Tuesday, 18 May 2010

CITY OF ANGELS: Beverly Hills, part 1 - Introduction

What is known today as the star clustered community of Beverly Hills was initially called El Rodeo de Las Aguas or, in English, Gathering of Waters. By contrast to its surrounding areas, here the Tongva - the native settlers - found fertile soil and, more importantly, water, which in Southern California was as much of a scarcity back then as it is now.

In 1838, the year the Mexican governor of California gave out land grants to populate the area which triggered the Rancho System, the widow Mario Rita valdez built a farm on what is now the intersection of Sunset and Alpine. Spurred by the discovery of oil wells within the Los Angeles area in 1892, the developer Burton Green and Amalgamated Oil Company purchased a patch of land in the - as it turned out - vain hope to strike oil. However, as the drilling proved unproductive, him and his wife christened the land Beverly Hills, named after their property in Massachusetts, Beverly Farm. In 1907, the Greens enlisted the help of landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook and commissioned a modest network of streets, consisting of Canon Drive, Carmelita Drive, Elevado Drive, and Lomitas Drive, and thus, the Beverly Hills, such as we know it today, slowly started to take shape. But Beverly Hills only came into its own with the construction of the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1912 which, once completed, attracted more developers and investors, notably those with a stake in nearby LA's s bountiful oilfields.

It wouldn't be until the early 1920s, though, that Hollywood's movie stars joined the oil tycoons, deciding to desert the refuges in the Hollywood Hills to flock westwards to what was still considered to be a somewhat off the beaten track area. As already said elsewhere on this blog, in 1922 Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks set a trend when they erected their spectacular mansion, Pickfair, on the top of Summit Drive. As the reigning couple of Hollywood's film community, Pickford's and Fairbank's word was law, their every move was emulated by many of their colleagues, who swiftly abandoned the thick of Hollywood in exchange for the privacy and serenity of Beverly Hills. Charlie Chaplin, having gone into partnership with the famous couple, became their next-door neighbour. Equally Harold LLoyd, whose enormous, grand, chateau-style Greenacres was also nearby, its lavish gardens keeping him busy for the rest of his life.

Although Beverly Hills was incorporated in 1914, there was a proposal by a group of citizens some nine years later to annex the fledgling community to Los Angeles in order to facilitate its access to water supply. However, the proposal was nixed by a committee, headed by none other than Mary Pickford and Will Rogers, who very much wanted Beverly Hills to retain its independence. Unsurprisingly then, Will Rogers - then 20th Century Fox' hottest property - became the honorary mayor of Beverly Hills, a title he held until his untimely death in 1935 in a plane crash. It was also Rogers who pushed for the erection of a new city hall - inaugurated in 1932 - and the construction of a new post office, which opened in 1934 and is said to be the only one in the world offering valet parking to its customers.

Distinctly un-European, the name Beverly Hills - like Hollywood - is universally known, generally evoking images spotless, palm-lined streets, immaculately groomed lawns in front of stately mansions, hidden by lush shrubbery and heavy iron gates. The population of Beverly Hills hovers around 34,000, which does not seem much considering the city's vast expanse. However, it is rather a lot when bearing in mind that the majority of buildings consists of sprawling mansions, all inhabited by one household only, with each reportedly spending an average $ 25,000 annually on gardening alone!

It probably is not far off the mark to claim that most of Beverly Hills' houses were at one point home to a movie star or director. Sadly, no plaques or signs give evidence of their previous inhabitants. And while star maps are hawked for just a few bucks by street vendors, strategically stationed alongside Sunset Boulevard, these maps are far from being the world almanac, as addresses often vary from map to map.

A passionate bicycle-rider, I just revelled in randomly cruising around Beverly Hills, which is a bicycle-riders paradise if ever there was one: Wide streets with neither people nor cars around, nor anything to spoil the eye as all you are surrounded by are lush, subtropical vegetation exuding wonderfully fragrant smells, and foolishly extravagant mansions, all of which making you feel like you've been dropped into the Garden Eden itself ... or better yet: onto a film set!

>>> Note: This post will be followed up with a tour through Beverly Hills and some of its historic homes and buildings!