In 1981 I moved into the Fontenoy, one of Hollywood’s oldest apartment buildings, just a block north of Fredrick’s of Hollywood on Whitley Avenue. The elegent, slender concrete high rise was designed by architect Leland A. Bryant in 1928. The next year he followed up with his crowning achievement, the Sunset Tower. During the 1920s and 1930s buildings like the Fontenoy, Fleur De Lis, Du Barry and Piccadilly met the housing needs of the rapidly growing L.A. film industry, which employed scads of young, brash and mostly single men and women.
Some of the buildings were opulent, like the palatial Langham in the Mid-Wilshire district. Built by Al Jolson at a cost of $1.7 million, it was the most expensive residential building constructed in Los Angeles to that time. Truly, a home for the stars. Others were “apartment hotels,” built to house actors, directors, producers and crews, and those who came to L.A. to join the burgeoning film industry.
Two of those Hollywood pioneers, musical producer Harry Delmar and pianist Lee Donn, still lived in the Fontenoy when I moved in during a summer heat wave. The men had been friends since 1919, when they met at one of the studios. Harry was 91, Lee was 89 — or so they said. When Harry passed away in 1984, the L.A. Times put his age at 100, but you can never be sure of anything you read in the paper.
Anyway, Harry and Lee were two old vaudeville veterans who lived across the hall from each other, and who had a million great stories to tell about decades in the entertainment industry, from the Orpheum Circuit to Broadway, from Las Vegas casinos to USO camp shows during WWII.
Harry produced the “Delmar Revels” revue in 1927, which played 112 performances at New York’s Shubert Theater and introduced a young comedian named Bert Lahr to Broadway. Lee had toured extensively throughout Europe following the war, playing for kings and commoners. When I met them they were still working, in vastly diminished roles, filling in as extras on movie sets at Universal, Paramount and Columbia.
They threw legendary parties at the Fontenoy in the 1950s and 1960s, with guest lists that included Mae West, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, and Irene Ryan. Lee, who rented the larger apartment on the northwest corner of the second floor, usually played host, entertaining guests on his Steinway grand piano.
It was a vibrant, exciting lifestyle enhanced by the beauty and comfort of the building and the neighborhood. Even in the 1980s the Fontenoy had a graceful air, boasting marble steps, a lushly appointed lobby, and spacious apartments with banks of french windows and high ceilings. Behind the building was a huge backyard with a meticulously maintained garden, heated swimming pool and towering palms. In the 1940s and 1950s, residents would take their evening promenade on Hollywood Boulevard, chatting with friends they met along the way and window shopping outside the department stores.
Preserving the Past
Although many of the apartment houses built in the 1920s and 1930s have fallen into disrepair over the past three decades, some may be restored to their former glory thanks to the efforts of the SWEL Group, a real estate company that has purchased 13 classic L.A. apartment buildings and is remodeling them along traditional lines.
Their properties include some of the gems of the era, including the Fontenoy, the Havenhurst (where Charlie Champlin rehearsed in a small theater off the lobby), the Fleur De Lis (with two deluxe penthouse apartments, expansive city views and beautiful Art Deco details), the Langham and the Du Barry.