fernando Valley, forty miles of Pacific Ocean shoreline, Catalina and the Santa Barbara Islands, Santa Monica, Venice, Hollywood and Los Angeles, Long Beach, Signal Hill, Griffith Park, Pasadena and the Sierra Madre Mountains.”
Synergy was the name of the game. Sennett bathing beauties would pose around the development in the bridle ring, bridle trails, and around street signs and cliffs for photos that his studio would distribute to magazines and newspapers around the country. Both parties would gain excellent publicity, with Hollywoodland earning a possible large nationwide audience for photographs revealing the beauty and spectacular views of its hills. This probably resulted in a discounted sale price for the comedian.
Image: Elevation of Mack Sennett’s house. Credit: Mary Mallory, the Collections of the Margaret Herrick Library.
Hollywoodland’s main architect John L. DeLario designed a beautiful Italian villa for the crest, surrounded by gardens, patios, and loggia, with an estimated cost of $250,000. The landscaping would favor that of the Lake District in Italy, including Carrara marble statuary. One of the outside patios would contain a grill for outside cooking. An old Mexican fountain of tile and stone would greet guests at the main entrance. The swimming pool would be 40 feet by 75 feet, with sand beach, opening off of a terrace from the drawing room. The water from the pool would also irrigate the whole site. Trails from the paddock would lead to Griffith Park. The landscaping included “…an open-air theater, tennis courts and a miniature golf course.”
The interior included a library, dining room, a huge living room, conservatory, drawing room, kitchen, servants, quarters, four guest suites, a personal suite for Sennett’s mother, and Mack’s suite, including steam room and loggia.
The first step was to construct the road to the home from Mulholland Highway up and around the hill. P. J. Lechner, general manager of Western Construction Company, the contractor and builder for the neighborhood, organized the work crew of two steam shovels, tractors, trucks, road-graders, and men, blasting their way to the eighteen acre site dominating the Hollywood skyline. Sennett’s still photographers snapped dramatic shots of some of his starlets posing in the crane with the Hollywoodland Sign and Lake Hollywood visible behind them to help whet the public’s appetite for the elegant housing development.
The December “Los Angeles Times” reported on the road’s progress to the top, and by early 1926, the road was finished. To help promote the development, the sales office displayed an exact model, complete in every detail, of the now reported $1 million mansion. As an added incentive to gain looky-loos, “After 4:30 p.m., weekdays, and all day Sunday, the road will be open to the summit of Mt. Hollywood where the site which is being prepared for the Sennett estate is located (actually, Mt. Hollywood is where Griffith Observatory is located; the hill did not have a name until the Don Lee Radio Towers went up in the 1930s). From this point a spectacular relief map of Southern California extends in every direction.”
Unfortunately, Sennett’s fortune was already waning at this point, as movie audiences were starting to abandon his slapstick brand of humor for a little more sophisticated comedy fare of the Hal Roach company, as well as others. The land was soon turned back over to the real estate company, sitting idle until it was bought by the Don Lee Company in the mid-1930s in order to build a large radio transmission tower. With this, the hill was christened Mt. Lee in the late 1930s. The road to the facility is named Mt. Lee Drive, and is accessible by city workers and walkers. It gives some of the most spectacular views in all of Los Angeles.