In Beverly Hills’ early decades, the estate owners’ great fortunes usually came from oil, real estate development, or motion pictures. But there were a few high-profile exceptions, one of whom was Nebraska-born Oscar B. English, who made his millions in gypsum, an essential ingredient in wallboard, plaster, cement, even blackboard chalk. He was a major stockholder in the Chicago-based U.S. Gypsum Company, and he served as its chairman.
Like so many Midwestern businessmen, English moved his family to Beverly Hills after his retirement. Not just any large home or estate, however, would meet his exacting standards. In December 1926, he purchased an impressive eleven-acre parcel between Foothill Road and Alpine Drive. The property stretched from a full block fronting Sunset Boulevard hundreds of feet into the foothills until it met the southern boundary of the twenty-six-acre Kirk Johnson (formerly Thomas Thorkildsen) estate at the top of Alpine Drive. Very few properties in Beverly Hills had such a grand scale, and Oscar and his wife, Alice, planned a mansion that would do justice to that grandeur.
The couple was fond of the English Tudor style, because it conveyed dignity and propriety. It was also a popular style in the fashionable suburban areas north of Chicago where they had lived previously. They hired architect Arthur R. Kelly, who was a leading practitioner of the style. Kelly designed a two-story, slate-roofed mansion with distinctive rough-hewn stone walls, first-floor bay windows, and a picturesque roofline with gables, dormer windows, and tall, stone-clad chimneys. An elaborate wrought-iron gate with various English Tudor motifs opened into the estate from Alpine Drive.
Inside the mansion, Kelly created an Old English fantasy. Most of the main rooms were paneled in wood from floor to ceiling, and most of the windows were leaded or stained glass. The ceiling plasterwork replicated Elizabethan and Jacobean styles. Much of the furniture looked as if it had come from an ancestral castle. (In reality, it had been manufactured in one of the California workshops that specialized in “antiques.”)
Other Beverly Hills mansions were larger and more expensive than the English residence, but the house nonetheless became an instant landmark after its 1930 completion, because it sat back from Sunset Boulevard on a gentle rise behind a vast lawn. Visible from several vantage points, the mansion dominated the streetscape.
The Oscar English residence also attracted attention because of its next door neighbor, the Arthur English residence, which was also completed in 1930. The two brothers had built side-by-side mansions on the eleven-acre property— Oscar took the west (Alpine Drive) side of the property, and Arthur constructed his home on the east (Foothill Road) side.
Surrounded by family and blessed with wealth and the pleasures of a showplace estate, Oscar and Alice seemingly had everything to live for. Sadly, Alice had suffered from painful and debilitating ill health for years, and she had contemplated suicide many times. Oscar had already had one nervous breakdown from worrying about his wife.
In October 1935, Alice finally decided to end her suffering and take her own life. Oscar, likewise, decided that he could not live without the woman he loved. Determined to prevent any suspicions about her death, and anxious to forestall any guilt her daughter and son-in-law might feel, Alice wrote several notes, which she left in the bedroom she shared with Oscar. One stated: “Because of ill health, I am not going to go on. Life is of no value under the difficult physical conditions I have had to endure for many years. Do not blame anyone. No one is to blame. My life is my own.”
In another note, she wrote: “I have never had health, and I will not go on longer as I have for years.” Oscar signed his name below hers. Oscar and Alice English chose the day—October 21, 1935—of their deaths quite carefully. Their daughter, Lucille, and her husband, John Cook, who lived in the mansion with them, were away on vacation. Oscar’s brother Arthur was out of town. Their two servants had the day off. They would not be accidentally discovered.
They would not be “rescued.” Oscar and Alice pinned a card on their bedroom door: “Call the police. Do not come in.” They locked the bedroom door, took poison, and lay down on their twin beds. Early the following morning, their butler found the card on their bedroom door and called the police. Because of their precautions, no one had any doubt that this was a double suicide.
Too grief-stricken to live in the home where her parents had died, Lucille and her husband put the estate on the market. In 1936, Algernon Kirtley Barbee, a soft-drink executive, purchased the estate, and then sold it the next year to Freeman F. Gosden, who played Amos on the Amos ’n Andy radio show. In 1941, Albert S. Rogell, who directed more than one hundred films from the 1920s to the 1950s, including many westerns and B movies, purchased the property.
By the mid-1950s, the large Oscar English estate and the adjacent Arthur English estate were glaring anomalies in a Beverly Hills where buyers wanted sleek, contemporary homes and where great estates were being subdivided into small building lots. The English estate was finally broken up and put on the market. The lawns in front of both mansions down to Sunset Boulevard were sold as six building lots.
Arthur English’s sumptuous Spanish-style mansion burned to the ground, and a new house was constructed on its site. Today, the Oscar English mansion and two and a half acres of grounds, including a portion of the once-enormous front lawn, are all that remain of the two brothers’ eleven-acre estate. Arthur English’s architectural tastes differed greatly from those of his brother and sister-in-law.
Rather than build another English Tudor residence next to brother Oscar’s home, he hired architect Roland E. Coate to design a large, handsome Spanish Colonial Revival mansion. Because the Foothill Road side of the property was slightly steeper than the Alpine Drive site, the Arthur English mansion also had more dramatic grounds, including extensive terraces and a rocky waterfall with a pond.
Oscar and Arthur were not the only English’s with Beverly Hills residences: the family had relocated to the city en masse. A third brother, Paul, built a grand Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, also designed by Coate, on Cove Way, behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and across the street from the home of Burton E. Green, father of Beverly Hills.