Issue: Spring 2019

Hollywood's Art Center School: A Creative Oasis

By Keldine Hull

Tucked away between the American Legion Building and the Best Western Motel is Hollywood’s best kept secret, a profound and relatively unknown three-acre piece of Hollywood history. Located at 2025-2027 North Highland Avenue, the Hollywood Art Center School was a hidden oasis in the middle of Hollywood that encouraged creativity and inspired artistic expression.

Founded in 1912 by influential artist, interior designer, and educator Henry Lovins, the Hollywood Art Center School was LA’s first independent art school. Originally located on the second floor of what later on became the May Company Building on Broadway, by 1914 the school moved to Hollywood where it had several different locations and became a staple of the community and film industry. In 1930, Henry Lovins and his wife, Mona Lue Lovins, expanded the school and purchased a craftsman style house from silent- film era icon and Hollywood mogul Douglas Fairbanks Sr. In 1947, the Lovins’ purchased 2025-2027 North Highland Avenue, which became the sole location of the Hollywood Art Center School from 1960 until 2000. Henry Lovins, alongside his wife, offered a unique yet disciplined curriculum greatly influenced by his teacher and longtime friend, prolific artist Robert Henri. After Henry Lovins passed away in 1960, Mona Lue Lovins continued teaching classes at the school until her death in 2000.

With a past shrouded in mystery, inconsistencies in the true origins of the secluded property make it difficult to tell where legend ends and reality begins. According to Hollywood lore, it was long thought that William Randolph Hearst originally built the property for then girlfriend, well- known actress and socialite Marion Davies. However, through meticulous research, Architectural Historian Heather Goers discovered that the property was actually built for impressionist Otto Classen in 1904 by famed architects Dennis & Farwell who also built the iconic Magic Castle, Hollywood Hotel, and a single- family home for the Father of Hollywood himself, H. J. Whitley.

Goers explains what makes the property so rare in the ever-changing Los Angeles landscape. “I think one of the things that makes the Hollywood Art Center School property so unique is just how complex and multi-faceted its story is. It’s not often that you see a property with so many different layers of history – from the early development of Hollywood to the design of the house by architects Dennis & Farwell, who were some of the earliest prominent architects in the area, to the artist Otto Classen, to Henry Lovins and the development of the Hollywood Art Center School. You have all of these different elements of Hollywood history converging on one site, which is such a special thing to see.”

Former student and caretaker Stephanie Galli, who attended the school from 1985 to 1990, experienced first-hand the influence of the Lovins and their unique curriculum. Galli reminisces about the beauty of the school, the lessons learned, and her interactions with Mona Lue Lovins. “When I first wandered in there, it was like some gothic place, overgrown, wild, and beautiful. People pass right by it and never see it. I graduated in 1990 but continued studying with Mona until her death. I found Hollywood Art Center School stimulating and inspiring. It was like a fairytale, and it captured me. I even lived on the property in a little cottage for 25 years.”

Galli continues, “When I met Mona, she was sitting up in the atrium. She was probably in her late 70’s. She was very easy to talk to, very profound but had a good sense of humor. And she was a genius. She could teach any subject, from sculpture to perspective to painting. If we made a mistake or there was an accident, if plaster fell all over the place, she would just laugh. She had only positive, constructive criticism.”

One lesson in particular left a lasting impression long after Galli’s time at the school. “Mona used to talk about Darkhorse Canyon. In the late 1800’s a stagecoach came through and was robbed of its gold. It was buried in the hills right there off of Highland. Mona would always say that an artist found the gold within themselves.”

Over a century after Otto Classen first took residency at 2025-2027 North Highland Avenue, a new owner has taken over the property, but its history remains. Director at Bulldog Realtors Bob Friday was responsible for selling the property and explains what makes it so unusual to this day. “To find almost 3 acres for the most part pretty much untouched other than the home and guest house is extremely rare. This was quite a joy to show because a lot of people came to it just because they knew that with properties like this, there aren’t a lot of them left. This one is unique. It’s a part of our history that’s very quickly disappearing and so from that standpoint, this is not your average house in Los Angeles.”   

Director of the Hollywood Art Center Archive Elizabeth Lovins, granddaughter to Henry and Mona Lue Lovins, has dedicated her life to researching and documenting the Hollywood Art Center School and the unprecedented ways it inspired creativity. “My grandparents set the parameters to have this kind of outdoor environment where they could go indoor and outdoor between the studio and the grounds and kind of wander around. It was this whole type of visual and sensory experience because as an artist, when you start, you kind of need something to get that creativity going in your brain.” Lovins continues, “Walking around and being in that type of environment seemed to really get people into more of a creative space in their own heads. The grounds were really meant to inspire the artist and help them immerse themselves in a place that was continuously creative. They had access to a lot of inspiration and viewpoints of the Hollywood Hills. They could go off and always find a private spot to draw or paint or do whatever they wanted because the property was so big. There’s all sorts of nooks and crannies there.” In addition to its unique environment, the Hollywood Art Center School also had a roster of talented instructors who worked both in entertainment and the arts. Roger Noble Burnham was a modeling and sculpture instructor who’s work included the 12- foot bronze statue of General MacArthur in MacArthur Park. Another notable instructor was Edward Langley, art director for Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and early silent films like the “Mask of Zorro.”

Lovins’ reminisces about her days spent on the property, surrounded by its raw beauty, and the unforgettable memories she’ll carry with her forever. “My dad was a filmmaker. I used to come with him all the time, because we lived in the Valley, to the house. He had his business there, so I’d sit up in his office and he’d be editing things on film reels with his team. I remember always kind of being there and being able to just wander around free. One time my grandmother took me into this sculpture room, put me up on a big stool, and said, ‘Here’ as she stuck my hands in this big, 25- gallon jar of red clay. And she’s like, ‘I’ll be back.’ She just left me there for a few hours to make whatever I want.”

Lovins continues to honor her family’s legacy by sharing their story and adding another chapter to Hollywood’s rich history so unique and unlike any other city in the world. “A lot of remnants and traces of old Hollywood exist and the Art Center is definitely one of them. And it’s really unique just because no one knew it was there, and it survived all of the changes in that area. It’s important to keep these historic places that make Hollywood so special.”   DH