Since its grand opening in 1925, Holmby Hills has always been one of Southern California’s most desirable and most livable neighborhoods. Over the years, Holmby Hills has readily adapted to the changing lifestyles of well-to-do Angelenos—particularly their tastes in homes— without losing its beauty or its secluded, almost countrified ambience. In Holmby Hills, oversize new homes on too-small lots do not loom over the streets or their neighbors, as occurs with some prestigious Westside streets. Why has Holmby Hills remained such an exclusive and charming enclave in an ever-changing Southern California? Much of the credit goes to Edwin and Harold Janss, the developers of Holmby Hills. Their objective was not a quick real estate buck. The two brothers, who were backed by the land’s previous owners, the Letts family, intended this “residential estate park” to remain a prized community neighborhood for many years. Whether or not they realized that tastes in homes would greatly change over time, particularly the early-21st-century popularity of large residences, the Janss brothers’ overall community plan was accommodating. Nature—in the topography of the Santa Monica Mountains west of Beverly Hills—gave Holmby Hills a great initial advantage. The land on either side of Sunset Boulevard was less steep— hence offered more flat land—than the foothill districts north of Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills or in most of Bel-Air. Nonetheless, the land in Holmby Hills was hardly flatland, similar to the Beverly Hills blocks south of Sunset Boulevard. Eons of winter rains falling on the nearly barren land had created fast-flowing seasonal streams, which carved deep ravines into the terrain. To some, Holmby Hills might have presented a difficult site for development: a series of ridges with some flat land, followed by a ravine, followed by a ridge and flat land, and then another ravine, all the way west to Beverly Glen. The Janss brothers—or maybe their engineers and landscape architects—instead spotted opportunity in this topography. In their community plan, they put the streets along the ridges. This left enough flat land for a mansion before the land dropped off into the ravine, where they built bridle trails for the neighborhood’s many equestrians. The Janss brothers also realized that estate buyers would probably plant trees in their portion of the ravine, to shield their homes from neighbors. This is exactly what happened and, over the years, Holmby Hills estates became more secluded and more countrified. To guarantee the quality of any new homes and to control development, the Janss brothers added legally binding covenants to all land deeds. One typical covenant read, “Said premises shall be used for private residence purposes only, and no structure of any kind shall be moved from any other place to said premises.” The Janss brothers’ Architectural Supervising Committee had to approve the design of any residence, garage, or stable, and the covenants insisted that any contemporary structures erected during the estate’s construction be removed “as soon as the residence is completed.” Homes could not be constructed closer than twenty feet to the lot line along the streets. The covenants specifically excluded “any hotel, apartment house, boarding house, lodging house, tenement house, sanitarium,” and any commercial activity, particularly oil exploration. No home “shall be used for the purpose of vending intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes,” an unlikely event, but one that the Janss brothers expressly forbade.
Finally, like nearly all residential developers at the time, the Janss brothers inserted racial covenants into the deeds that “neither the whole nor any part of said premises shall be sold, rented, or leased to any person not of the white or Caucasian race.” Live-in servants of color were permitted. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court voided all such covenants nationwide. When Holmby Hills went on the market in 1925, the Janss brothers erected the first two homes in the neighborhood: Harold Janss lived at 10060 Sunset Boulevard, at the southeast corner of Carolwood Drive. Edwin Janss moved to Carolwood Drive, two blocks above Sunset Boulevard. Their estates were not only their vote of confidence in Holmby Hills but also established an important standard of quality and style. To set the tone for the neighborhood, they knew that it was better to lead by example than to rely solely on the mandates of their Architectural Supervising Committee. Decades after Holmby Hills went on the market, and decades after the remaining empty lots were sold in the 1950s and 1960s, this Carolwood Drive estate was created through the purchase of two adjacent properties. The existing homes were demolished, providing a 3.8-acre parcel with enough flat land for the mansion and its grounds. What attributes have made this property such a success, even by Holmby Hills standards? First, the estate meets the owners’ specific tastes and needs, as well as the attributes of its location. The estate is not an off-the-shelf design or plan, and its tasteful design and obvious quality do more than merely express wealth and success. Unlike many Holmby Hills estates, the property is completely hidden from the street. It was oriented for prime exposure to sunlight. It has parking for forty cars, and the swimming pool is located on the south side of the property. Second, the estate has many exceptional features, such as a sculpture garden and a grand family room opening onto the pool and grounds. Only mature trees and shrubs were used in new landscaping, which gives the estate grounds a finished look because the newly installed elements blend perfectly with the nearly century-old trees planted long ago. Any major project has unexpected discoveries, but the construction of this estate uncovered one pleasant surprise. While the landscape team was working on the land above the bridle trail at the bottom of the ravine, they discovered a 1920s barbecue pit and grotto on the overgrown hillside. Obviously, this was a place for informal cookouts, neighborly visits, and enjoyment of the natural setting….a place where neighbors could ride over for dinner, and then ride home on the network of bridle trails that crisscrossed the neighborhood. The trails are no longer used for horseback riding. The paths are home to deer and other animals who enjoy the shade in hot summer months, and who forage up and down the canyons as they did long before Holmby Hills was developed.