Robinson Gardens, a six and a half acre estate situated on a knoll behind the Beverly Hills Hotel, has been on my “Must See” list for many years. I just never seemed to get there – until two weeks ago. I’m pleased to report it was well worth the wait.
My wife and 12-year-old son joined me for the tour. As we passed through the front gate of Robinson Gardens and drove around the house to the small parking lot, we marveled at a forest of Australian King Palms. Not what you’d expect to see in the middle of Beverly Hills.
The tour began in the pool pavilion, where we were met by our docent, Kathleen Campbell. After a round of introductions, she provided us with background information about Harry Winchester Robinson (1878-1932) and Virginia Dryden Robinson (1877-1977). We learned a little about their respective families, their early years in Los Angeles, and their marriage in 1903. Of particular interest was the couple’s love of travel, exemplified by their three-year honeymoon to Europe, India, and Kashmir.
If you’re wondering whether these Robinsons were somehow related to the family behind the Robinson’s Department Store chain, your hunch would be correct. Harry was the son of JW Robinson, the founder of The Boston Dry Goods store, which became the multi-store Robinson’s chain that was well known in southern California throughout much of the 20th century.
Ms. Campbell then shared information about the pool pavilion itself, so called because it housed a pool table and is adjacent to the swimming pool. Designed using a blend of Palladian and eighteenth century French architectural styles, this impressive structure was built in 1924 and has seen no significant changes since that time.
Aside from its architectural beauty, the pool pavilion contains a number of wonderful historic photos taken over the years of Harry and Virginia Robinson and their estate. Ms. Campbell used those photos to great effect – for example, illustrating how different the property and surrounding region looked in the early 1900s as compared with today.
From the pool pavilion we walked past the inviting mosaic tiled swimming pool and expansive main lawn to the Robinson’s house, which was designed and built by Virginia’s father, Nathaniel Dryden (1849-1924). Completed in 1911, this simplified Beaux Arts structure is filled with antiques and other collectables that the couple acquired during their travels together and over the many years Virginia lived in the home after Harry passed away in 1932. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the house, so I don’t have any to share here. You’ll just have to visit on your own to see how the Robinson’s lived at home.
To help preserve the house, visitors are only allowed in the main entry hall. From that vantage point we were able to look into several rooms, such as the library, dining room, and a guest bedroom. Despite the somewhat limited access, Ms. Campbell did an excellent job explaining each of these rooms, what lay beyond our view, and why the house was designed and constructed as we see it today.
The remainder of the tour focused on the property’s extensive gardens and to a lesser extent the servant quarters, located next to the main house. As we walked the grounds, it quickly became apparent that Virginia enjoyed experimenting with a wide variety of plant species and took great care in shaping the garden into a place that afforded many spaces for entertaining. And entertain she did. As the Friends of Robinson Gardens describe on their web site, “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.”
While Virginia was directly involved with the garden’s design and planting selection, she did not create it by herself. Rather, she worked closely with Charles Gibbs Adams (1884-1953), the noted Pasadena landscape architect. Together they designed a garden characterized by distinct sections, such as the aforementioned palm forest to the east of the main house and the multilevel Italianate garden on the property’s west side.
While the palm forest impressed me by virtue of its scale, it was the Italianate garden that I found most appealing. Aside from the wide variety of subtropical and exotic plants that grace the steeply terraced hillside, what I loved most were the terra cotta statues placed in just the right spot so as to provide interesting focal points for the visitor. I was also taken by the brick stairs connecting the different levels of this part of the garden. When you visit, be sure to look for the unique design element built into these stairs. I think you’ll agree it significantly adds to the overall appeal of the space.
Before passing away in 1977 at the age of 99, Virginia bestowed her beloved estate to the County of Los Angeles so that the public could enjoy it for years to come. Since limited funds exist to care for the property, a non-profit organization called the Friends of Robinson Gardens was established in 1982 to raise money for repairs and maintenance. Since that time, the foundation has expanded its activities and now runs a docent program and educational seminars.
Speaking of the docent program, I have to add that a highlight of the tour was Ms. Campbell herself. Her passion for the property and desire to share her knowledge about Harry and Virginia Robinson were obvious during the time we spent with her. If the other docents are equally as engaging, I think anyone with an interest in local history, architecture and gardens would enjoy spending an hour or two at Robinson Gardens.
A Final Thought
For those who follow development activity in and around Los Angeles, it’s common knowledge that the Beverly Hills Robinson’s Department Store and its adjacent parking structure were completely demolished in late July. When I last drove by the site, all that remained were a few large piles of rubble surrounded by a wood fence. I periodically shopped in that store when I was growing up and fondly remember its gracious interior.
Hours of Operation: Tuesday through Friday at 10:00 a.m. or 1:00 p.m.
Call (310) 550-2087 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to make a reservation. No online tickets available.
How to Visit: While Robinson Gardens is open to the public, you have to make a reservation for a docent led tour – so plan ahead. The web site suggests reserving your spot several weeks in advance, but if you can’t plan that far ahead get in touch with their reservation desk. The volunteer staff very much wants as many people to experience the estate as possible, so if they can accommodate your party they will.
Children (5-12) $4
Students (w/ I.D.) $6
Seniors (62+) $6
Where: 1008 Elden Way Beverly Hills, California 90210