The 1920’s! It was a time of prosperity and indulgence.
What makes the Marion Davies Guest House at 415 Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica so special is it’s history…specifically, Hollywood history. We decided to spend a fun and relaxing sunny afternoon touring this gorgeous, restored Georgian Revival guest house (Georgian Revival drew inspiration from the architecture that dominated the American colonies from about 1700 until 1780) lead by one of Santa Monica Conservancy’s volunteer docents.
Approaching the impressive, columned entrance, we noticed portions of the restoration were not returned to its original, new condition…instead leaving traces of the remaining layers, giving us a peek of the fascinating past awaiting inside.
Our docent welcomed us, and began setting the mood…revealing the colorful stories that the fiber of the Marion Davies Guest House.
The interior is light, bright, and beautiful in its simplicity. No original furnishings remain, but the building itself still contains much of its original character, hearkening back to its glory days. Restored Art deco moldings and giant windows surrounded us as we sat comfortably listening to our docent in what was then the living room. The marble fireplace and carved sconces are original as are the Tiffany & Co. chandeliers (in the living room, dining room and entryway).
Diverse installations set the mood, as our tour continued. Throughout both floors of the house, and in the entryway, we encountered numerous historical photography that focus on the life of Hearst and Davies. The dining room is devoted to the fabulous parties Marion held at the mansion. Large-scale photographic scrims cover the walls and windows, depicting the A-list celebrity guests in attendance. Four lovely restored Art Deco built-ins grace each corner. The stairway to the second floor is similar to one in the original main house.
The three original bathrooms remain upstairs, with their opulent tile work reflecting the colors of the sand, sky and sea. Previous occupants of the Guest House had painted over the original tiles, but they have since been restored to their original splendor.
From the west-facing bedroom’s balcony, we had a spectacular view of the beach and ocean. Glancing below; we notice a patch of tarmac…the guest house’s original pool was deemed too expensive to restore, so it is covered to this day. A portion of the wall built to keep back the tide still remains (a white tiled stripe runs throughout the property to indicate where the rest of the wall once stood).
Back down to the entry lobby, an interactive guest book allows visitors to explore the estate from the 1930’s through today. A scrapbook section lays in images and artifacts from the time Marion Davies owned it, to the time when the property became an exclusive membership club, to the public landmark it is today. In guest book mode, visitors can put their mark on the history of the site by signing their name electronically.
A little history…
William Randolph Hearst was 52 and married with five sons when he spotted Marion Davies on stage. She was 18 and dancing with the Ziegfeld Follies, and he was smitten. Their romance would last the rest of his life, and was widely considered the “worst kept secret” (His wife, Millicent, would not grant him a divorce so that he could marry Marion).
He gave her everything…a film career for one. After he got her started in silent films in New York, he took his own film company to Hollywood, where he moved the company (and Marion’s 18-room dressing room) onto the MGM lot.
In 1924, he bought 4.91-acres of prime beach frontage, and had a beach house built for Marion. This wasn’t just any beach house…it was to be the grandest property out of all the other homes on the Gold Coast. To accomplish this, Hearst commissioned architect Julia Morgan, to create an estate that would have no rival.
Julia Morgan was by far the most important female architect of the early 20th century. Despite all the obstacles that faced her due to her gender: She was the first woman to receive her California license to practice architecture in March 1904, a civil engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1894, and an architectural degree from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris (where she was the first female student) in 1897. Her repertoire included Hearst’s San Simeon castle, The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and more than 700 projects in a career spanning over 45 years.
With the beach house in Santa Monica, Morgan added another success to her resume…a 3-story Georgian Revival Mansion (with a total of 188 rooms including 34 bedrooms, 37 fireplaces and 55 bathrooms plus 3 guest houses, 2 swimming pools, tennis courts and dog kennels). Once completed, the official tab was unknown, but rumor put the price tag at $7 million dollars ($3 million to build and almost $4 million to furnish). This estate was the grandest in the neighborhood, and earned the simple but definite titles, “The Beach House, and the “Ocean House”.
In 1928, Hearst hired set designer, William Flannery, to decorate the home’s interior with rich American and English antiques and design, including Tiffany crystal chandeliers. The first floor functioned as the public area for the house, with a reception room, dining room, breakfast room, library, study, long entrance hall and double staircases. The second floor contained bedrooms, while the third floor contained Davies’ private suite, connected by a private staircase with the Hearst’s suite below. The ground floor featured a wine cellar that was later changed into an ice cream parlor, and pool changing rooms.
Hearst imported whole rooms from Europe, wallpaper, Grinling Gibbons paneling, paintings and furniture. White marble terraces lined with black diamond tile surrounded the home and grounds. The Library contained a movie screen that rose out of the floor by pushing a button. The Gold Room truly sparkled, with gold leaf decorating the walls and ceiling, and gold damask sofas, tasseled curtains and Georgian furniture. The Marine Room, lined with English walnut paneling, served as the game room. The 100-foot heated swimming pool was lined with Italian marble and traversed by a Venetian marble bridge. In 1933, it was reported that a staff of 20 ran the house, along with the house manager.
Davies moved into the house and began her role as Hollywood’s elite hostess. Her theme-based parties attracted the day’s biggest stars, international dignitaries and business titans, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Jean Harlow, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, the Mayor of New York City, President Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, and on and on. The 7,000 square-foot North Guest House was designed for the overflow of guests who didn’t fill in the mansion’s bedrooms. Those who knew Davies say she never took herself seriously and was beloved by all who knew her for her gracious spirit and charitable tendencies.
Marion retired from the screen in the late 1930’s so she could be with Hearst as his health was declining. When Hearst lay dying in 1951 at the age of 88, his lawyer gave Marion a sedative. When she awoke several hours later, she discovered that Hearst had died, and that his associates had removed his body as well as all his belongings and any trace that he had lived there with her. His family had a big formal funeral for him in San Francisco and banned Marion from attending.
Marion started lots of charities, including a children’s clinic that is still operating today. She went through a lot, even getting polio in the 1940’s. She developed cancer of the jaw and died in 1961.
The property was later sold to a private party, and then the State took it over, leasing it to the City of Santa Monica, which in turn leased it to the Sand and Sea (hotel and beach club). The mansion did not have enough bedrooms to make a go as a hotel, so all but the pools, servant’s quarters, tennis courts, and North Guest House were demolished. The Sand & Sea closed down in 1991. The State took it over, and opened the road to the public (the road was previously inaccessible to the general public, and could only enter Pacific Coast Highway through the Sand and Sea Club).
While the State and City Council debated on what to do with the property, they leased it for filming “Beverly Hills 90210”, using the club as its focal point in the hit TV series. Then the 1994 Northridge earthquake rattled the property to its foundation. All but one of the structures had been red-tagged as unsafe to occupy. The City Council estimated cost to rehab the property was at $18 million.
As the Council wasn’t willing to fund the rehabilitation project, they went in search of a private party. Thanks to Wallis Annenberg, Walter Annenberg’s daughter and advisor to The Annenberg Foundation (one of the country’s leading philanthropic organizations), generous offer to award a $21 million grant to the City of Santa Monica to help restore, renovate and reopen the former Marion Davies estate.
In a joint effort between The Annenberg Foundation, the City and the State, the guest house and the main pool have been restored, plus new buildings were designed and created to serve as a public beach house, currently called The Annenberg Community Beach House and Marion Davies Guest House.
With its spectacular views, splash pad, children’s play area, gallery, historic pool, and Marion Davies Guest House; The Annenberg Community Beach House is a great addition to the list of Santa Monica hot spots to experience while spending a fun day at the beach! For visiting information, please click Visit Us