Early Hollywood portrait photography developed from the need of stars for portraits to send out looking for roles, and from studios realizing the value of selling their product through stars. Los Angeles and Hollywood photographers recognized for taking photographs of society folks were hired to shoot these images. One of the first to enter the field was a Hollywood-area photographer by the name of Frank S. Hoover.
Born in Lancaster, Pa., on Feb. 16, 1875, Hoover graduated from the Spring Garden Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied art and became a pictorial painter. He traveled to Hollywood in 1902 to join his parents, who had built the Hollywood Hotel in 1901.
Upon arrival in town, Hoover went into business with E.R. Walker, a Hollywood photographer with a studio just south of Prospect Avenue on the east corner of Gower. They became known for making reproductions of paintings, called Hollywood Prints, which they sold to retailers around the world. Hoover bought out Walker in 1905.
In his early years in Hollywood, Hoover became part of its cultural aristocracy. He was an art director of floats for Hollywood’s May Day Festival in 1908-1909, helped promote a Thanksgiving tennis tournament in 1910, and was one of the founders of the Hollywood Country Club in 1907.
As Edwin O. Palmer states in his book, The History of Hollywood, “He ultimately established the Hoover Photographic Studio, and for years was recognized as Hollywood’s leading photographer. By utilizing original lighting effects, he practically revolutionized the photo industry by producing photographs which exactly resembled paintings.”
Palmer also claimed that Hoover was instrumental in luring David Horsley of Nestor Film Co. to Hollywood to make pictures, “as he explained to him that the sunshine in California was the best to be found in the world for outside photographic work of any kind.” Horsley leased the former Blondeau Tavern at Sunset Boulevard. and Gower Street in 1911 to make films.
In the Feb. 26, 1911, Los Angeles Times, a listing noted that a building permit was issued for a two-room brick studio on Hollywood Boulevard between Vine and Ivar streets that would be built by Hoover Art Co. This became the studio at 6321 Hollywood Blvd. Hoover soon gained renown making portraits of Hollywood and Los Angeles’ leading citizens.
In October 1915, Hoover held a photographic exhibit at the Alexandria Hotel, which The Times positively reviewed. “The pictures show, all portraits, are numerous and delightful, and for the most part have been touched up with original colors in a process invented by Mr. Hoover. Much of the solidity of a portrait painted in oils is formed in many of the pictures, an effect largely due to the posing, which is admirable… .” Most of the prints included were portraits of children, including Richard Bennett’s “three charming little daughters… .” Hoover’s photographs followed strongly in the pictorialist school of photography, with soft focus and lighting.
When Hoover enlisted for World War I in 1917, he sold the business to his employee and fellow photographer Hendrick Sartov. On June 8, 1918, The Times ran a glowing story on the business. “This concern started business in a little building on Gower St. in 1905, with a line of photographic reproductions of famous paintings. About ten years later the work of portraiture was taken up, and Mr. Hendrick C. Sartov, the president of the corporation, took charge of the operating department. During the past few years, the Hoover portraits have been exhibited in different salons and in every case have taken high honors, and one is being displayed permanently in the National Salon at Washington, D. C., where it was awarded honors by the Photographic Association of America. The Hoover Art Company is adding new equipment in apparatus and lighting effects… .”
After returning to Hollywood after the war, Hoover attempted to collect the money for the studio, but was instead charged with fraud in his estimate of the business for that purchase. As The Times reported in November 1919, “The trial developed that Mr. Hoover was more an artist than a bookkeeper.” Things must have been resolved, because no verdict could be found in the paper. Hoover continued shooting photographs of leading citizens until his retirement in 1930.
While he and his family lived at 67 N. Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, he conceived the idea of constructing an elegant apartment building in the Sunset Strip area. Little did he realize that though he was no longer a photographer, his apartments would soon be a favorite location for film studios to shoot cheesecake photos of starlets out by the pool.
Hoover and his wife hired African American architect Paul R. Williams to design a luxury building of independent units at 1220 Sunset Plaza Drive, under the name Sunset Plaza Apartments, the only apartments Williams would design. The Dec. 13, 1935, Los Angeles Times described the site. “The area is circular and the plans call for a group of bungalow-type apartments covering less than twenty percent of the property, while the remainder is to be landscaped and arranged with pools, tennis courts, and other features.”
In April 1936, The Times noted that, “The building will be a two and part four-story structure with basement garage. It is to contain forty apartments in stylized Georgian architecture.” California Arts and Architecture featured the building in a 1937 story, as did Architect and Engineer magazine. Apartments came furnished by Bullock’s Department Store, and rented to an upscale crowd.
Elaborate round robin tennis matches featuring celebrities occurred in the late 1930s, with such residents as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lona Andre, Anita Louise, Buddy Adler, Harry Cohn, and Wendy Barrie taking part. Trade groups rented apartments as classy meeting locations. Studios employed the grounds, particularly the pool area, for stills shoots. The film American Gigolo shot out by the pool in 1980.
Many other celebrities lived there over the years, including Louise, Tommy Dorsey, director Eddie Sutherland, Dorothy Lamour, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Farrell, Mitzi Gaynor, Richard Arlen, James Dean, Janis Paige, Virginia Hill, Bernadette Peters, and Robert Forster.
The Sunset Plaza retained its classy atmosphere even after Hoover’s death in 1946. Forty-three year resident Clare Engel told the 1983 Times, “…It was run as a very fine country club. The apartments were completely furnished, carpeted, draped. We didn’t even have to buy toilet tissue. I had a change of linens every day. We also had beautiful dishes.” Starting rent when she moved in 1940 was $250 a month.
In 1980, residents and preservationists worked to get the building listed as Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument No. 233, because new owners seemed anxious to tear it down and redevelop the land. This procedure bought the building a few years, before the owners demolished it in 1987 to construct a new condo building.