By Caroline Seebohm, March 28, 1993
WITHIN a stone’s throw of Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood is one of the most attractive and least known private gardens in the United States, a stylish mixture of Italianate architecture and formal landscape design, with a jungle of rare tropical and subtropical plants and trees.
Designed around a Mediterranean-style palazzo that rises above a steep terraced hillside, the 6.2-acre garden is a testament to the taste and fine esthetic judgment of Virginia Dryden Robinson, a native of St. Louis who moved to Beverly Hills in 1903, bringing her gift of understatement to a neighborhood where glitter and glamour were already the norm.
Developed originally by businessmen rather than movie stars, Beverly Hills had always been a well-planned community, with curving streets and careful zoning for both buildings and plantings. Virginia and Harry Robinson — he was the son of the founder of Robinson’s department stores — moved into their house in 1912, and from then on through the 20’s their staid Beverly Hills neighbors were gradually replaced by movie stars like John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow and other great names of the early American cinema. These people’s gardens tended toward the flamboyant and eclectic; as Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller point out in their book, “The Golden Age of American Gardens,” Hollywood’s business was “manufacturing the illusion of just the kind that often required trees held up by wire stays.”
The Virginia Robinson Gardens, spectacular though it is, has no such illusory grandeur. Mrs. Robinson was an intellectually curious and artistic woman whose husband died at a young age, leaving her to manage his fortune and property. She worked closely with the Pasadena landscape architect Charles Gibbs Adams to produce a work that not only has no need of wire stays, but also provides a botanical feast for the fortunate visitor. Rare trees like Talauma hodgsonii, Gardenia thunbergia, and many species of magnolia and other unusual plants abound in a garden that is part wilderness, part 18th-century formality.
While Harold Lloyd was cramming his neighboring estate with “Spanish barbecue, Italian ballroom, Japanese lily pond, English village, Indian canoes, Arizona cactus garden,” according to Marion Cran quoted in “The Golden Age of American Gardens,” Mrs. Robinson exercised admirable horticultural restraint.
Mrs. Robinson, who died in 1977, bequeathed the estate to Los Angeles County in 1974. New houses have since been built on either side of the house, encroaching upon its gateway. My companion and I almost doubted our directions to the garden. We drove around the perimeter of the property to the small parking lot, where a path leads to the visitor’s first formal exposure to the garden. We were at the center of a large grassy rectangle, like a parterre. At the right end was the main house, with a generous terrace. To the left was a lily pond, a swimming pool and Renaissance-style pool pavilion.
Walking up a gentle slope toward the house, we stood on the terrace and looked up across the spread of lawn, punctuated with a small rose garden (Mrs. Robinson’s favorite flower) and perennial borders, toward a balustrade that cleverly conceals the swimming pool (the bane of all hot-climate landscape architects).
West of the house we descended a steep path into an elegant, courtyard-like space called the Italianate garden, a masterpiece of darkly dramatic hillside landscaping. Mrs. Robinson had a great knowledge of plants, particularly exotics and subtropicals, and these she imported and placed with meticulous care in the subtle curves of this steeply raked plot.
The slope is graded into eight levels, reached by brick paths that undulate down in a semicircular pattern, with shrub-fringed staircases, to plateaus, or terraces. These resting places, enhanced by fountains, ponds and statuary, provide romantic vistas up through the densely leaved trees to glimpses of sun and sky, or down through dark, glossy greenery to more mysterious openings with decorative stonework below. Winding our way down through this sensuous wilderness, we were greeted by the powerful scent of gardenias and stephanotis, splashes of color from camellias and azaleas, gazebo-like glades and the bubbling of secret fountains.
We walked back up this magic mountain to the front of the house, where a modest garden leads to the street, and on to the Palm Jungle, a mass of different palm species planted on the east side of the precipice-like terrain on which the house sits.
The house’s architect, Mrs. Robinson’s father, Nathaniel Dryden, made good use of this dramatic elevation. Like many built in Southern California in the early part of the century, the house is Mediterranean in style, and designed for a woman who loved to give parties. The public rooms are stately, with comfortable seating areas, still furnished with Mrs. Robinson’s belongings and personal mementos. Her library, with most of the collection still extant, is an impressive expression of its owner’s enthusiasms — mainly gardening, art and theater.
But the most spectacular room of all is the loggia, which overlooks the Palm Jungle. This balcony-like space, with no fourth wall, affords an open-air view over the palm forest, which unrolls in a verdant carpet below. Mirrors on two facing walls reflect the tops of the palms as they wave in the breeze, exaggerating the visitor’s sense of being suspended above the tree line. The effect is of floating in space, the palm fronds tickling the soles of your feet.
The Virginia Robinson Gardens, as is the case with all great gardens, reflects its owner’s personality. It remains marvelously intact, partly because it is so intricately designed, with steep paths that can be difficult to negotiate, that it cannot accommodate busloads of tourists, but mostly because it is virtually unknown.
The garden, which is north of the Beverly Hills Hotel, is part of the Los Angeles County Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens. However, its administration is so protective of it that the garden’s address is not even listed on the brochure. Even “The Golden Age of American Gardens,” brilliant encyclopedic work that it is, carries no mention of it — which is, of course, all the more reason to visit. A GUIDE TO A TASTE OF THE OPULENT
The Virginia Robinson Gardens is open year round for guided walking tours, which can be arranged by appointment only. The one-hour tours begin at 10 A.M. and 1 P.M. Tuesday through Thursday and at 10 A.M. Friday.
For reservations, call the gardens at (310) 276-5367 at least one week before your visit. Visitors will not be admitted without reservations. (These severe restrictions are necessitated, in part, by the property’s location in an exclusive residential area of Beverly Hills, where tour buses would not be welcome.) Admission is $5, $3 for children 5 to 17 years old, those 62 and over and students with ID.