Library of Congress, Historic American Building Survey, Tavo Olmos, photographer, September 2005
Canadian Edward Huntsman-Trout was considered a child prodigy when he entered college at the University of California, Berkeley in 1909. Interested in science, especially botany, he became intrigued with the new discipline of landscape architecture. Transferring to Harvard (1913-15), he studied with masters in the field and apprenticed with leading east coast practitioners. In 1920 Huntsman-Trout returned to Southern California and was hired by the prestigious Beverly Hills Nursery, a company popular with the newly affluent of Hollywood. The young Huntsman-Trout opened his own Beverly Hills firm in 1936 becoming one of the region’s earliest landscape architects. (Streathfield. California Gardens: Creating A New Eden, 1994)
The firm's first major design project was a 1936 collaboration with Paul R. Williams on Morris Landau’s 14-room mansion in Holmby Hills. With similar design philosophies both designers stressed the relationship of a building to its natural setting. Williams’ goal was to incorporate every view into his architectural plans. "I like to see gardens tied into a home, designed to enhance the rooms themselves with exciting, green open spaces." (Los Angeles Times. October 11, 1970) Huntsman-Trout’s philosophy was to harmonize the site’s natural properties with the proposed architectural design. “Lots of people look upon us as decorators of gardens, but our main purpose is to arrange space and volume for use. … If you want flat land don’t buy a hillside.” (Los Angeles Times. May 13, 1956)
Who was their client Morris Landau and how was he able to establish himself so quickly in Los Angeles’ café society? Described by his family as a canny self-made man who parlayed $50 into a complex financial empire, Landau kept the real sources of his wealth quiet. (Arthur. It’s Been a Wonderful Life, 2005) Landau, variously described in the press as English or South African, arrived in Los Angeles via London in October 1935. (Los Angeles Times. November 22, 1936) The 63-year-old tycoon was accompanied by Evelyn, his beautiful and much younger wife. Immediately the couple made an impression on the powerful of Los Angeles. Society writers breathlessly described Evelyn’s impressive diamond collection, speculating Morris was the scion of an old South African gold-mining family or a diamond magnate. Financial journalists ventured Landau was an international merchant and managing partner for an important London shipping firm. No one was certain. (St. Petersburg Times. August 28, 1937)
In 1936 Landau purchased property in Holmby Hills for $30,000. Developed by the Janss Investment Company in the 1920s, the area was described in marketing brochures as The Ultimate Residential Development. With multi-acre lots, tree-lined streets and custom English-style street lamps the development provided every new mansion and owner with the patina of old money. The 10,000 square-foot Georgian Revival-style residence Williams designed with its complementary Huntsman-Trout landscape fit well with its neighbors. (images 6-8)
Soon after moving into their new home the Landau marriage fell apart. Evelyn went to Reno and sued Morris for divorce — charging him with “mental and physical cruelty.” The extended Landau family speculated that Evelyn had originally insisted on Los Angeles as their American home because of the state’s generous community property law regarding divorces. To defend his millions Landau hired famed California lawyer Jerry Geisler, known as “lawyer to the movie stars." In the court's final decree Evelyn was awarded her diamonds (valued at more than $100,000), $10,000 cash and $1,000 a week for 100 weeks. Published photos at the time show “abused Evelyn” surrounded by trays of her settlement gems.
Landau continued to live in his Holmby Hills residence and was the first of its many wealthy owners. In 2005 the entire property was sold to neighboring Harvard Westlake, a private school, for campus expansion. “We tried as best we could to incorporate the house, but the rooms are fairly small. They weren’t at all conducive to classroom space.” (Preservation: The Magazine of the National Trust For Historic Preservation. December 13, 2005) Pressed by preservationists the school ultimately sold the residence for $1 to a couple who pledged to move it to a new location in Pasadena. Deconstructed, divided into 26 sections and moved on flatbed trucks, the house is in its final stages of reconstruction. The new owners hope to have it completed in 2012.