Mrs. Virginia Robinson, a wealthy philanthropist a wife of Harry Robinson, of the Robinsons department stores, built the first historic estate in Beverly Hills in 1911. The main house was designed by architect Nathaniel Dryden, who was Virginia’s father, in a Beaux Arts style. Today the six-acre property contains the original home, pool pavilion (for both shooting pool and relaxing after swimming in the pool) and extensive gardens. Within the six designated gardens, one can enter the Australian King Palm Forest, the Rose Garden, and the Italian Terrace Garden, all while touring by appointment with a docent. It was on just such a tour that I was able to experience the Robinson’s Gardens this summer.
My journey began in the pool pavilion. The Renaissance Revival pool pavilion was constructed in 1924 and is an homage to the Villa Pisani in the Tuscan region of Italy. Decorative panels of Sgraffito ornamentation climb the Roman arches at the entry to the pavilion’s Solarium. The Robinsons wanted the decor to be in the style of a “Gothic Indonesian, Islamic home” as that fit the motif they were fascinated with from their extensive travels to the middle east.
I learned that when Virginia and Harry Robinson lived on the property, their neighbors were Lillian Disney, Glenn Ford, and Elvis Presley. They enjoyed entertaining and were often found sipping champagne with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren or Fred Astaire. Charlie Chaplin repeatedly challenged Virginia to a game of tennis on her court. Even royalty stopped by, as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were frequent guests. When Harry passed away in 1932, Virginia continued her philanthropic work, her daily swims well into her eighties, her garden walks, and her love for entertaining on the property with the help of her staff. She had a succession of male butlers who filled in the gaps on tasks which had been Harry’s responsibility in the past.
The estate has five distinct garden areas there were all planted from seed by twelve gardeners; The first one is the Italian Renaissance Terrace Garden, where citrus lined terraces and mature specimen trees sway in the distance as large Southern Magnolias shade flowering Camellias, Gardenias, and Azaleas. Fountains and cement benches provide rest and moments for contemplation.
The second garden is the Formal Mall Garden, with perennial flower borders and rare specimen Cycad ‘palms’. This garden connects the main home and the pool pavilion.
The third garden is the gorgeously scented Rose Garden. Each morning, staff would select a single rose to place on Virginia’s breakfast tray in a bud vase. After she finished her meal, she would take the rose to place in her hair and “fashion” her daily outfit around the colors of the rose. How much did I love that story?!
Fourth in line is the Kitchen Garden or Potager, with vegetables and an Herb Garden. This garden had the animal cages in it for the roosters, hens, and (at one time) a monkey. When the Robinsons were in residence, there were also cats and turtles roaming the grounds.
Lastly, there is the Tropical Australian King Palm Forest, reportedly the largest King Palm grove in the continental United States. Within this tropical paradise, one can also come across varieties of Ginger, Banana, and Plumeria (my favorite!).
When Virginia died in 1977 at 99 years old, she bequeathed the estate to Los Angeles County. Today, the County, along with the non-profit Friends Of Robinson Gardens, preserve the property as part of Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation. The gardens are a bustling place these days; Classes are offered in such areas as “Botanical Illustration,” social events and galas are held annually, lectures are provided, and docent-led tours continue weekly.
Two of the most unique tidbits I gleaned on my visit were that Mrs. Virginia Robinson was quite the dancer, and would cover the pool with a dance floor so that guests could dance along with her. Also, she loved weddings, and she would purchase the wedding dress of choice for anyone in her employ. You go girl!