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GARDENS : Garden With a Past : A Hollywood Historian Restores the Grotto at Wolff's Lair

May 29, 1988|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

BUILT in the 1920s by L. Milton Wolff, the developer of Hollywoodland, Wolff's Lair is a storybook castle of a house. It was one of several homes that set the fantastic tone for the development that left us with at least one other landmark structure--the Hollywood sign (which originally spelled out "Hollywood land "). Wolff's Lair's cone-topped turrets suggest a French origin, but the inspiration for the garden behind it is Italian; it's a grotto, perhaps the most bizarre of garden constructions. A series of terraces wraps around a tall waterfall that partially obscures a cave, and that's the feature that qualifies the garden style as a grotto (although that word has come to mean just about any slightly uncommon use of stone).

The stonework, constructed by a man who is said to have lived a hermit's life behind the Hollywood sign, is the single most striking feature of the garden. He is apparently the same builder who erected the massive, granite Hollywoodland roadside retaining walls. For the grotto, he used granite capped with slate. Here and there the stonework projects outward, providing ledges for seating and for pots of flowers. The decking around the pool consists of stone covered with a crazy-quilt pattern of multicolored slate.

The present owner of Wolff's Lair, Bob Crane--a former realtor and the co-author of "Hollywood: Land and Legend," a history of the area--has been continuing the restoration and replanting begun by the previous owner, who rescued it from neglect. For many years Wolff's Lair had been rental property, and the most recent tenant had kept ducks in the pool.

According to Crane, Wolff was a "great romantic" and had the distinctive pool designed in a heart shape. The heart was broken, however, during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, and after repairs it was somewhat lopsided. Models of the moon and the planet Venus dangle from a device high above the water. Illuminated at night, they appear as though they are actually in the sky.

Few of the original plantings remain. Crane found stumps of old Italian cypress, and he planted more on the ridge to stand silhouetted against the sky. He is also training xylosma, a glossy-leaved shrub, along the top of the ridge, in horizontal planes that mimic the stonework. Most of the other plantings are present to provide year-round color. Benches surround the pool area, and in one corner they jut out to offer their occupants a view of Lake Hollywood and its remarkable dam, downstream from the garden. A less breathtaking view but equally as dramatic is the one from the dining room, where a window was proportioned and built to frame the grotto perfectly.

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