by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For decades, the Yamashiro Japanese restaurant has been a Hollywood landmark, with its distinctive architecture, lush gardens, and outstanding views being among some of the most enticing elements of the site. The history of the property, however, goes back more than a century and to the unusual story of Adolph and Eugene Bernheimer, who built the structure and planted the landscape on the seven-acre parcel.
Today’s “La La Landscapes” entry features a Homestead real photo postcard, postmarked 15 March 1929, that shows the hilltop estate and part of the gardens from the neighborhood at the bottom of the hill. The site represented one of the most prominent of greater Los Angeles’ examples of Asian-inspired architecture and gardens (think of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, for example, though there were others) that enjoyed popularity during the first decades of the 20th century even as anti-Asian sentiment was often very strong locally.
Eugene (1865-1924) and Adolph (1866-1944) Bernheimer were born to a Jewish mercantile family in Ulm, a city of about 120,000 in southern Germany, which at the time was a few years from unification. Their mother was Amalie Bing, who died when the brothers were boys, and their father Leopold was likely successful as a dry goods merchant. In October 1882, Eugene migrated to New York and was followed there in September 1883 by Adolph and they joined their older brother Charles, who journeyed to New York in fall 1881.
The three brothers were principals in the Bear Mill Manufacturing Company, which neither operated a mill or did any manufacturing, but instead specialized as a “converter,” importing unfinished cotton and other materials, such as silk, and then sent them for dyeing, bleaching or other process and sold the finished goods for garment making.
Part of this work meant extensive travels in Asia and it was there that Adolph and, evidently to a lesser extent, Eugene developed a passion for what was then known as “Oriental” architecture and art, amassing a significant and large collection of the latter, while dreaming of carrying out a grand plan for the former in the form of a residence and showplace for the art collection.
In 1911, the Bernheimers came to Los Angeles and soon purchased the Hollywood property from developer Hobart Whitley (Whitley Heights is a nearby namesake community in the Hollywood Hills) to develop their dream estate.
The architect who designed the residence, Franklin M. Small of New York, recently completed for Adolph a Japanese-style bungalow built on a boating pier that extended 200 feet out from the shore of Staten Island, in the Rosebank neighborhood.
In an article for the September 1910 issue of Architects and Builders Magazine, Small described the creation of the bungalow and the special considerations taken for the unique locale and the protection of the structure from the elements. Moreover, the furniture was made in Japan from approved specifications from Bernheimer. The article had accompanying photos of the 2 bedroom, 1 bath home, which might be viewed as something of a dress rehearsal for what was to come.
Completed in November 1914, the Bernheimer residence in Hollywood was given extensive coverage in a lengthy article in the Los Angeles Times on the 15th. Referring to the dwelling as “Yama Shira” and as “the wonder house of California,” the paper called the property “a feudal fortress with a metropolitan setting.” It was stated that the brothers had been planning the estate for twenty years and that the house was said to have cost $250,000, an extraordinary sum, to build.
There are some curious statements, such as this standout: “with the striking strangeness of it all, there comes a touch of sinister romance.” Why? Because “the hosts there are bachelors, and it is rumored that they have made a plot that no woman shall ever enter the place as an invited guest.”
Otherwise, a great deal of attention was paid to the expansive and expensive characteristics of the home and its decoration. Little, however, was said about the landscaping, almost certainly because the property was newly developed and it may be that what became a spectacular Japanese-style series of gardens was still in the planning stages. All the Times said, with flowery prose, was
Terrace follows terrace to the crowns of the hills in perfect symmetry of sweep, and along the sides that have been barren from birth, grass is growing in tight greensward, and fruit trees are beginning to rise.
Over the next several years, however, water features, a 600-year old pagoda imported from Japan, bonsai, a menagerie of animals, a miniature Japanese village, and many other elements were incorporated into the terraced landscape, which added to the fascination generated by the property.
It is also noteworthy that architect Small contributed a much longer and detailed article, supplemented with more photos, of “Yama Shiro” for Architects and Builders Magazine in its issue of June 1915, just after the structure’s completion. Here, too, the focus was on the house with virtually no mention made of the landscape.
Yet, there was a major problem. Just months before the home was completed, the First World War erupted in Europe and with Germany as the principal enemy, the German-born brothers were subjected to many more rumors than about their views on women. It was alleged that the Bernheimers were engaged in espionage and/or concealing an arsenal of weapons. Naturally, these insinuations proved to be false, but the attitudes, perhaps rooted in anti-Semitism as well, were deeply insulting.
Perhaps to combat the rumors, the brothers, who bought large amounts of Liberty Bonds during the conflict, opened their home to the public for the first time in 1921 for an event to raise funds for impoverished children in war-ravaged Poland and Serbia. Referring to the residence as that of Adolph, the paper reported
Through the garden, in which many treasures of the Far East have been collected, concessions and amusements of all kinds will be arranged . . . in the evening, the grounds will be beautifully lighted with a specially arranged system, using thousands of electric globes.
The Bernheimers’ occupancy and ownership of the estate, however, lasted only a decade. Eugene, who’d moved to San Francisco, died at the end of 1924 and Adolph, unhappy with the situation in Hollywood, sold the property and developed another large, costly estate, spending some $200,000, including an extensive Japanese-style garden in Pacific Palisades. That, too, which we will focus on in another post in this series, was subject to problems during the next world war and afterward and Adolph died during the conflict in 1944.
As for the Hollywood property, it became an exclusive club for film industry power brokers and, later, the public could view the gardens for an admission fee. During World War II, the house was subdivided into more than a dozen apartments. When Thomas Glover, a developer, bought the place in the late 1940s, he intended to raze it and build a hotel, but, taken with the beauty and craftsmanship of the deteriorating home, decided to remodel it and then open Yamashiro restaurant, which his family operated until last year.
A Chinese firm acquired the property from some of the Glover family, a son, Thomas, who ran the restaurant for about a half-century dissented, and Yamashiro briefly closed before reopening under new management.
The Bernheimer/Yamashiro property has been written about pretty extensively. Here is a fine article from last year by Edmon Rodman of the Jewish Journal and a recent collaborator with the Homestead on the Kauffman monument covered here. Hadley Meares, who has also worked with us in the past, contributed this KCET piece a couple of years ago. The restaurant’s website includes this page dedicated to the site’s history.