The Greystone Mansion
Posted on October 26, 2018
Last week one of our staff was selected to participate in an eight-day intensive seminar in classical architecture with the Institute for Classical Architecture. The program took place in Los Angeles, California, and the program was taught in the city’s famous Greystone Mansion. The course, as stated on the ICAA website, is meant “to introduce the participants to the ICAA’s core coursework’s in the classical orders, composition, proportion, drafting, observational drawing, and the literature of classical architecture.” Though he can better articulate his experiences—and we hope he will soon—I was intrigued by Greystone mansion and fascinated by what I learned about its history.
At the time of construction, the mansion was the largest private residence in southern California. Architect Gordon Kaufmann subdivided the incredibly large building into distinct wings with an asymmetrical plan. Designed in the English Tudor Revival style, steeply pitched gabled roofs, massive decorated chimneys, projecting window bays, and picturesque massing characterize the architecture. Built of reinforced concrete and clad with grey Indiana Limestone, the mansion has a solid and commanding presence, establishing the “Greystone” namesake.
Gothic details–typical of the English Tudor style–are seen throughout the design. Some of these include pointed arch motifs, intricately carved quatrefoil tracery, large expanses of glass set within stonework, and hammer beam trusses. However, there is an unusual juxtaposition of classical architectural elements woven into the design. Fully expressed classical orders, pedestals, round arch bays, balustrades, and urns are curiously positioned side-by-side with the Gothic features.
In addition to the English formal gardens, the property also includes a swimming pool, tennis court, fire station, and a man-made waterfall and lake. Dripping with detail, the interiors boast marble floors, hand-carved stone mantels, oak-ornamented banisters, and paneled walls. In addition to lavishly decorated rooms, other interior features include a bowling alley, movie theater, performance stage, and speakeasy.
The mansion’s patron and original owner was Edward L. Doheny, a wealthy oil and transportation tycoon in southern California. In his youth, Doheny traveled the country to pursue prospecting and mining opportunities in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Arizona, and New Mexico. In Kingston, New Mexico, Edward would meet two influential men who would play major roles in his life: Albert Fall and Charles Canfield.
Charles Canfield became Doheny’s best friend and close business partner. After enduring several years of financial struggles, Doheny followed Canfield to southern California in 1891. Together, they struck a well containing asphalt, which could be refined into valuable oil. Located at the corner of Patton and West State Streets, their discovery sparked a rush to find oil that would spread throughout the region.
While Doheny was financing new wells and pursuing business deals with nearby refineries, his eldest daughter Elleen passed away. His previous financial struggles combined with this tragedy led to his divorce from his first wife, Carrie Louella Wilkin. Doheny won custody of the couple’s six-year-old son, and Carrie committed suicide just a year later.
Doheny’s success grew when he convinced the major railroad companies to switch from coal to oil. This led to an oil boom in California in the early 1900s. At the same time, Doheny also pioneered oil production in Mexico. He drilled the first well in Mexico in 1901. In 1916, his company drilled the world’s largest oil-producing well. By 1919, he had added two oil-drilling companies in Mexico and Atlantic and Gulf Coast empires to his original holdings in California. He held 600,000 acres of land worth $50,000,000 in America and 800,000 acres more in Mexico. He then set his eyes to drilling in Venezuela and Colombia.
By the next year, Pan American was the largest oil company in the United States, and it was larger than its competitors, Sinclair Consolidated Oil Company and the Standard Oil Company of Indiana. Doheny’s Mexican Petroleum Company was the largest in Mexico–the largest oil producer in the world. The rise of the automobile industry only increased the demand for oil.
Overwhelmingly successful, Doheny found himself accused of bribery in what would be known as the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1930. Accused of giving a $100,000 bribe to the Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall to secure federal property in Wyoming, Doheny managed to escape conviction and was acquitted of all charges. Soon after, he sold all of his holdings outside of California to the Standard Oil Company of Indiana. He then sold the Greystone Mansion to his son, Edward “Ned” L. Doheny, Jr., for $10.
To further add to Doheny’s grief, his son Ned was killed in a murder-suicide. After evidence of a second bribe from Doheny to Fall was discovered, Hugh Plunkett killed Ned and then then turned the gun on himself. Originally hired to be the family’s chauffeur, Plunkett was Ned’s long-time secretary. Strangely, the police were called three hours after their fight was first heard. The details of the incident were never revealed, but Plunkett may have discovered Ned’s plan to have him institutionalized in hopes of excluding his testimony against Doheny, Sr.
Today, the mansion, once the setting of so much tragedy, is owned by the city of Beverly Hills. It is a familiar backdrop, having appeared in more than 200 films, including The Big Lebowski, Spider-Man, There Will Be Blood, Batman & Robin, The Witches of Eastwick, Indecent Proposal, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Air Force One, All of Me, and many more. The property and its estate is still available for rent.