Harold Lloyd and Greenacres in New Movie Magazine.
At the beginning of the fledgling motion picture industry, actors and other creative types earned adequate salaries, in line with middle-class jobs. They lived in modest bungalows, residential hotels, apartments or rented small homes.
When star names sold films at the box office, salaries began skyrocketing. As salaries rose, so did the quality of personal residences. Some actors lived in style at the Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles Athletic Club and other quality hotels and apartments, while several stars began buying or building elaborate homes to display their wealth and stature in areas like Los Feliz, Hancock Park and Whitley Heights.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford renovated a modest hunting lodge on Beverly Hills’ Summit Drive into the lovely estate Pickfair, the de facto Buckingham Palace of Hollywood royalty. Producer Thomas Ince constructed Dias Dorados in Beverly Hills’ Benedict Canyon. Mack Sennett intended to build a lavish estate above and behind the Hollywoodland sign in 1925, killed by financial pressures. Comedy superstar Harold Lloyd soon followed in constructing his own residential palace.
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Gloria Lloyd at her playhouse, as shown in New Movie Magazine.
Earning fame at the Rolin Film Co. playing in comedic short films, Lloyd left in 1921 to enter feature film production with producer Hal Roach. These films shot him to superstardom as one of Hollywood’s top comic stars, so much so that in 1924, he formed his own independent Harold Lloyd Productions. While one of the world’s most successful celebrities, Lloyd still lived at home with his father. When Lloyd married his leading lady and co-star Mildred Davis in 1923, they continued living at 369 S. Hoover St. before purchasing a home at 502 S. Irving Blvd. for $125,000 a few months later.
As Jeffrey Vance relates in “Harold Lloyd, Master Comedian,” Lloyd’s business manager and uncle, William Fraser, suggested in 1923 that he spend $60,000 to purchase 10 acres of Beverly Hills property in Benedict Canyon, named after the former owner, P. E. Benedict, as an investment. Lloyd eventually purchased six additional acres from the adjoining Thomas Ince estate. Lloyd’s property consisted of 12 Beverly Hills acres, and four Los Angeles acres. On this land, he would construct his own personal Xanadu.
After years of bouncing between tiny, temporary homes during the family’s peripatetic life, Lloyd dreamed of a stable, permanent dwelling place suitable for a private family residence. He hired the architectural firm of Webber, Staunton & Spaulding in 1925, asking them to design a three-story, Italian Renaissance-style villa to cost $1 million, per the Aug. 27, 1925, Los Angeles Times. He also hired A. E. Hanson, who had recommended the architectural firm, as landscape architect to design native-looking grounds in the Italian style, work expected to last 1½ half years.
Lloyd and family held a private groundbreaking with the architects in 1926, as landscaping work commenced at 1225 Benedict Canyon Drive. To keep their daughter Gloria happy while they consulted with contractors and oversaw construction, the Lloyds first built an elaborate child’s playhouse on the grounds. This thatched-roof English cottage featured running water, heat, electricity and child-sized furniture in its four rooms, more elaborate than many contemporary houses of the time. Surrounding the cottage was a miniature wishing well, an aviary, monkey cage, miniature pony stable, playground with small clock tower, swing, slide, acrobatic devices and an incline to race a mini-car.
By July 1927, landscaping was virtually complete, described in the 1972 Los Angeles Times as “like a park, without people…” Home construction began. As Annette d’Agostino Lloyd describes it in “The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia,” “Greenacres boasted seven separate gardens, 12 major fountains, a 100-foot waterfall with canoe lake and a mill pond below, a 250,000 gallon, Olympic-sized swimming pool (one of the largest in Beverly Hills, which cost over $400 a month to heat)…the pool was adjoined by a Pavilion area, which was used for lavish night-time summer parties and film screenings, with its own bandstand and bar facilities.” Buster Crabbe would later teach the Lloyd children to swim in this very pool, and on-site wells ran all the fountains.
Armed guards patrolled the grounds, which also contained a 12-car garage, greenhouses, gazebo, indoor handball court, tennis courts, stables, outdoor bowling green, and a nine-hole golf course, designed by famous golf course architect Alister MacKenzie, who had also designed the nine-hole course on adjoining neighbor Jack Warner’s estate. Lloyd would hold invitational golf courses for the world’s top pros like Leo Diegel and Walter Hagen on the combined course.
The massive palace welcomed the family in August, 1929, after two year’s construction costing $2 million. The “home” matched Joe Gillis’ description upon first spying Norma Desmond’s rundown estate, “It was the kind of place that crazy movie people built in the crazy 1920s.” The 44-room, 32,000-square-foot palace dwarfed Pickfair and Chaplin’s estates, a luxurious monument to excess, dubbed “Greenacres” in 1937 after going eight years without a name. Eventually, the children began calling the home, “The Mausoleum.”
Sam Watters gives detailed description of the estate in his book, “Great Houses of Los Angeles, 1920-1935.” The reinforced concrete structure featured a 120-foot square entrance court surrounded on two sides with a cloister and stairs leading to the entrance. The house contained 14-inch thick walls, its own private telephone exchange, custom-made Spanish antique furniture and Persian rugs on the first floor, American furniture on the second, a 50-foot-long sunken living room with a gold leaf-coffered ceiling that doubled as a projection room, detailed, wood paneling and ceilings, six bedroom suites with their own baths, 26 bathrooms, a dining room sitting 24, music room, sunroom, playroom, cocktail den, basements and two kitchens. A 40-rank theater organ and piano could be employed to accompany film screenings. The sunroom, or l’Orangerie, would later feature a year-round Christmas tree, three full trees tied together and sprayed with fire retardant, on which hung 5,000 glass ornaments.
Sixteen gardeners, two chauffeurs, two cooks, two butlers, three maids, housekeeper, two governesses, and three personal secretaries tended to the Lloyds’ needs.
The Lloyds were mostly homebodies, entertaining friends and acquaintances at the large estate. On Sunday afternoons, 30 to 40 friends were invited for games, a buffet dinner and then a movie in the evening.
In 1937, Greenacres was employed as the location for Jeanette McDonald’s wedding brunch/shower for her women friends, followed by badminton, tennis, and swimming. Men joined the group at five for cocktails.
For Christmas that year, Mildred Davis wrote friends, asking them for photographs autographed to Harold, and received more than 300 from the likes of Amelia Earhart, Babe Ruth, Cecil B. De Mille, Chaplin, and Helen Keller. These prints lined the walls of an underground passageway, later dubbed the Rogues’ Gallery, which extended from the house to the cocktail den and game room.
In 1943, one film shed housing many of Lloyd’s negatives and prints caught fire, destroying most of his “Lonesome Luke” series of films.
The cascade fountain at Greenacres
The two Lloyd daughters would be married in the home, and granddaughter Suzanne would be raised there by her grandparents after her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and moved to Europe for 10 years. As his career wound down, Lloyd became obsessed with the Shriners and his hobbies, painting, taking 3-D photographs, and eventually, LP records. He played the stereo so loudly that gold leaf fell from the ceiling like snow.
Lloyd disliked change and loved seclusion, and nothing was moved, changed, or updated unless it was absolutely necessary, penny-wise but pound-foolish. Furnishings grew shabby, frayed and shopworn. Lloyd also suffered from superstitions. He always left the house through the door he entered and would not allow himself to be driven entirely around the fountain in the front drive.
When he died in 1971, his will specified that the home was to be put in use “as an educational facility and museum for research on the history of motion pictures in the United States.” While the estate considered how to accomplish this goal and placate unhappy neighbors, Ralph Story visited the home for a television show entitled “Citizen Lloyd,” which ran Aug. 18, 1972.
The museum opened April 20, 1973, with the Shriners given the first tour of the property, followed by private tours through May. In June, Gray Line Tours began conducting daily tours from 12 to 5 costing $4.50 each, with tourists bused in from the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel. Tours ended in March 1974, because of neighbors’ complaints.
During this time, Greenacres hosted some television show filming, including “Westworld,” (1973), Baretta,” (1975), and later, “Death at Love House” (1976).
The house became a white elephant to the estate, with its huge mortgage and property taxes an onerous burden to cover. They attempted to donate it to the city of Beverly Hills, but the cost was too high for the city to consider paying off the mortgage, sprucing up the house, and running it as a museum itself.
The estate was auctioned off July 27, 1975, with the proceeds to benefit film preservation and scholarship funds. Nasrollah Afshani paid $1.6 million for the property, which he later subdivided into 10 one-acre lots, after receiving approval from the cities of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, with the estate and its surrounding five acres surviving intact.
Bernard Solomon bought the property, now located at 1740 Greenacres Place in 1978, trying to renovate and return it as much as possible to its’ original look. He brought in original landscape architect A. E. Hanson to help restore the grounds. In 1984, Greenacres was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Unfortunately, the Solomons soon divorced, selling the home to film producer Ted Fields in 1986. Fields later sold the property to current owner, magnate Ronald Burkle. The magnificent home is occasionally employed as the location for charity and political fundraisers, but is no longer accessible to the public.
Photos are courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Trust.