Born in Missouri, Virginia Catherine Dryden moved to Los Angeles in 1880, at the age of three. As fate would have it—Virginia’s family set up residence near Joseph Winchester Robinson’s home. Robinson was the chairman of the Boston Dry Goods Store which eventually became J.W. Robinson’s retail stores.
Virginia married J.W. Robinson’s heir, Harry Winchester Robinson, in 1903; afterwhich, they embarked on a three year honeymoon to Europe, India, and Kashmir. When they returned, the newlyweds commissioned Virginia’s father, Nathaniel Dryden, to design their historic mansion on a plot of beautifully sloped land, originally owned by the founder of Beverly Hills, Mr. Burton, Green. After the completion of their stylish mansion, Virginia Robinson used her green thumb to create Beverly Hills’ most engaging public site.
Harry Robinson became president in 1924 of the J.W. Robinson chain and later renamed it Robinson’s Department Store. After his passing in 1932, Virginia became chairwoman, holding the position for thirty years, until she retired at 85.
Over the years, the estate became famous for hosting some of the most lavish celebrity parties in Los Angeles with notable stars Charlie Chaplain, Mae West, Agnes Moorhead, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire to name a few. Virginia Robinson bestowed her personal paradise to the County of Los Angeles, after passing away at the age of 99 (1977) — less than two months shy of her 100th birthday.
After her passing, it was her request that her Major Domo and friend Ivo Hadjiev live on the property and assist the County in making her estate available for the public’s enjoyment. Ivo was influential in the development of the docent program providing oral history and continued to protect her legacy until his passing in 2008.
The purpose of the Virginia Robinson Gardens is to preserve and promote this historically significant first estate of Beverly Hills for the education and enjoyment of the general public.
Preservation of Historic Landmark
This elegant and generous philanthropist had willed her six and a half acre estate to the County of Los Angeles, but the endowment was insufficient to rescue this historic treasure from slow but sure disintegration.
Los Angeles County Supervisor, Edmund G Edelman, recognized the estate’s value as a window into the early history and lifestyle of Southern California, and set out to save it.
The Board of Supervisors placed the estate under the auspices of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, and then turned to the community to help save the Robinson Estate.
Supervisor Edelman called on Joan Selwyn, a leader in the arts community who also shared a love of gardens, to form an organization of community activists to support the restoration project. He proposed a partnership. Joan Selwyn would create an organization of civic leaders that would raise funds to restore the Estate to its former grandeur, while the County would run the day-to-day operations of the Gardens.
A great deal was accomplished in a short period of time. The Friends of Robinson Gardens raised enough money to begin crucial repairs, establish docent programs, and begin educational seminars. Coincidentally, Robinsons Department Store, originally known as the Boston Dry Goods Store in downtown Los Angeles and owned by Harry Robinson’s family, was celebrating its 100th anniversary. They generously sponsored the first gala, including a spectacular fashion show on a runway, that stretched across Mrs. Robinson’s pool. The lights of the Estate were blazing, and the benefit announced to the city that this historic landmark would be preserved for future generations.
A letter from President Reagan that year called the Friends of Robinson Gardens “a fine example of what can be accomplished through cooperation between the private and public sector,” and congratulated the group on its significant accomplishments. Since its inception in 1982, the Friends have restored all of the historic buildings on the property according to the strict standards set by the Department of Interior and the Friends are contributing one quarter of the Gardens annual operating budget. In 2011, the Friends published the first book about the history of Harry and Virginia Robinson and their renowned home and gardens. These continuing efforts will ensure that this cultural landmark will no longer be a hidden treasure ensconced in the hills above the famed Sunset Boulevard, but a nationally recognized landmark to be appreciated by all who visit.