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California Camelots

The state has long indulged an aesthetic that might best be described as suburbia meets castles of the Rhine. Mad King Ludwig would be proud.

November 20, 2005|Michael Webb | Michael Webb has written 20 books on architecture and design, most recently "Art/Invention/House" and "Adventurous Wine Architecture."

Forget Robin Hood, his Merry Men and idylls in Sherwood Forest--medieval life was nasty, brutish and short. The majority of the population bathed once a year, the front parlor was shared with livestock, and ailments from headaches to appendicitis were often treated by a good, long bloodletting.

Nevertheless, we love imagining bold knights riding out from castles, with their ladies waving a tearful farewell from high towers, and fantasize about besting the Black Knight at a jousting tournament, as did cinematic heroes from Errol Flynn to Orlando Bloom.

For centuries, castles were strictly functional, and their lofty stone walls and impregnable keeps--think of the Tower of London--were guaranteed to intimidate a lord's subjects and repel his enemies. About 500 years ago, improvements in artillery rendered that model obsolete, and it was gradually replaced by the kind of decorative fantasies preferred by Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria--and Walt Disney. Though L.A. came along too late to contribute to the Age of Chivalry, it can offer varied examples of both versions, plain and fancy.

The city's greatest (though sadly short-lived) castle was built in 1922 for a Douglas Fairbanks production of "Robin Hood." It rose 90 feet above Santa Monica Boulevard, two blocks west of La Brea, and glass shots (a forerunner of today's digital effects) made it seem even taller. The walls were painted to give them "ancestral respectability," an associate recalled, and moss and creepers were planted in the plaster's crevices. In "The Parade's Gone By," Kevin Brownlow recounts that Fairbanks returned from a trip to New York and threatened to shelve the movie, fearing he would be overwhelmed by the scale of the castle. Director Allan Dwan changed Fairbanks' mind by showing him how he could leap across the moat from a hidden trampoline, scale walls on nets concealed behind the creeper and slide down draperies from high balconies. The castle became a giant trapeze for an actor who delighted in doing his own stunts.

The "Titanic" of its day, the Fairbanks epic ran at the newly opened Egyptian Theatre for an unprecedented six months, with attendance boosted by a spear-carrier who paced the parapet declaiming, "Robin Hood in Hollywood." An operetta on the same theme was staged at the Hollywood Bowl in 1926, and architect Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) used part of the set to build a Mayan-style pyramid that served as the second orchestra shell the following summer.

Movies usually are credited--or blamed--for the flowering of fantasy in residential architecture, but the desire for self-expression is universal, and L.A. offered a blank canvas. Early settlers provided an inspiring example well before the first filmmakers arrived. Charles Fletcher Lummis, a Harvard-educated journalist who walked to L.A. from Ohio in 1884-'85 as a correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, later built a turreted river rock house in Highland Park. It now is home to the Historical Society of Southern California. The rusticated sandstone Stimson House in the South Adams District was created for another Midwestern emigre, lumber baron Thomas Stimson, while more familiar is the Magic Castle in Hollywood, a turreted mansion that's a private club for magicians and magic enthusiasts.

Historical revivalism peaked in the 1920s when architects were trained in the Beaux Arts tradition and traveled to study the great monuments of Europe. The most opulent of California castles is William Randolph Hearst's palatial castle in San Simeon, assembled from fragments scavenged in Europe and brought to California. Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, built by a wealthy Chicago lumberman and his wife, is an eccentric mix of castle styles from Norman to California mission.

Closer to home are Castle Ivar, a private residence best viewed from the Hollywood Freeway, and Benedict Castle in Riverside, which has been used as a seminary and a movie set and now is owned by Teen Challenge of Southern California. There's a strong hint of castle architecture in the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard and in the Normandy-style apartment blocks in West Hollywood and Hancock Park.

Probably the most visited castle is Sleeping Beauty's, the centerpiece of Disneyland. If you go there by taking the 405, you can stop to play a round of miniature golf at Malibu Castle Park in Redondo Beach. If you elect to take the I-5, you can watch a jousting tournament and grab a haunch from a serving wench at Buena Park's Medieval Times.

As any Realtor will confirm, an authentic castle is not the most desirable place to live. With difficult access, and moats instead of wet bars, they tend to be dark, drafty and dank. That hasn't stopped a few brave souls from building their own and sensibly combining historical flourishes with modern conveniences.

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