The fates of great estates in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel-Air are often tragic. Too often, the original owner lavished wealth and personal attention on the creation of a showplace in the 1920s and 1930s, constructing a magnificent mansion to exacting standards, laying out beautiful and expansive grounds, and entertaining on a grand—and occasionally notorious—scale.
A generation later, however, the next owner often disregarded—even belittled—all of the time, care, and money that originally went into the estate. Architectural tastes had changed in the intervening years. What was once considered a masterpiece was often considered old-fashioned, even ugly and unwieldy.
New owners often modernized the mansion, usually badly. Other times, the owners had dollar signs in their eyes and sold off significant portions of the estate grounds as home sites. And sometimes, an owner demolished the mansion itself so that its site could be subdivided.
Such a fate befell legendary estates including Thomas H. Ince’s Dias Dorados, E. L. Cord’s Cordhaven, George and Gertrude Lewis’s Hill Grove, and too many others.
But, miraculously, it did not happen to one of the greatest estates ever constructed in Holmby Hills. And that miracle came courtesy of a most surprising new owner during the 1970s, a time when once-prized estates, including this Charing Cross residence, faced great peril.
The story of this Charing Cross estate starts in the mid-1920s when Arthur Letts Jr. decided to move from Hancock Park to Holmby Hills. That was understandable. In 1923, his late father, had sold the 3,300-acre Wolfskill Ranch to Edwin and Harold Janss, and the two brothers (Harold had married Gladys Letts) were developing most of the property as Westwood. The Letts family was a partner in the development.
The most desirable portion of the ranch was the 400-acre parcel, just west of Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles Country Club, and on both sides of Sunset Boulevard. That gently rolling land would be transformed into the high-end Holmby Hills estate community by the Holmby Corporation, which was part of the Janss Investment Co.
Never one for half-hearted gestures, Arthur Letts Jr. decided to create the grandest estate in Holmby Hills. After all, he was his father’s only son, and he proudly carried his name. He was president of Broadway department stores before its sale in 1926. He was president of the Holmby Corporation, and he wanted to demonstrate his faith in the new community, just as the Rodeo Land & Water Company investors had constructed their mansions in largely empty Beverly Hills a decade earlier.
On September 13, 1926, Letts purchased a 4.5-acre parcel from the Janss Investment Co. and Holmby Corporation. The property was not only the largest in Holmby Hills, it had arguably the best location, on a rise overlooking the golf course, and views of Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles. Because of its placement on the property, the Letts mansion boasted a magnificent driveway that wound several hundred yards up the hill to the motor court, with a secondary entrance on a different street. No other Holmby Hills residence claimed such an impressive entry.
For his architect, Letts selected Arthur R. Kelly, who was best known for his formal English Tudor residences with stone façades. English Tudor, which was very popular in fashionable East Coast and Midwestern suburbs in the 1920s, implied wealth, tradition, and propriety. The style also appealed to Letts, because Holmby Hills was named for the English village of Holmby, where his father had been born.
Letts didn’t waste any time starting his 14,000-square-foot mansion. In late 1926, Kelly completed plans for the residence. By February 1927, the mansion’s stone walls were nearly finished. By late 1927, the exterior was complete, and craftsmen were finishing the interior. By early 1928, the Letts family had moved in.
The Letts mansion was one of the most successful examples of 1920s English Tudor—a style that is more of a transplant than a genuine expression of Southern California’s climate, topography, and traditions. Ceilings, however, tend to be lower than those in other homes, and the use of Tudor-inspired leaded glass windows meant that rooms lack abundant light and the best views of gardens and views.
With its rough-cut stone façade, the sprawling Letts mansion was imposing yet inviting, unlike the Doheny family’s monolithic and “frosty” Greystone. It was made more appealing by its asymmetrical, H-shaped layout; many bay windows and oriels, which broke up the stone façade; and the varied, slate-covered, pitched rooflines accented by crenellated towers and tall, double chimneys.
The mansion’s interior was eclectic, in keeping with the 1920s taste for mixing different styles and eras. On the first floor, the living room was virtually an Old English stage set: wood-paneled walls hung with tapestries; a large, carved-stone fireplace; several bay windows with leaded glass; ceilings with rich, Jacobean-inspired plasterwork; and plenty of reproduction Jacobean furniture.
The dining room, by contrast, with its paneled walls, fireplace, and reproduction furniture, had a definite early-18th-century Georgian spirit. The seven second-floor bedrooms, and particularly the master suite, were decorated in a 1920s French style. The master bathroom—which boasted a huge rectangular freestanding black and white marble bathtub—combined 1920s French and Art Deco inspirations.
The mansion’s pièce de résistance was the two-story Great Hall with its oak paneling, upper-level minstrels’ gallery, two-story-tall windows overlooking the back terraces and golf course, Italian marble floor, and richly carved double staircase leading to the second floor. The Great Hall was meant as a setting for large parties and dancing—entertainments that definitely changed over the years, as tastes changed and new owners purchased the estate. The grounds of the Letts estate were equally impressive.
When the Letts family sold off their showplace Hollywood estate in early 1927, Arthur Letts Jr. transported many of his father’s rare specimen trees—and even the greenhouse—to his new Holmby Hills estate. Mature trees were planted along the property’s north and west boundaries to shield the mansion from view.
Over the next three decades, Arthur Letts Jr. lived at his Charing Cross Road estate—managing his real estate investments, pursuing charitable activities, and hosting parties for his extended family. By the time of his death in 1959, he could take pride that the family’s development of Westwood was a great success, and that Holmby Hills had become one of Southern California’s finest neighborhoods.
In 1961, Louis Statham purchased the Letts estate. He had long admired the property, and the price was certainly right: $110,200.Statham was often described as a “scientist and industrialist,” but that hardly captured the scope of his professional and personal interests. Head of Statham Instruments, he invented important equipment for oil exploration, as well as for rockets and satellites in those early years of space exploration. On the medical front, he invented blood-flow meters and patient-monitoring devices.
Statham told friends that he did some of his best “creative thinking” while strolling the estate grounds. Louis Statham and his wife, Anne, were well known for their frequent parties at the estate, which they renamed Statham House. Both loved music—she was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Music Center—and they hosted parties for opera, chamber music, and choral events in the Great Hall. At one event, Louis himself sang a selection from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
In 1971, the remarkable happened. Twice. First, the Arthur Letts-Louis Statham estate sold for $1.05 million, a record-breaking sale price for a Los Angeles home at the time. Second, the buyer was Playboy Enterprises, Inc. Needless to say, the estate’s immediate neighbors—indeed, all of Holmby Hills—were up in arms. Visions of nonstop bacchanalian revels and debauchery, which would corrupt the prestigious neighborhood, danced in everyone’s heads.
Playboy Enterprises was an astonishing phenomenon in America in the mid-20th-century. This media and entertainment empire got its start in 1953, a time when every girl was supposed to be a virgin, when every woman was supposed to be a wife and mother, and when movie and television censors still put married couples in separate twin beds.
The new Playboy magazine gleefully thumbed its nose at all of that conventionality and conservatism.