Early-20th-century Los Angeles was an architectural wonderland. Virtually any style of house found favor in those architecturally eclectic decades. While the most popular styles were Spanish, Mediterranean, Tudor, Italian, and Colonial Revival, some homes were also given vaguely Egyptian, Japanese, and Chinese motifs. Architectural eclecticism was popular in most United States cities during that time. Three factors, however, made Los Angeles’s eclecticism all the more imaginative and desirable in the minds of local homebuyers—or in poor taste, according to the purists who lived on the more conservative East Coast. Even famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked around the United States, including Los Angeles, complained that “the eclectic procession to and fro in the rag-tag and cast-off of the ages was never going to stop” in Southern California. First, Los Angeles architects and builders were less bound by tradition than their peers in other parts of the country. They felt free to mix several styles in one house. If an owner wanted a Spanish façade and Olde English interior, the architect and builder readily obliged. Taste in styles was so freewheeling that some Angelenos changed their minds about their new home’s style halfway through construction. In late 1920s, famed film director George Fitzmaurice had nearly completed a Spanish-style mansion in Benedict Canyon, then abruptly told his architect to redesign the house in the English Tudor style. And that’s what the completed mansion looked like. Second, the temperate Southern California climate meant that virtually any trees and shrubs would grow in residential neighborhoods. (Only in Los Angeles would you see grand Tudor and Colonial Revival homes standing on streets lined by tropical palms.) Landscape architects were free to design grounds in any style or styles that they and their clients chose. The final reason for Los Angeles’s eclecticism was the film industry. Ornate movie palaces in downtown Los Angeles and along Hollywood Boulevard fueled the public’s appetite for the exotic. Studios’ movie sets, which loomed above surrounding neighborhoods, further fed the taste for unusual styles. The Middle Eastern domes and minarets of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) remained standing in Culver City for over a decade.
One of the loveliest, most tasteful, and rarest of the early-20th-century residential architectural styles was French Norman, which was inspired by the manor houses of the Normandy region in northern France. For some architects and their clients, the French Norman style was perfect because it was so flexible. It was a new way of evoking a romantic European ethos without using the well known Elizabethan and Tudor styles. Its façade could be constructed with a variety of materials, from stone and brick to half-timbering, and often a mixture of these materials on one house. The interior floor plan could be arranged to suit many needs. The interior was also the perfect showcase for the use of handsome paneling and woodwork. Finally, the French Norman style could be constructed in virtually any size—from comfortable home to grand mansion—with a pleasing variety of features such as picturesque chimneys, towers, and porches. For these reasons, when Dr. and Mrs. Roy Van Wart purchased a twoacre lot on the north side of Bellagio Road at the corner of Bel-Air Road and the East Gate in 1931, they asked architect Ray J. Kieffer to design a French Norman home with some “English” touches.
Roy Van Wart, a highly skilled neuropathologist in Canada and then in New Orleans, had retired from medicine in 1929 at age forty-one so that he could—according to one account— “devote full time to his personal business interests.” Certainly Dr. Van Wart continued his educational pursuits, but what he, his wife, Edna, and their daughter, Katherine, really wanted to do was enjoy their money. And few places were more conducive to pleasure than Southern California, and a new home on Bel-Air’s fashionable Bellagio Road.
For the Van Warts, Kieffer designed a fourteen-room fairy-tale manor house that looked as if it had been lifted from a French village. The cost? $50,000. In very valuable Depression dollars. From original, simple, white wooden gates, the driveway led gently uphill from Bellagio Road to the mansion, which stood on a large expanse of flat land. After reaching the house, the driveway ran through an archway to the rear motor court and four-car garage. The layered front façade was a combination of multicolor bricks and white half-timbers topped by steep, pitched roofs; the main tower even included a dovecoteon top. One of the property’s real delights was its grounds. From the brick terraces at the front of the house, the Van Wart family enjoyed a several-hundred-foot view of open land that ran downhill along the west side of Bel-Air Road toward Bellagio Road. At the narrow end of their estate, they constructed their swimming pool. By planting trees along the Bel-Air Road frontage, they concealed their neighborhood and the roadway, allowing them to gaze upon open space and enjoy the illusion of being in the middle of the country.
Although the Van Warts were newcomers to Los Angeles, they fit right into the city’s upperclass social scene. Virtually from the month they moved into the Bellagio Road residence, their names appeared regularly in the society columns. They were, of course, members of all the right clubs: the Bel-Air Country Club and Bel-Air Bay Club. They were always linked with Los Angeles’s “finest families.” Mrs. Van Wart, for example, became a close friend of society doyenne Virginia Robinson of Beverly Hills (see page 58). The family’s entertainments were many and varied. In April 1934, they hosted a four-course “Bel-Air progressive” luncheon: four families each served a different course in their home’s gardens, and the guests progressed from house to house and course to course. Dinner parties were common at the Van Wart home. The Van Warts, like their social peers, loved to travel. In 1934, the family left on a threeweek cruise along the Southern California and Mexican coast. In early 1939, as Europe careened toward World War II, the Van Warts left Los Angeles for a two-month cruise to South America, then spent two months in New York. These “popular travelers,” noted one society column in 1939, were “being continually entertained before their departure. Anything seems to be an excuse for a party.” Roy Van Wart died in 1957. His widow, Edna, later married Bel-Air multimillionaire George L. Castera. When Edna died in 1967, she left the bulk of her large, personal fortune to the University of Southern California and the University of California. George Castera died less than two years later.
Their deaths gave Angelenos a brief opportunity to “trespass” at a Bellagio Road estate. In 1969, the family decided to auction off the contents of the home. “Spectacular Auction,” shouted the headlines of the A. N. Abell Auctioneers’ advertisements. “The Rare and Magnificent Furnishings of the Estate of Mr. and Mrs. George L. Castera.” Up for auction were their fine European furniture, including pieces by Sheraton and Chippendale and entire bedroom suites; porcelain ornaments by Meissen and Sevres; porcelain tableware from Royal Crowd Derby, Wedgwood and Dresden; English crystal stemware; and hundreds of pieces of collectible silverware including candelabra, service plates, and serving platters; and antique Persian, Chinese, and Aubusson carpets. The auction also included a “lifetime collection” of oil paintings and watercolors signed or attributed to internationally known artists including Thomas Gainsborough, George Inness, and Jean-George Léon Gérôme, among many others. Best of all, the Van Wart and Castera treasures were not displayed at the auctioneer’s showroom. They were on view at the mansion. “Inspection on the Premises . . . Bellagio Road, Bel-Air. East Gate Entrance.” Then the Bellagio Road estate itself was sold. For decades thereafter, it was a stately landmark in Old Bel-Air.