September 19, 2018

Yamashiro: The mountain palace built by Jews

Yamashiro, the famous Hollywood restaurant with a Japanese-style building and name, served its last meal by its longtime owners recently, before changing hands and reopening under a new operator. The venue has long been known to generations of Angelenos and tourists as an Asian-fusion restaurant with a hilltop view of Hollywood and beyond, but what is less known is that the building and terraced grounds, both historic cultural landmarks, were the creation of two German Jewish middle-aged bachelors, Adolph and Eugene Bernheimer.

Walking the paths and stairs of Yamashiro’s surrounding gardens, stopping to take a photo of the site’s more than 600-year-old imported Japanese pagoda, or its giant golden Buddha, a visitor wonders how this “mountain palace,” as the name Yamashiro means in Japanese, came to be. Originally the Bernheimer residence, it was completed in 1914, when Hollywood still had orchards and fields. The Los Angeles Times, describing the main villa in 1914 as both a “Wonder-house of California,” and a “feudal fortress with a metropolitan setting,” noted the “striking strangeness of it all.”

The Bernheimer brothers, Eugene Elija (1865-1924) and Adolph Leopold Avraham (1866-1944), were born in Ulm, Germany, and came to the United States in 1888. Their father, Leopold, was in the dry goods business. Along with their brother Charles (1864-1944), at the turn of the century they were the principal owners of Bear Mill Manufacturing Company of New York, a maker of cotton products and an exporter-importer of “Oriental goods” for the American market, which made them wealthy. In 1904, a list of members and contributors of United Hebrew Charities of New York includes Eugene and Adolph in both categories.

Adolph Bernheimer 1943

Traveling extensively throughout Asia, Adolph and Eugene developed a taste for Chinese and Japanese art and began to collect it. Much of their history was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, and the building is also on the list of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments. 

The brothers arrived in Los Angeles in 1911, and in 1913 they purchased from prominent developer Hobart J. Whitley seven acres of hillside property overlooking the former Rollins estate, which today is the site of the Magic Castle. The brothers hired New York architect Franklin M. Small (with supervising local architect Walter Webber) to design an appropriate house to exhibit their growing collection of Asian art. Completed in 1914, it preceded the nearby Asian-inspired Chinese Theatre, which opened in 1926.

Japanese craftsmen lived in tents on the property’s hillside while helping to build the house and gardens, according to Tom Glover, whose father bought the building and surrounding property from Leo Post and Bernard Brown in 1948, and whose family only recently sold it. The building was authentically Japanese, Glover said, and designed after a temple near Kyoto. The Department of the Interior application notes “the design [is a] prominent example of orientalism as applied to architecture,” and “is based on seventeenth-century Japanese architectural traditions.”

Yet, it also had touches that were modern for its time, including hot water and vacuum systems. “A lot of the interior,” selected by Adolph Bernheimer, “was supplied by a Kyoto art dealer,” Glover added.

In an article in the Times on Nov. 15, 1914, a writer exhorts the charms of the “Japanese Villa.” Adolph’s den is described as “done in red silk, with a dazzling painting of a woman” predominating. There was also a bedroom light (we don’t know whose) and an electrolier in the form of an “inverted athlete swinging from a trapeze.”

The main house was square and two stories high, with its exterior clad in Japanese-inspired half-timbering and smooth white stucco. There were two wings with living quarters — one for each brother. In a touch of what the Times in 1914 called “sinister romance,” the newspaper reported it was “rumored” that the brothers had “made a pact that no women shall ever enter the place as an invited guest.” Dispelling that rumor, however, the Aug. 11, 1915, edition of the Los Angeles Herald reported that “Marcus M. Marks, president of the borough of Manhattan, Greater New York City, and his wife and family” and “[Los Angeles] Mayor and Mrs. [Charles] Sebastian” were invited as “guests of Eugene and Adolph Bernheimer, at their Hollywood villa.”

Creating for their mountain palace a movie-like setting, the terraced grounds were filled with lush gardens, waterfalls, goldfish and a private zoo of exotic birds and monkeys. Miniature bronze houseboats floated along tiny canals and through a miniature Japanese village.

The Bernheimers had succeeded in raising the flag of Asian art and design in L.A., but their own foreign backgrounds flagged a different kind of attention. With the rise of strong anti-German sentiment during World War I (a rise in anti-Semitism may have played a role, as well), the German-born brothers were suspected of some kind of espionage up in their serene foreign-looking retreat. “For weeks, ever since war was declared,” read a piece in the Herald on April 25, 1917, “it has been a favorite pastime of rumor circulators to proclaim the home as an arsenal. … A thorough search at the request of Mr. [Adolph] Bernheimer disclosed nothing of more importance than the usual appurtenances of a well-ordered home.”

Perhaps to stop the suspicions, in 1918 each brother bought a $5,000 Victory Bond. In 1921, their home was “thrown open to the public,” as the article in the Times put it, for the Committee of Foreign Relief to conduct an afternoon and evening benefit “for the children of Poland and Serbia.”

Around 1924, apparently still upset over the war-time suspicions, as well as the city’s building an unsightly water tower behind their home, the Bernheimers sold their palace.

In 1924, Eugene, living in San Francisco as a “retired capitalist,” died unexpectedly. (Both brothers are buried in the Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn along with other prominent Jewish families like the Guggenheims and Shuberts). In Eugene’s will, the millionaire, in addition to leaving bequests for family members as well as his nurse, left $5,000 to the Jewish Philanthropic Society of New York. In 1925, with much of the brothers’ art collection and furnishings having been auctioned off, Adolph’s attention turned to the Pacific Palisades, where he had purchased from Alphonso E. Bell an ocean-view property for another Asian-themed project called Bernheimer Oriental Gardens, turning it into a tourist attraction where, as the brochure said, “the Orient Meets the Occident.” But this project lost favor during World War II due to anti-Asian feelings and because Adolph was of German heritage. By the early 1950s, all of the structures were demolished.

In the 1920s, the Yamashiro property became headquarters for the “400 Club,” whose members included Hollywood’s motion-picture elite, such as actors Lillian Gish and Ramon Novarro. Later in the ’20s, it became a brothel, and during the Depression, tours of the garden were offered for 25 cents.

During World War II, after Pearl Harbor and with the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment, the Yamashiro house and gardens were vandalized and many of the decorative elements were stripped. Yamashiro’s distinctive Asian architecture was disguised and the estate became a boys military school.

By the time Glover’s father purchased the property, the house had been turned “into an apartment house,” according to Tom Glover. “He began to tear off all the coverings; he was going to tear it down, but when he started to pull off all the sheetrock, underneath was silk wallpapers and carved wood,” said Glover, who recalls at age 9 helping to dig sewer lines on the property. Eventually, his father won a liquor license in the state’s lottery, opened a little bar, and as the place grew in popularity, he opened up more rooms.

 “Gray Line tours, sometimes six buses a night, would come up,” recalled Glover, who for several years lived in an apartment on the property that had been fashioned from the monkey house. By 1972, Tom Glover had taken over and started serving food along with the drinks.

This year, Yamashiro was sold for nearly $40 million to the JE Group of Beijing, “a hotel operator known for refurbishing historic properties on its home turf,” according to the Times. There will be few changes to the site, except for sprucing up the aging buildings, Kang Jianyi, chairman of JE, told the Times.

Yet, on June 12, the restaurant closed. Glover said it “will be taken over by another operator.” 

“I didn’t want to sell,” said Glover, who managed the restaurant for 50 years. His extended family had gone to court and forced the sale.

Over the years, he added, Yamashiro has also “been the location for many bar mitzvah parties and Jewish weddings.”

It’s “been heartbreaking to leave,” he said.

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.