The famous Robinson department store may be long gone, but the family legacy lives on at a five-acre estate in Beverly Hills, California that has been open to the public for 45 years.
Known as the Virginia Robinson Gardens, the site was built in 1911 by Harry and Virginia Robinson, who married in 1903 and embarked on a lengthy honeymoon to Europe, India and Kashmir, where the newlyweds collected goods for the family department store and for themselves.
One day, returning to Los Angeles, California, they were driving to the new Los Angeles Country Club when they got lost and ended up on a bare hill. What they saw was a view of the Santa Monica Mountains on one side and the plain below on the other, which would become the incorporated city of Beverly Hills in 1914.
In love with the property, they bought this large, treeless piece of land at 1008 Elden Way, mostly surrounded by barley fields, from Burton Green, a founder of Beverly Hills. They immediately began building a Beaux-Arts style mansion designed by Virginia’s father, Nathaniel Dryden, an architect and builder. A year later, the Beverly Hills Hotel was built a few blocks away, where it was more of a western-style resort with horseback riding tours than a fabled hideaway for Hollywood celebrities.
After the mansion was built, it was time to create a lush tropical forest of Australian royal palms, an Italianate terraced garden and two rose gardens to accompany the tennis court and pool, which was later expanded to 50 feet in length.
Thirteen years later, because Virginia was so keen on card players, they added a 3,000-square-foot Italian-style pool pavilion on the other side of their large lawn, which seats up to 450 people, with a billiard room, bathrooms, and a card game room on the second floor.
When Virginia died in 1977 at the age of 99 and childless, she bequeathed the historic property to Los Angeles County, which for decades has operated it as a historic site open to paid tours ($15 for adults) and free educational programs for students.
“This is such a treasure,” says Phil Savenick, president of the Beverly Hills Historical Society. “Not only is it the first estate built in Beverly Hills before it became a city, but also because Virginia donated their estate as an as-is museum that shows exactly what it was like during the golden era of the early 20th century. ”
The district, which reports to the Department of Parks and Recreation, spends about $1 million a year tending the gardens with the help of five full-time gardeners and caring for the mansion, which is preserved as it was in 1977 . Fundraising efforts by The Friends of Robinson Gardens, which has about 135 members, have donated up to $320,000 a year to various maintenance, restoration, and educational projects.
“As you can imagine, there is a lot of upkeep involved in maintaining such a historic building…the pool pavilion and other structures. It’s under constant maintenance,” says Diane Sipos, superintendent of Virginia Robinson Gardens. “And we must ensure that all artifacts within are preserved.”
The artifacts inside the 6,000-square-foot, 12-room home are extensive. There’s an entire library where the Robinsons served their guests pre-dinner cocktails, with 3,000 leather-bound books and antique furniture.
The living room features a Chickering baby grand piano, sofas upholstered in gold fabric, heavy curtains and crystal chandeliers. There’s Virginia’s bedroom, where one of her dainty dresses is on display on a mannequin. In her dressing room, outside the main bathroom, is her personal silver brush and comb set next to a small silver perfume bottle with her first name engraved on the front.
At the end of a long gallery is a 19th-century birdcage of gilt metal containing four stuffed iridescent hummingbirds that sing and move their heads and beaks when a key on the side is turned. The early automaton appeared in the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The Robinsons also lent the film one of their three Duesenberg cars, which are no longer at the mansion.
To one side of the house is the Italian terraced garden with acres of Mediterranean plants and fun water features, such as B. Steps with a narrow water channel running down the side. The dominant tree species include the southern magnolia, a persimmon grove and historical specimen trees. There is the largest coral tree in California, which comes from South Africa.
On the other side of the mansion is the expansive palm forest with around 1,000 royal palms, the largest collection in the United States. Meandering walkways down a hill lead to ponds and seating areas.
“Virginia and Harry have traveled the world shopping for their department store. And whenever they saw a plant they liked, they would have it sourced and shipped back to Beverly Hills,” Savenick notes. “The plants in Virginia’s house are like no other place.”
The family’s department store legacy began in 1883 when Virginia’s father-in-law, Joseph Winchester Robinson, opened the Boston Dry Goods Store on a busy street corner in downtown LA. In 1891 the name of the store was changed to the JW Robinson Co. and over the years several locations have been opened in California and Arizona.
In 1924, Virginia’s husband Harry became president of the department store chain until his death in 1932. At that time, Virginia served as the company’s chairman until 1962. The department store chain was acquired five years before its retirement by Associated Dry Goods, which was later acquired in 1986 by the May Co., which was bought by Macy’s in 2005. By this time, the Robinson-May department stores were either closed or rolled into the Macy’s nameplate.
Virginia never remarried, but she continued to organize extravagant soirées, dinners, benefit parties, and cocktail events with the help of a 21-strong staff headed by a mayordomo.
Known as the First Lady of Beverly Hills, she entertained the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and numerous Hollywood stars including Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin and Sophia Loren.
Virginia’s good friend Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, had her second wedding on the property in 1969.
“Virginia threw three parties a week, and one of them was a formal party,” says Savenick. “She threw a party every year called ‘Harvest Moon Ball’ which helped raise money for the Dorothy Chandler Music Center. Dorothy was a good friend.”
When the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened their summer season at the Hollywood Bowl, they had them repeat their first performance on their expansive lawn for their guests to enjoy and to raise money for the organization.
Gone are the days of these big events, but the property, with just 35 parking spaces, is still rented out for small gatherings and fundraisers. According to the garden’s latest environmental impact report, no more than 100 citizens are allowed to visit the site each day. But the county is trying to change that to bring more visitors to the property, which is open Monday through Saturday.
Fashion labels have also visited the property and Stella McCartney, Nike and Alo Moda have done fashion shoots there. In 2015, Martha Stewart Weddings magazine did a photoshoot with actress Sofia Vergara, who posed in a Chantilly lace wedding dress against the bright pink bougainvillea near the tennis court.
Established in 1982, the Friends of Robinson Gardens were instrumental in keeping the property running. The nonprofit organization’s fundraising efforts contribute to the restoration of various elements of the home and other structures, interior decorations, furniture, and gardens.
Evelyn Carlson, the group’s treasurer, said the nonprofit organization raises an average of $250,000 to $300,000 a year for restoration projects.
And some of those projects were big. At one point there was an $80,000 overhaul of the irrigation system to make it more water efficient and a leaking basin that needed repairing, requiring historic tiles to be removed and numbered to ensure they were in the correct places location were returned.
“If you have a historic property, you can’t just call someone,” says Carlson. “When we replace fabrics in the home, we have to do historical research. Maintaining a historic property is different from maintaining a regular home.”
The Friends of Robinson Gardens also raises approximately $70,000 a year, primarily through grants, for student education programs that bring LA elementary school students to the gardens each year to learn about horticulture, growing vegetable gardens, plants and pond animals.
“Every year, 2,000 students go through this program,” says Carlson. “The kids love it.”