CHRONICLES THE HISTORICAL, ARCHITECTURAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL SIDES OF BEVERLY HILLS ESTATES
BY ANDREW MYERS
If location is the byword of real estate, certitude the shorthand to success, passion the propellant for time spent in dusty archives and at a writer’s desk, then it was destiny Jeff Hyland would produce The Legendary Estates of Beverly Hills—a comprehensive chronicle of 50 of the most historically, architecturally and sociologically interesting estates in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air.
With all the comprehensiveness it implies, produce, rather than merely to write, is the appropriate verb. Published by Rizzoli, the 428-page tome, with 350 color photographs of interiors, grounds and gardens, measures 18.5 x 14 x 2.7 inches and weighs over 12 pounds, much bigger than most newborns. Its gestation was also significantly longer. “For nearly three years, gifted doctoral students from UCLA and Columbia University helped me research,” Hyland explains.
A native of Los Angeles, Hyland was born and raised in the rolling hills of Little Holmby, near the UCLA campus. The son of a successful screenwriter and literary agent, he saw first hand the glories of California’s golden era of Spanish Colonial, Georgian,Tudor, French Norman and Italianate Revivals; Mediterranean amalgams; neo-classical piles; as well as Moderne, Mid-century and modern manses. “Between my parents, their friends and my friends, I was in and out of so many of these houses as a kid,” says Hyland, noting this was the genesis of his love of architecture: early exposure across a wide range of styles (not to mention colorful personalities).
Even so, it couldn’t have been predicted that after study at Cornell and the United States International University, Hyland would in 1975, a propos of nothing, “wake up one morning and decide, definitively to go into real estate, almost as if an alarm clock had gone off.” Further, it’s exceptional that he would proceed to build not one but two real-estate firms of renown; become the founding member of Christie’s International Real Estate, and serve as President of the Beverly Hills Board of Realtors, President of the Los Angeles County Boards of Real Estate, as well as State Director for the California Association of Realtors; and evolve into an architectural historian of repute, assisting in the publication of monographs on Southern California architects Paul Revere Williams and Wallace Neff, as well as co-author the book, The Estates of Beverly Hills. “Well, since I couldn’t do math I couldn’t be an architect,” he says, a dodge to keep from acknowledging, let alone discussing, his achievements.
While Hyland has no interest in speaking about records in residential and commercial sales— not his, those of Hilton & Hyland (the company he founded with Rick Hilton in 1993) or the firm’s latest triumph headlined in newspapers the world over (the sale of the 123-room Spelling estate for a record sum), he will crow about the architecture and history of the great, diverse, sometimes imperiled great estates of the city of Los Angeles—or more specifically those that sit, squarely and serenely, in the platinum triangle of Bel-Air, Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills. “Even as a kid, I pretty much knew every street, every house,” says Hyland, who, coincidentally (or perhaps not) grew up three blocks away from the Gordon Kaufmann-designed Bing Crosby estate, which was torn down to become the Spelling estate.
Still, it’s very different to be an enthusiast or amateur rather than the author of a book that took years of research. “What happened is I realized I knew a lot of information few others did, I had access to a lot of people few others did, and that archival materials, not to mention houses themselves, were disappearing. I realized I had to create this book, and that I alone had the ability, resources and contacts to do so,” Hyland explains..
Out of the gate, Hyland had four goals. At the top of the list was the inclusion of accurate and in-depth historical and contemporary information. The requisite research—the product of his own work and that of his post-graduate bi-coastal team—yielded him “the largest collection of Architectural Digests in private hands,” and for the book produced a general bibliography and reference source list for each property. “This was extremely important, not least because they can be used by future researchers and writers.” Secondly, Hyland wanted to cover not only the great pre-war estates but also the full gilded gamut through the early boom years of the 21st century. “While the 1920s and ’30s were the decades of extraordinary estate construction a few remarkable homes were also built in the 1940s and ’50s, and striking new homes have been completed in recent years.”
He also wanted to add meat to architectural bones. Meaning that while Hyland intended to catalog the estates’ architectural and design details, he was anti enumeration. Rather, he wanted to paint a full picture, starting with context. “The book’s histories of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air precede the discussion of the individual estates.”
In turn, Hyland devotes one discrete chapter per estate, and in each delves into design and construction details, as well as into “the often fascinating lives of the residents of these prized properties—from their passionate involvement in their estates’ planning and construction to their larger-than-life activities and entertainments, their intrigues, sometimes their tragedies.”
Lastly, with over 35 years in real estate, Hyland knows more than a thing or two about presentation and its power, and therefore insisted the book be “as attractive and elegant as the estates themselves, with the finest contemporary and historical photography available.”
While the book’s first three sections are organized geographically (one for Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air, respectively), it is the fourth and final sec tion, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” that is the most poignant, as well as Hyland’s favorite. In it, 12 no-longer-extant estates are profiled, many of their names— such as Pickfair, the hilltop home of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, once Hollywood royalty’s reigning couple; and Falcon Lair, owned by the silver screen’s first heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino—widely recognizable. At the height of Fairbanks’ and Pickford’s fame, Pickfair was the most famous house in the US save for the White House. A house called “Pickfair” currently exists on the site of the original, but there the similarities end.
But just as these properties were built in the latest fashion, so can fashion be fickle, destructively so. As Hyland explains, after World War II great estates fell from vogue. Considered too expensive to maintain or difficult to run, they also were outside the post-war paradigm of efficiency, simplicity and air-conditioned modernity—as well as the aesthetic juggernaut that was the Mid-Century Modern style (perhaps the death knell for the previous era’s Spanish Colonial, Colonial and Tudor Revivals was when Gary Cooper opted for a relatively humble Mid-Century manse in the mid 1950s).
Throughout the late 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, many noteworthy estates suffered awkward “modernizations,” subdivision or outright demolition. But in the early 1980s fashion turned again, and, perhaps poetically, made the surviving estates even more sought after. As Hyland writes at the close of his introduction for “Gone But Not Forgotten:” “The Loss of so many estates in the post World War II years meant that fewer outstanding properties were available and that scarcity drove prices even higher for the finest homes. Today, the great estates of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel-Air are—once again—the most prized homes in Southern California.”
While The Legendary Estates of Beverly Hills is testament to Hyland’s passion and tenacity, it’s equally indicative of the trust he engenders in these zip codes.
“Nobody said no, not one owner of an estate I wanted to include,” says Hyland, who has been called The Gatekeeper of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air. “All the current owners opened their homes for the first time because they knew this tome would not be anything but the finest architecturally directed and historically accurate record, and because they knew it would not address them, their careers, backgrounds or personalities in any way. The estates were the personalities, they are the stars.”
As far as having a favorite estate, Hyland is ecumenical. “Every house I put in the book I’m in love with. ”But perhaps the greatest testament to his enduring passion is his intention to write—in the great Hollywood blockbuster tradition—a sequel. “I’ll include new estates, and I’ll revisit some. It will be something I uniquely can do!”