Nature and History Cross Paths at Virginia Robinson Gardens

Featured image credit: Robinson Gardens

When searching for the grandest gardens in the United States, Beverly Hills wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Of course, that’s assuming you could see beyond the looming gates and topiary walls. Yet, one of the city’s largest, most decadent, and oldest gardens is open to the public (as long as you’ve made your reservations). Virginia Robinson Gardens isn’t quite a secret, but there’s still this unshakable feeling that not as many people talk about it as it deserves. Sure, it’s a historical landmark in a city of historical landmarks, but it’s so strikingly lavish that it demands to be seen. The gardens are also punctuated by one of the first homes established in Beverly Hills, which is where we’ll begin our pastoral stroll.

The Beverly Hills Mansion at the Center of the Gardens

Photo credit: Robinson Gardens

It was 1911 when the construction crew broke ground on the Beverly Hills mansion punctuating land that would one day become Virginia Robinson Gardens. This structure would house Virginia and Harry Robinson, they of the monumental retail chain of Robinson department stores. Frequent readers of this blog may recall that Robinson (the store) made a few cameos in our exploration of the Valley’s late, great shopping malls. But the floral wonderland of Virginia Robinson Gardens couldn’t be further from the hustle and bustle of American consumerism. 

The Robinsons worked with an architect they implicitly trusted to bring their stately estate into tangible reality. This architect was Nathaniel Dryden, Virginia’s father. He drafted designs for the main unit; a sprawling Beverly Hills mansion (possibly the first in the area) in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style

In 1924, a splendidly scenic pool pavilion was added, employing a distinct Renaissance Revival influence. A soothing mosaic tile wainscot swimming pool almost seems to genuflect before it. In its own manner, it almost looks like a scene torn from timeless myth, simply missing the revelrous satyrs and nymphs. Yet, for a few decades, Virginia Robinson seemed to supply those too. 

The First Lady of Beverly Hills

Photo credit: Robinson Gardens

The Beverly Hills mansion punctuating Virginia Robinson Gardens was something of a party house in its day. As you’d likely guess, it wasn’t quite a USC frat house or Elysian Heights flophouse. Robinson’s ragers catered to a higher society. How high? The likes of Marlene Dietrich or Fred Astaire wouldn’t warrant a second glance. Robinson’s events became the stuff of Hollywood legend, attracting politicians and royalty, along with the expected celebrity stardust. As Beverly Hills grew into its own distinct entity, the Robinsons counted Elvis Presley and Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian, among their neighbors. 

Virginia Robinson’s penchant for throwing legendary parties earned her the title of “First Lady of Beverly Hills.” And she lived up to that lofty role. She even built her own tradition by commemorating the opening of every Hollywood Bowl season by employing the orchestra to perform an exclusive encore for her guests on the Great Lawn of her gardens. 

Inside Virginia Robinson Gardens

Now that we’ve got a bit of historical context, let’s take a closer look at the gardens themselves. Victoria Robinson Gardens thrives across six acres of premium Beverly Hills land, proffering a green spectrum spanning the native to the exotic. While the grounds can be appreciated as a whole, the garden is distinctly organized into five themed areas. Not only does this conjure cohesive aesthetics, but makes the experience easier to process instead of immersing visitors in a teeming orgy of flora. After all, gardens are that great nexus point where nature and organization coincide for a brief, but beautiful moment. 

The five sections of Victoria Robson Gardens include:

The Tropical Palm Garden

Curious to see the country’s largest grove of Australian king palms? This is the place! The king palm isn’t one of the big three common palms you’ll find around LA, so get a good look. Other rare plants make appearances including blossoming gingers, charming plumerias, and bountiful banana trees. 

Italian Renaissance Terrace Garden

Beneath the shaded canopy of massive magnolias blossoms the fragrant flora of a garden aiming to capture the lush allure of the Italian countryside. Ruby and rose camellias compete against snowy gardenias and kaleidoscopic azaleas, plucking the breath of the unprepared. 

The Kitchen Garden (Potager) 

This garden is more about utility than visual beauty, though it manages to satisfy both. As its name would suggest, the Kitchen Garden is composed of plants that produce edible fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Every plant in this garden grows something that could be put to use in culinary delights. 

Formal Mall Garden

No, this isn’t a reference to the shopping malls so frequently anchored by Robinson department stores in their heyday. Rather, this garden utilizes the other definition of mall, meaning a public area designated for strolling, often flanked by shade-bearing trees and greenery. In this garden, flowers bloom year round alongside stout and robust cycads. 

Rose Garden

Photo credit: Zigzig20s

While the Rose Garden of the Victoria Robinson Gardens may not rival the Exposition Park rose garden in size, it gives it a run for its money in sheer beauty. This collection of heirloom roses is often one of the most popular fixtures of the grounds, not just for the familiarity of roses but for their classic loveliness. 

How Virginia Robinson Gardens Opened to the Public

Who knows whether Angelenos would be able to experience the natural wonder of Virginia Robinson Gardens today had the estate stayed in the family? Yet, just before her passing in 1977, Virginia Robinson left everything, including her property, to Los Angeles County. Since then, the Friends of Robinson Gardens non-profit has managed the six acres of abundance. 

The task isn’t exactly an easy one. When the First Lady of Beverly Hills passed, her fortune wasn’t what it used to be. Her Beverly Hills mansion and surrounding gardens suffered from negligence with an unpredictable electrical system and leaking roof chief among the numerous problems. Working closely with the county, Friends of Robinson Gardens managed to restore Virginia Robinson Gardens to its former glory… and then some. 

Visiting Virginia Robinson Gardens

Photo credit: Robinson Gardens

The best way to show appreciation for their handiwork is to visit the grounds yourself. While Virginia Robinson Gardens is open to the public, reservations and an admission fee are required. You can make reservations by phone or email through the attraction’s official site. Despite the relative obscurity of the gardens, it’s recommended that you make reservations at least two weeks in advance. You can also register for a guided tour conducted by a docent, though these are only available on weekdays. However you choose to see Virginia Robinson Gardens, prepare for a meeting with the natural world filtered through Beverly Hills history in the most striking way possible. 

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