Jack Donovan on the porch of his home, “Picture-Play Magazine,” April 1923..
From its beginnings, the Hollywood film industry has constructed elaborate sets and facades before demolishing them to build something else, such as David O. Selznick burning down old sets and gates still standing from the 1932 film “King Kong” to create the massive conflagration for his 1939 epic “Gone With the Wind.” Most studios just pulled down the unneeded materials and threw them away, while sometimes selling off odd pieces of sculpture or paintings they no longer required or wanted.
One of the first to find value in the old bric-a-brac and leftover props and set pieces was bon vivant and jack of all trades, handsome Jack Donovan, young Irish American actor and man about town. Following green principles and practicing “reduce, reuse, and recycle” long before it became a necessity, go-getter Donovan bought unwanted old movie sets and props from small independent studios or bankrupt companies that he combined to create architecturally diverse bungalettes for Hollywood types looking for quaint and attractive homes in which to live. In a way, the driven young man could be called one of the first Hollywood home flippers.
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Jack Donovan’s bungalow court “Winged Victory,” “Picture-Play Magazine,” April 1923.
Never one to sit still, the charming Donovan jumped from hobby to hobby and idea to idea, never seeming to settle on one, often to his detriment. Born in Chicago in 1894, Donovan began his career working as a property man at the Famous Players-Lasky Studio before becoming an assistant at the Keystone Studio and then assistant cameraman at Morosco, per the July 29, 1922, Camera magazine. While working at Morosco the busy Donovan supposedly also studied law at the University of Southern California Law School. Donovan landed his first acting role in an Al Christie comedy before gradually moving into drama or more serious productions. Somewhere along the way he also found time to become a licensed architect.
He lived at home with his mother Jeanette at 419 S. Lorraine Blvd. in what is now Hancock Park during the late 1910s, where they entertained and also threw parties on their yacht before he joined the Army’s aviation service in World War I. After the war, he hosted and attended galas frequented by people like Bebe Daniels, Mabel Normand, Tom Moore, Clarence Badger, and John Considine while still dabbling in pictures and attempting to go into independent production making films starring himself and his pet parrot and bulldog.
While that failed to catch on, he did appear opposite such stars as Bessie Love in the Ida May Park film “The Midlanders” and in films directed and produced by Allen Holubar and Lois Weber. During his time at the Lasky Studios, Donovan often visited the set and prop building departments during his time off from filmmaking, and supposedly occasionally helped construct sets, per trade reports.
Jack Donovan on the cover of Camera!, July 29, 1922.
Donovan’s real love and skill lay in design, both interior and exterior. He concocted an elaborate home at 6633 Sunset Blvd. for he and his mother in 1919, an elaborate estate with gardens called Canary Cottage, where they entertained society and motion picture people. At the same time, his sense of blarney helped charm journalists into extolling his skills.
As the July 29, 1922 Camera magazine wrote, “To meet him is to contact a young man distinctly different from the usual type of this day and age. Possessing an inherent sense of art values, he has been able to combine it with an amazing practicality and mechanical skill. Ambitious always, he has, notwithstanding, realized the advantage of building a sure foundation. The moving pictures offered the opportunity.”
Myrtle Gebhart wrote in her June 1923 Sunset magazine article entitled “Scrapped From the Movies” that young Donovan lacked the funds to develop his bungalow court but realized that utilizing sets and properties scrapped from smaller independent studios would achieve his dream at a fraction of the cost. Using $2,000 in Liberty Bonds and a few hundred dollars he has saved as his initial down payment on the Sunset Boulevard property, Donovan mortgaged the first lot and sold some of his furniture and his mother’s jewels to obtain building funds.
He purchased lumber for his first bungalow for $200 from a wrecking company, then decorated and furnished it with studio props. Donovan rented each little 4-5 room bungalow for $125 to $150 a month, which he used to buy adjoining property.
Donovan purchased complete or part sets before they were dismantled, everything from heavy wooden doors, iron gates, stained glass, paneling, light fixtures, railings, hand-painted ceilings, tiled mantels, parts of stairways, bath with sunken shower; silverware and candlesticks, bronzes, windows, and furniture of all types. He also bought material from antique and junk shops which he repurposed and refinished.
A Jack Donovan home, Sunset Magazine, 1923.
Prices were minimal; heavy wooden doors and scrolled iron gates cost fifty cents each; six truckloads of studio properties cost $15; genuine copies of medieval monastery doors he purchased for a $1 each; and a stained-glass window from a Los Angeles cathedral cost Donovan a few dollars. Before installing, Donovan completely repainted and sometimes retextured each piece.
The July 16, 1921, “Camera!” magazine reported that Donovan had completed a cluster of little bungalows behind the Sunset Boulevard house called “Rendez Vous Dis Artistes (sic).” Such performers as Virginia Browne Faire, Jacqueline Logan, and Scottish novelist Lorna Moon resided in the cute bungalettes, all creatively decorated by Donovan.
By March 25, 1922, “Camera!” described the bungalow court. Called “the Studio Gardens,” this eclectic court featured Rex Ingram, director of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and his wife, Alice Terry, living in a quaint English cottage, along with such other residents as actress Mae Busch, First National executive W. K. Bush, directors Clifford S. Wheeler and Fred Sittenham, and writers John Clymer and E. M. Grace. The court featured a mix of English and French architecture with a rose arbor leading to each little home.
Each of the eclectic bungalettes featured a cathedral ceiling and each tiled mantel appeared in movie scenes. Gothic doors the duplicates of famed cathedrals and monasteries around the world graced the entrance of each home. Most of the furniture came from studio set departments, which Donovan had completely refurbished. One front door was composed of an enormous slab of oak intricately carved with inscriptions of the crusades and appeared in a Bebe Daniels film. Another set of hand-carved doors came from Katherine MacDonald pictures. A bungalow even featured a sunken bathtub prominently displayed in a Wanda Hawley movie.
The interior of a Jack Donovan home, Sunset Magazine, 1923.
The bungalow court earned the name “Winged Victory Gardens” in the April 1923 “Photoplay,” in which Donovan joked that one woman resident did not recognize that parts of her house came from a film on which she worked. The magazine described the cute little spread: “His “Winged Victory Gardens,” the quaintest court in this township of unique bungalow courts, consists of six bungalettes grouped about a central manor house in which Jack lives with his mother. The general ensemble is of early English design, though each tiny house is of different architecture.”
That same year the ambitious Donvoan planned even greater architectural designs, announcing plans to construct an elaborate French chateau in Santa Monica Canyon on San Vicente Boulevard. As he completed the mansion in 1924, he put the Canary Cottage and its bungalow court up for sale, with the property soon demolished and replaced by the Blessed Sacrament Church.
Donovan and his architectural exploits make for fascinating reading, as described in a series of posts on Steven Vaught’s excellent Paradise Leased blog, which goes into detail on the chateau and criminal proceedings Donovan suffered with actress Mae Murray over a Brentwood house.
Jack Donovan lived life to the hilt during the celebratory, early days of the roaring 1920s, a mesmerizing character seemingly plucked from the movies, creating architecture as colorful as any dreamed up for motion pictures.