A Piece of Hollywood History: Garden of Allah Hotel’s 1930 Neon Sign Hits the Market

The 90 year old Garden of Allah sign as it appears today

A 90 year old neon sign that once marked the entrance to the storied Garden of Allah Hotel on the Sunset Strip is up for sale.

For 27 years, the sign stood in front of the hotel at 8152 Sunset Blvd., approximately where the now-shuttered Chase Bank is today.

The sign was installed at the front of the Garden as early as 1930 by Central Holding Corporation, a syndicate of local investors who had recently purchased the hotel. It stood there until the 1950s when it was moved to the corner of Sunset and Havenhurst Drive during a renovation of the property.

It didn’t stay there long, however. In 1959, the hotel was purchased by Bart Lytton, CEO of Lytton Savings and Loan in Calabasas. Lytton shocked Hollywood by announcing that he intended to raze the Garden to make way for his S&L’s new headquarters.

The Los Angeles Times reported on the coming demolition in a story headlined, “Garden of Allah, Once an Oasis, Faces Kismet.”

The sign was likely purchased at an auction of the hotel’s fixtures in August 1959. It was photographed the following winter covered in snow in its new location, the side yard of a home in Detroit.

A snapshot of the Garden of Allah sign in Detroit in 1960

The Garden of Allah catered to Hollywood’s bohemian elite. It was notorious for celebrities-only all night partying and languid days nursing hangovers by the pool, said to be the largest in Hollywood.

Drunken celebrities fell into the pool so regularly that it became famous on its own.  “It is conventional to fall into the pool,” quipped columnist Lucius Beebe, a longtime resident of the hotel. “All the best people do it. It wakes one up.“ Actors John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) and Tallulah Bankhead as well as the writer Robert Benchley were especially notorious dunkers.

Humphrey Bogart and Ginger Rogers made the Garden their first homes in Hollywood. Bogart and Ronald Reagan – both of whom lived nearby above the Strip – decamped to the Garden between marriages.

It was also a favorite stopping place for East Coast writers who were in town to work for the studios. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in Villa 1 for a brief while. Algonquin Round Table members Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and others lived at the hotel off and on for years.

Alla Nazimova in 1921

The property was originally a luxury estate called Hayvenhurst. It was built in 1913 by William H. Hay, the developer of the surrounding residential area. Known then as the Crescent Heights neighborhood, it is part of central West Hollywood today.

In 1918, Broadway and silent film star Alla Nazimova acquired Hayvenhurst from William Hay. She renovated the 12-room house and installed the pool, which had an odd oblong shape and measured 65 feet by 45 feet. (Rumor has it that Nazimova designed the pool to resemble the Black Sea as a memento of her youth in Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula, but Nazimova was famously not a sentimentalist and there is nothing to represent Crimea in the pool design.)  Over the next decade, Nazimova went from being the highest paid actress in Hollywood to the brink of bankruptcy. In 1926, she used the last of her fortune to convert the estate into a residential hotel. She built two dozen detached villas around the pool and revamped the main building to house the hotel’s front desk, bar and restaurant downstairs and guest rooms upstairs.

After the hotel’s spectacular grand opening party in January 1927, Nazimova left operations to her business manager and went on tour. Within a year, however, the hotel was bankrupt, the business manager had disappeared and Nazimova was broke.

She sold the property back to William Hay and returned to Broadway, where she began another successful run. She returned to Hollywood in 1938 and appeared in five movies over the next six years.

In 1940 Nazimova rented Villa 24 overlooking the pool at the Garden of Allah. She lived there with her partner, Glesca Marshall, until she died in 1945 at age 66.

The Garden of Allah sign in position at the front of the hotel in the 1930s and, after it was moved in the 1950s to the corner of Sunset and Havenhurst Drive

After years in Detroit, the sign was acquired by Mark Santamaria, a collector of Hollywood memorabilia from Oakland. He moved it to his home, where he intended to restore it.

Martin Turnbull, author of a series of novels set at the Garden of Allah and – full disclosure – with me, a co-founder of the Alla Nazimova Society, had posted a query on his website seeking the whereabouts of the sign. Santamaria answered in a comment: “Martin, If you are wondering where the Garden of Allah neon sign is, I have it.”

Last month Santamaria contacted Turnbull to say he had reluctantly decided to put the sign up for sale.

According to Santamaria, the sign is 12 feet, 8 inches long, two feet high and 7 1/4 inches wide. He describes the condition as “just fair but stable, bottom and corners are rusted out.”

The dark green paint is weathered. The neon that spells “Garden of Allah” needs attention. Santamaria says before it became necessary to sell the sign, he had intended to “reinforce the interior for structural support and do the neon with either a soft white or yellow, and let it show its history.”

His asking price is $50,000. Martin Turnbull points out that a similar sign from the Beverly Hills Brown Derby – not the flagship location on Wilshire in the giant bowler hat – recently sold for $82,000, but notes that the Brown Derby sign was in good condition.

Interested parties can contact Mark Santamaria at msm195812@aol.com

Model of Townscape Partner’s Frank Gehry designed 8150 Sunset complex showing courtyard and pool

Today, 62 years after the Garden of Allah was razed, the property is again slated for demolition. The bank built by Bart Lytton in 1960 and other buildings on the property will make way for a Frank Gehry-designed mixed-use complex. Developed by Townscape Partners, the new 8150 Sunset project will occupy the Garden’s original 2.5 acre footprint.

A model of 8150 Sunset shows low-rise retail and restaurant buildings and two residential towers. At its center is a landscaped courtyard with two swimming pools.

When asked to name the ideal permanent home for the sign, Martin Turnbull says fans of old Hollywood on his site want it returned to its original location at the site of the Garden of Allah.

Perhaps Townscape Partners will buy the sign, refurbish it and mount it above a courtyard pool at 8150 Sunset as a tribute to the property’s historic past.

For more on the Garden of Allah, check out the West Hollywood History Center’s virtual exhibit on Alla Nazimova and the history of the hotel.

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