A Japanese Palace Hidden in the Hollywood Hills

When I first turned off Franklin onto Sycamore in Hollywood…

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I honestly didn’t expect to find anything other than the usual tangle of homes clinging precariously to the hills.

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So as I drove up North Sycamore…

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…I was a bit surprised to find a steep set of stairs climbing up the hill to my left…

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…leading to what appeared to be a Japanese-style gate:

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As I drove past, I noticed that the stairs continued up the hill behind the gate, and I remember wondering just how high they went.

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As it turns out, I think you could safely say it’s one of the taller staircases in Los Angeles.

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Pictured above is the Bernheimer estate, built in 1914 and consisting of a palatial hilltop mansion and gardens inspired by Japanese and Chinese architecture and design. Miraculously, it’s still there over a century later:

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Operating today as Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant, this was once a private home built by brothers Adolph and Eugene Bernheimer, German immigrants/brothers with familial roots in a successful New York-based importing operation.

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In their travels across the world, the brothers had amassed a large collection of Asian antiques and artwork, and wished to display them in an appropriately-styled home. According to legend, the design for their hilltop mansion came from a palace the brothers had seen on a trip through the mountains around Kyoto (though as with most legends about the property, you should probably take this with a grain of salt).

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Inside, the house was centered around a courtyard…

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Click here to view Yamashiro’s full collection of historical photos

…which still exists today. And though the layout of the garden is different…

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…the very same pools are still in use for the fish pond:

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The 10-room interior was unbelievably opulent, covered in intricate cedar and teak woodwork…

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Click here to view Yamashiro’s full collection of historical photos

…and decorated with the brothers’ collection of tapestries, silks, and antiques:

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Click here to view Yamashiro’s full collection of historical photos

Though much was changed in its transition to a restaurant, the entrance hall, pictured below…

01Click here to view Yamashiro’s full collection of historical photos

…offers visitors today a pretty good sense of the Bernheimers’ life here in the early 1900s:

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Equally impressive were the tiered gardens descending the hill, which included a sprawling miniature Japanese village…

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…featuring historical recreations, such as the battle for Nagoya Castle, pictured below:

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Perhaps best known is the 600-year-old pagoda…

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…which was once situated on a small pond filled with rare black Australian swans:

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Sadly, as the property changed hands, the gardens were significantly altered/reduced/vandalized over the years. However, the pagoda remains in place to this day, the pond having been converted into a pool.

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A close-up of what is often referred to as the oldest structure in Los Angeles:

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A number of landscaped paths still crisscross the upper hill, and I’d love to know which integrate elements of the original gardens.

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You can also visit the Buddha statue (though please obey the sign):

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As it happens, the Bernheimers only lived at their estate for a short time. Growing anti-German sentiment due to the outbreak of World War I led many locals to question the true allegiance of the strange foreigners who lived on the hill in their fortress-like residence.

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The brothers tried everything to assuage their neighbors’ concerns, including the purchase of a $5,000 war bond and inviting an FBI agent and a newspaper reporter to inspect their home, but nothing seemed to work. They moved out, and the property was sold in 1924.

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The Bernheimers’ Japanese palace has since served a ludicrous number of functions over the ensuing years, including as an elite social club called The 400 Club, a military school for boys, an apartment building, possibly a brothel, a bar, and today, as restaurant (and popular filming location) Yamashiro. It’s only thanks to current owners the Glover family, who purchased the property in 1948 with the intention to tear it down, that it even still exists. You can read a full history in this fantastic KCET piece.

That the property wasn’t bulldozed decades ago for a few more hillside houses is nothing short of a miracle, and if you have a chance, take a peek while you can. You never know how long these things will be around…

-SCOUT

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One comment

  1. Hey, I remember you doing then and now for NYC movies in ScoutingNY. What about LA? Specifically, “Mulholland Dr.”, since I just watched it over the holidays and it looks like there are many scenes where you just “can’t get there from there”