If all the grand schemes for development in the 1920’s had come to fruition, Hollywood would have been literally covered by a group of gigantic luxury hotels, each vying to out-colossal the other in over-the-top grandeur and sheer vastness in size. While most of these grandiose projects were torpedoed by the Great Depression, the elaborate and ill-fated Hollywood-California seems to have toppled over entirely on its own hugeness. Like Violet Beauregarde, the little girl who blew up into a giant blueberry in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Hollywood-California started out one size and then grew progressively bigger and bigger and BIGGER in its plans until it became so untenably gargantuan the whole project fell apart under the crushing weight of its equally gargantuan costs.
It certainly was an interesting venture to be sure. First announced in 1922, the Hollywood-California was to be built on one of Hollywood’s most historic and picturesque sites, a multi-acre sloping parcel at the northeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Streets running to Bronson Avenue, a tract known as the “Brokaw” property.
Without even a street named after him to perpetuate his memory today, John B. Brokaw is one of Hollywood’s forgotten “founding fathers.” He was, in fact, here from the very beginning not only witnessing, but helping to shape Hollywood’s destiny in its rise from bucolic ranch land to film capital of the world. A successful carriage manufacturer from Ohio, Brokaw first came to the Valley of the Cahuengas either in 1886 or 1888 (sources differ) and was so impressed by its natural beauty that he purchased, at $250 an acre, thirty acres of foothill land at the mouth of what is today’s Beachwood Canyon. For several years, he did nothing with the property, having returned back home to his family and his business in Ohio, but in 1892 he was back, drilling artesian wells and setting out two and a half acres in lemons. Lemons, as it turned out, loved Hollywood and thrived wonderfully in the gentle “Frostless Belt” along the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountain range. Other ranchers were doing the same as Brokaw and within a few years Hollywood was transformed into a veritable valley of fragrant lemon trees. In 1894, Brokaw expanded his lemon grove by an additional ten acres at what was then Prospect and Gower and amidst this fragrantly beautiful setting, he and his wife Ida, built a handsome Victorian home at 539 East Prospect Avenue (6029 Hollywood Boulevard).
By 1922, the Brokaws had long since relocated elsewhere with the area around their once rural home place now a rapidly growing residential and commercial district. John and Ida Brokaw were not sentimentalists and they became partners in the syndicate to build a mammoth hotel on their property. In doing so they joined a stellar group of backers that included such Hollywood heavyweights as Hal Roach, William C. De Mille, Fred Niblo, Charles H. Christie, Benjamin B. Hampton, A.Z. Taft Jr., and Dr. Edwin O. Palmer. Local developer/realtor Noel Davenport was the president of the group and served as its principal spokesperson throughout the next few years.
Well known Los Angeles architect Harry Hayden (H.H.) Whiteley was engaged by the syndicate to draw up plans for the hotel, which was budgeted at an eye-popping $3,500,000, a huge figure for the day that would ultimately be only a fraction of the hotel’s final estimated costs. Whiteley’s unusual design for the Hollywood-California was described as a combination of Spanish and Italian, but it looked almost Mayan (or perhaps more appropriately Babylonian) in its overall appearance with four stair-stepped wings, each with hanging gardens, rising pyramid-like from a central ten-story core. The spaces between the wings would be landscaped with “extensive gardens,” no doubt utilizing some of the lush lemon groves and other exotic plantings already on the property. Whiteley’s plans called for a 717-room structure broken up into units ranging from single hotel rooms to elaborate two-story penthouse apartments with their own private terraces. The grand public facilities would include a three-story lobby, two dining rooms (one with a dance floor), an auditorium, a palm room, and twenty shops as well as a “gigantic” garage directly accessible to the main building.
As grand as it was, Whiteley’s plan for the Hollywood-California was apparently not grand enough and he was soon replaced by another architect, this time Charles F. Whittlesey. The venerable Whittlesey knew a thing or two about hotel architecture having designed the world-famous El Tovar on the rim of the Grand Canyon as well as Downtown’s Auditorium and Pasadena’s Wentworth (Huntington) just to name a few. In reviewing Whittlesey’s plans it appears that no matter who the architect was, the syndicate apparently had a set of must-haves, which included the requirement that (1) the hotel be in the shape of a cross with four wings spiking out from a central core, (2) that it look really weird and continue with the sort of Mayan Temple theme; and (3) that it cost much, much more than the previous design. To these ends, Whittlesey appears to have delivered on all counts.
The newly enlarged version of the Hollywood-California was expanded to 1002 rooms, broken up into 341 apartments. Whittlesey retained not only the concept of the 4 wings, but Whiteley’s penthouse apartments as well, topping off the structure with a bizarre set of domes of dubious purpose. Downstairs would be three restaurants, sixteen shops, a large ballroom modestly described as the “most beautiful in America,” four smaller ballrooms, and “the smartest spoken-drama theatre in the country.” The cost for what was touted as “the world’s finest and smartest hostelry” was now a very pricy $5,000,000, but this was still too modest a figure as it turned out.
Within just a few months of the announcement of Whittlesey’s plans, the syndicate changed their minds again. Out went Whittlesey and his weirdly domed hotel and in came Aleck Curlett and Claude Beelman, among the city’s most prominent architectural teams of the period. Curlett & Beelman were able to convince the syndicate to give up the Mayan Temple look and go for the then-popular French Chateau, but could not dissuade them from the 4 wing plan. Although it was, in this writer’s opinion, the most attractive of the three versions, it still comes off as just too massive to be graceful, sort of a castle on steroids that does not compare favorably with some of the well-known chateauesque structures subsequently built around Los Angeles such as Fred Horowitz’s Chateau Marmont, Arthur Harvey’s Chateau Elysee or Richard D. King’s Villa Riviera in Long Beach. But gargantuan not graceful appeared the order of the day and Curlett & Beelman’s ginormous chateau filled the bill and added yet another million to the costs.
The last million may have been the proverbial straw that broke the Hollywood-California’s back. Two weeks before construction was to begin in June 1924, Noel Davenport smugly announced that “Our financial program is in excellent condition.” It wasn’t. Not a spadeful of earth turned at the planned time of construction, or ever, on the Hollywood-California, with its public stock offering failing to attract enough investors and its $2,500,000 bond issue falling apart in record time. The Brokaw property, considered among the most valuable single pieces of land in Hollywood at the time, stayed as it was until 1930, when instead of a mammoth hotel, “the finest in the world,” the property became a miniature golf course.