Annenberg Beach House: Hearst’s and Davies’ Beachside Love Nest
Maybe “Rosebud” was simply a longing for Hearst’s former magnificent beachside property located at 415 Pacific Coast Highway.
Perhaps one of the Westside’s best kept secrets, the Annenberg Community Beach house is a vibrant recreational center with gorgeous ocean views just north of Santa Monica State Beach. Ten bucks gets you a swim in the gorgeous, original 110-foot pool that is just steps away from the ocean. But this sprawling five acres of beachfront property wasn’t always so accessible—it was once the exclusive playground for some of LA’s most illustrious personalities.
Commissioned in 1920 by William Randolph Hearst for his mistress Marion Davies, the Annenberg Beach House saw more than its fair share of the Gold Coast era set. Together, Hearst and Davies entertained the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and others at the sprawling, 100+ room mansion. Movie star Harold Lloyd was a neighbor, as were other prominent producers and movie industry elites.
The pair lived in the home until 1942, shortly after the I-26 Japanese submarine shelled the U.S. freighter Cynthia Olson off a California coast. It was the first attack on a U.S. merchant ship in the war. Davies and Hearst left to yet another secluded love nest in the Northern California forest—Wyntoon—their beloved dachshunds in tow.
But before they left, they enjoyed years of opulence at the Santa Monica estate. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the main building:
Had palatial rooms decorated with imported fireplaces, English antiques and portraits of Davies in leading roles. The decoration was good taste; the architecture was good politics. A curved drive from the highway led to a semicircular porch that had a White House South Portico feeling. The front door opened to a double staircase inspired by the stairs at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where colonists had adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The ocean side of the house had 18 columns supporting a two-story porch. On the roof were windowed cupolas. The swimming pool, parallel to the house, was more Olympian than Virginian. Hearst adjusted its length several times and installed an arching bridge. He built a second pool in front of Morgan’s guest house along the estate’s western boundary. (Sam Watters)
Like the films of the time, the relationship between Davies and Hearst was awash in scandal and hearsay. There were rumors that Thomas Ince, the media mogul who owned studios located in the present-day Sony Studios and Culver Studios spaces, was a victim of foul play aboard Hearst’s yacht Oneida.
The official story was that he died of a heart attack after complaining about indigestion, but, well, this is Hollywood, and that just wasn’t good enough. Many believed that Ince was shot while trying to intervene in a scuffle between Chaplin (who was reportedly having an affair with Davies) and Hearst. Ah, the privilege of drama that wealth affords some…
Davies was a renowned model and silent film actress who broke into the business with her first movie, the 1917 flick Runaway Romany, which she herself wrote. In 1918, she starred in Cecilia of the Pink Roses, a film backed by Hearst’s production studio, Cosmopolitan studios. She was a success in her own right—even before she became part of the 30+ year power coupledom that was the Davies-Hearst union.
Davies, a former Ziegfield girl (just like Hearst’s wife, who wouldn’t give him a divorce even though she knew about the affair, because who would give up being Mrs. W.R. Hearst, right?), was also a prolific actress and businesswoman.
Davies and Hearst spent the majority of their time together at the San Simeon castle, but would often house guests or members of Davies’ family at the Santa Monica beach house location.
Our docent at the Marion Davies Guest House was a huge fan of Davies. Legacies was lucky enough to speak with Susan Freeman, a docent with the Annenberg Community Beach House who gives excellent tours of the Guest House, which was originally built adjacent to the main house. The guest house and the pool are the only remaining structures of the original, opulent property once nicknamed “Versailles on the Beach.” Why was it called that, you ask? (Hint: Tiffany and Murano chandeliers. Gold-leaf ceilings.)
“I usually like to start the tour by talking about three amazing women and ghosts,” began Freeman. She went on to describe how three women: Wallis Annenberg, Julia Morgan, and Marion Davies all factored into the allure of the place.
Wallis Annenberg, who had fond memories of the Sand & Sea club, donated 27.5 million to renovate the estate after the majority of the structures were destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
The Sand & Sea Club operated for thirty years as a private beach club from the early 1960s to 1990, when the City of Santa Monica shuttered it to make way for a new community house and hotel. Prior to its Sand & Sea Club days, the property at 415 Pacific Coast Highway operated as a hotel and club owned by real estate magnate Joseph Drown. (An unfortunate name for a beach club owner, we might add.) Davies had sold the estate to Drown in 1947 for the sum of $600,000. When business began to turn south sometime around the late 1950s, the property was sold to California State Parks.
Since we at Legacies of LA are specifically interested in architecture and design, there was no doubt that Julia Morgan, the architect who brought Hearst’s vision to life twice in San Simeon (Hearst Castle) and Santa Monica, piqued our interest.
Morgan is the first woman architect to ever be awarded the prestigious AIA medal and the first woman to study at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. Throughout her lifetime, she worked on over 700 projects that included not only the Hearst properties, but many prominent buildings all over the Bay Area, like the YWCAs in Oakland and San Francisco, the Mills College Belltower, the Fairmont Hotel, and many others. Morgan was also revolutionary for hiring and training women as architects, drafters, and other positions within the industry.
Freeman went on to describe the “ghosts” of the estate. The first, she mentioned, was the pool. And oh…the pool.
The 110 x 35 ft pool was made with Italian marble and a Greek key design motif that was in vogue at the time that the Georgian Revival style main house was built. But next to the Marion Davies guest house, there is a “ghost” of another pool. Now only sparkling blue glass fragments are visible, but the area was once home to a second, smaller pool.
Freeman also referred to the columns both behind the larger pool and along the beach-facing side of the property as “ghosts” because they represent the original dimensions of the property.
The Marion Davies Guest House gives us an idea of the sheer magnitude of elegance and craftsmanship that was put into the original main house. The space has been meticulously restored by Fred Fisher architecture to retain the original charm.
The original chandeliers were discovered in the basement of the property during one of the more recent remodelings! Gorge!
Julia Morgan’s designs show exquisite attention to detail. Notice the wave pattern underlying each step, a nod to the property’s beachfront location. Etchings in the stairwell add additional intrigue.
Fisher, the architect who renovated the guest house, made sure to retain certain characteristics of the original design. He kept the two-tone fireplace, for instance, and if you see a crack or a seam here and there throughout the home, you’ll know that that was by design. He wanted the property to maintain the old charm of its heyday—which includes a bit of imperfection.
The bathrooms upstairs were each made with gorgeous talc tile and featured intricate detailing. Our docent wasn’t certain if this was gold-leaf or copper, but either way, there’s no denying that luxury abounds in graceful touches here at the Davies Guest House…
In nearly every photo of the illustrious pair that is peppered throughout the home, Hearst looks positively smitten.
But perhaps what stood out most, for us, was the contribution of these three wonderful women: Davies, Morgan, and Annenberg. In addition to the larger than life Hearst, they were instrumental in making this little corner of the world historical. We hope that more and more stories like these, of the gifted women behind architecture and design, emerge.