Marie Russak Hotchener and Moorcrest: The Theosophist Opera Singer and Her Architectural Fantasia

July 6, 2009 § 6 Comments

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Moorcrest/Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Moorcrest stands on a hill overlooking Beachwood Drive. Its hybrid Moorish-Mission architecture, imposing size and prominent location lead many people, even Beachwooders, to assume it is a public building rather than a home. When I was working on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” people kept asking if I had filmed the “temple”  on Temple Hill Drive. They were surprised when I told them it was called Moorcrest and always had been a private home. (The Theosophical Society’s actual temple–the Temple of the Rosy Cross–is now part of the Krotona Apartments on Alta Vista Street, just to the south.)

Those who know Moorcrest is a home tend to call it  “The Charlie Chaplin House.” While Chaplin did briefly live in Moorcrest, he was a renter and soon moved on, to a house he had his set builders construct for him (the infamously nicknamed “Breakaway House”) in Beverly Hills. 

If Moorcrest must be nicknamed for one of its owners, it should be called the Mary Astor house. Though it was her parents’ home, it was  Astor’s money that paid for it. (More on that, and the lawsuit her parents brought against her for Moorcrest’s upkeep, in a future post.) But no one ever calls it that. Perhaps Moorcrest should be nicknamed for its designer, who–along with Julia Morgan–was one of the few women of her generation to practice architecture. Unlike Morgan, who was trained in engineering at Berkeley before she went on to be the first woman accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Marie Barnard Smith Russak Hotchener, a Krotona Colony founder, had no formal architectural training. Like that of many Theosophists, Hotchener’s path to Beachwood was circuitous and colorful, but none surpassed hers in originality. The daughter of a Northern California judge, Marie Barnard studied music at Mills College and–as Marie Barna–became a Wagnerian opera singer whose career led her to Boston, New York and Europe.
marie barnard
Her 1899  marriage to a New York investment banker and society figure called Frank Russak apparently was the wedding of the season in Newport, R.I. A lengthy New York Times write-up describes the lavish ceremony and bride’s ensemble (“a gown of white satin faille covered with mousseline de soie and pointe d’aiguille lace, richly embroidered in pearls”) but makes no mention of her previous marriage, to a Justin H. Smith.

Retiring from the stage, Marie Russak began a new life as a rich Upper East Side matron but soon turned her sights to the wider world, moving to Paris with her husband in 1901. She had become a Theosophist in 1898 and deepened her commitment by relocating to the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India in 1906. (No word on what happened to her marriage, as Frank Russak seems to have stayed in Paris.) Her four years in India, where she studied under Annie Besant, not only schooled her in Theosophy but sowed the seeds of a new avocation: architecture.  

In India, Marie Russak no doubt saw magnificent examples of the Mogul style that would inspire the Theosophist buildings of Beachwood. The arches, keyhole windows and domes of the Krotona Colony are directly inspired by India’s Islamic architecture of the 16th-18th centuries, the best-known example of which is the Taj Mahal. The Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai), a hybrid of Indian and British Colonial styles, probably inspired the ecclecticism of the Beachwood’s Krotona Colony, whose buildings were as much Italianate and Spanish as Islamic in their derivation.

After leaving India, Marie Russak helped found the Krotona Colony, which broke ground in 1912. Her role in building Krotona was substantial; in addition to co-founding the Temple of the Rosy Cross, Marie designed a number of houses for Theosophists, including this one at 6106 Temple Hill Drive.

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Marie Russak’s architectural career was aided by a fellow Theosophist, Henry Hotchener, a real estate developer whose purchase of a tract from the Albert Beach Company made it possible for the Society’s wealthier members to build new homes by the Krotona Colony.  In 1914, Hotchener built a house for Marie Russak at 6101 Scenic (below) and, after Frank Russak died that later that year in Paris, married her.  

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Moorcrest was completed in 1921. Apparently the Hotcheners did not intend it to be their home and soon rented it to Chaplin. After he moved out, they sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Otto H. Langhanke, who relocated from Chicago and New York in pursuit of their daughter Lucile’s acting career. Lucile, soon renamed Mary Astor by Jesse Lasky, would have an illustrious career in the movies and a rather tragic personal life. The latter was abetted–in court, no less–by her parents’ insistence on living on Astor’s dime in Moorcrest which, Astor testified, was a “white elephant.” 
Later  Moorcrest sank into decripitude, hitting bottom during the 90’s. A woman I know recounts wandering the vacant property, enchanted by Moorcrest’s architecture but alarmed by the extent of its neglect. The grounds had gone unwatered for so long that many of the mature trees in the garden had died. Finally the house was bought; the new owner undertook a major renovation in the early 2000’s and put it on the market in late 2006 for $9 million. That’s when I got inside and took these pictures:
One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

Porte Cochere

Porte Cochere

Living Room

Living Room

Moorcrest's Atrium

Moorcrest's Atrium

Keyhole doorway

Keyhole doorway

In his otherwise excellent study of Krotona architecture, “The Surviving Buildings of Krotona in Hollywood,” (Architronic vol. 8, 1998), Alfred Willis bemoans Marie Russak Hotchener’s lack of architectural training, dismissing her proportions as “awkward” and her interiors as “rather garish.” Further noting that all her houses were “somewhat vulgar,” he concedes that they reflect “their designer’s own middle-class taste but also the vulgarity increasingly evidenced in the commercial and domestic buildings of boomtime Los Angeles in the 1920’s.” That the hardly middle-class Marie Russak Hotchener was reaching for an architectural style as unique and hybridized as Theosophy itself apparently never occurred to him.

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§ 6 Responses to Marie Russak Hotchener and Moorcrest: The Theosophist Opera Singer and Her Architectural Fantasia

  • Alis Gumbiner says:

    Just to fill in a little history of Moorcrest. It did not become “abandoned” until the late 1990s. Prior to the 1994 earthquake, it was occupied for 30+ years by Pallie Bang – she and her husband raised their son there. They originally owned the entire property, but sold the portion with the old pool in the late ’70s, early 80s. (Urban legend says Chaplin filled the pool with sea water and trucked in white sand to put around it). The “abandoned” part your informant refers to was probably the pool area – the man who bought it planned to build something there but never did.

    Pallie’s husband died and her son moved away. For a time, Pallie’s mother-in-law lived in the downstairs apartment. The day before the 1994 earthquake, Pallie moved her mother-in-law to a care facility. Fortuitous timing, since the quake lifted the house off it’s foundations. Pallie spent two years repairing Moorhouse, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. In the midst of the repairs, the orginal dome was destroyed – the builders were lifting it off with a crane and dropped it. Finally, when all the repairs were
    completed, she sold it to a man who lived in Japan but had a fixation on Mary Astor (supposedly her old car was still sitting in the garage, but that may be another legend). This man would periodically have work done – including planting the ficus trees along Vesanta – but to the best of my knowledge, he never lived there. Then the Japanese economy crashed and he eventually sold the house (presumably to the people who tripled it’s size). I don’t know which of these owners bought back the pool property.

    I lived around the corner from Pallie from 1989 to 1998, which is how I know these details!

    Alis (former Beachwood Canyon resident)

  • Felice Holman Valen says:

    NOT HARRY! Aunt Marie was married to HENRY Hotchener, my mother’s brother. (Others in the family omitted the first “e” in Hotchener.) Neither in gatherings nor in surviving correspondence, is he called Harry. The photo of Marie, as diva, is a winner.

    DEC 22,2011

  • Sona Holman Fink says:

    My sister, Felice Holman Valen, is correct. His name was Henry and is so noted in census reports on the Hotchner family as early as 1910. I also knew him well during the 1940’s and ’50s — as Uncle Henry. You will find numerous mentions of him as Henry in Gene Fowler’s biography of John Barrymore,”Goodnight, Sweet Prince.” Henry Hotchner was, for a number of years, Barrymore’s agent.

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