There are scattered throughout Los Angeles what I would describe as semi-secret public places; mostly out-of-the-way settings, accessible to all, that evoke a simpler, more gracious time and an appreciation of the city's unusual landscape and benign climate.
It was these settings decades ago that lent Los Angeles a pastoral, genteel image, generating such descriptions as the New Eden or the American Riviera and attracting waves of settlers seeking a more relaxed and healthful life style. California dreamin'.
These pastoral public places seem more important now than ever, given the increasing problems in Los Angeles of insensitive development and gridlock. In addition to reminding us of the unique, semitropical setting of the city, they also, frankly, offer an escape from the present.
My list of these places is, happily, fairly extensive. Included is Will Rogers State Historic Park, north of Sunset Boulevard and west of Brentwood, particularly on the weekends when polo matches are held there; Palisades Park in Santa Monica, especially north of California Avenue about sunset; the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino; and a certain plot of sand edging the ocean at Manhattan Beach.
A recent addition to my list is the Virginia Robinson Gardens, tucked away behind a wall at the end of Elden Way in Beverly Hills. The house, pavilion, terraces and in particular the lush gardens that make up the 6.2-acre estate offer a marvelous view of the opulent early years of Beverly Hills.
The gracefully detailed one-story house was built in the spirit of a Mediterranean villa in 1911 for Harry and Virginia Robinson, of Robinson's department store fame. A neoclassical pool pavilion, styled after the Le Petit Trianon at Versaille, was added in 1924 to provide a formal setting for the couple's extensive social gatherings. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But for me, the major attraction of the estate are the gardens that Virginia Robinson shaped and cultivated during her 66-year residency. She died in 1977, a few days shy of her 100th birthday, leaving the estate to Los Angeles County for use as a public botanic garden. It is maintained and operated by the county Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens, with loving assistance from the volunteer Friends of Robinson Gardens.
To wander along the garden's footpaths, up and down its brick stairways and pause by its many fountains is to experience a botanical lexicon. Among the delights are clusters of camellias, a spectacular palm grove, stately cypresses, towering erythrinas and a rose garden. After the rains of last week the gardens should be particularly stunning, offering a rich display of colors and filling the air with fragances.
At the request of neighbors, the gardens are only open Tuesdays through Fridays for one-hour guided tours, beginning at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Reservations are a must: (213) 276-5367. Admission is $3 for adults; $2.25 for ages 62 and older and 5 to 17. Off-street parking available.
It is hoped that some day soon, in keeping with Virginia Robinson's wishes, the agreement with the county and Beverly Hills will be amended to have the gardens open on weekends.
On display every day, but especially Sunday, will be Boulder Road in Altadena, a street that could qualify as a semiprivate public place.
The out-of-the-way road, south from Altadena Drive to Braeburn Road, and many of the houses and gardens along it are encrusted with boulders that were washed down from the mountains above. The boulders create an engaging and unusual design element and lend the street an identity.
From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday the road will be the scene of a stroll, house tour and brunch organized by the Altadena Guild of Huntington Memorial Hospital to benefit the hospital. Tickets may be purchased in advance for $10 by calling (818) 791-5319 or for $12 on the street Sunday.
Because Boulder Road will be closed to vehicle traffic for the stroll, a shuttle will bring participants there from the lot at Federal Savings & Loan, Lake Avenue and Calaveras Street.