Greystone Mansion, perhaps the most famous property in Beverly Hills, sits at the top of a long curvy driveway. Spread over 18 acres, the estate features elegant courtyards, lush gardens and hidden details visible only with careful observation. With its high archways and large windows, detailed chimneys and wide patios, the mansion can feel as imposing as it is elegant. To get from one end of the property to another, visitors walk on long pathways and down staircases that pass by sloping lawns and aging sculptures.
One of the city of Beverly Hills’ most prized public assets and a defining symbol of the opulence of 1920s Los Angeles, the mansion has captivated residents across the region for the better part of a century – sometimes for unsavory reasons.
A gruesome murder in 1929 has left an impenetrable air of mystery, and to this day, some claim that spirits haunt the mansion. Greystone has changed hands several times over the decades, being used variously as a family home, a film school and a movie set. For a while, the mansion stood largely vacant, falling into disrepair until the city bought it in 1965 and embarked on decades of renovations, turning it slowly into the civic treasure it is today.
Greystone Mansion was built by Edward “Ned” Laurence Doheny Jr., son of a gold prospector who became fantastically rich after discovering oil deposits in Los Angeles and Mexico at the end of the 19th century, according to a history provided by the nonprofit Friends of Greystone Mansion.
After Doheny married Lucy Smith, scion of a prominent Pasadena family, his father gave him, as a wedding gift, the premium parcel of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The following year, Doheny began building Greystone Mansion on the gifted land.
He hired a team of the era’s biggest names in design and architecture, ultimately pouring more than $3.166 million – an unimaginable sum at the time – into the estate.
After about a year, the roughly 46,000 square foot mansion was complete. The Greystone moniker derived from the exterior’s abundant use of stone and somewhat somber appearance, and the interior was finished with intricate, painstaking detail.
The oak banisters, balustrades and rafters were hand carved, while each of the seven chimneys was designed and crafted by different artists. The floors of the grand hall featured black and white inlaid marble.
Surrounding the mansion were sprawling grounds rich with amenities: stables and kennels, tennis courts, a fire station, a gatehouse, a swimming pool, babbling brooks and cascading waterfalls.
But Doheny would hardly get to enjoy the wonderland he had built.
Five months after moving in, Doheny was murdered at 35 years old by his longtime friend and aid Hugh Plunkett, who then turned the gun on himself.
Photos of the crime scene show Doheny’s lifeless body splayed on his back, half his face bloodied from the gunshot wound. Plunkett was photographed facedown, lying in a pool of blood.
The city was riveted by the apparent murder-suicide of the son of L.A.’s richest man, and almost a century later the exact course of events has never been fully untangled. Plunkett’s motive also remains a mystery. Was he a lover scorned by Doheny? Was he framed by Lucy, who uncovered a hidden relationship between her husband and Plunkett? Was the killing tied to a national corruption scandal, as some have speculated?
And have the spirits of Doheny, Plunkett and Lucy ever truly left? This is the central question of “Ghosts of Greystone,” a book by veteran writer and actor Clete Keith investigating claims of paranormal activity at the mansion.
Over the course of three years, Keith interviewed a cast of Greystone visitors and workers who’ve all claimed to brush against the paranormal. He recounts a visitor who heard a disembodied female voice, a park ranger who saw faucets turn themselves on and a photographer who smelled rotting flesh in the exact spot where one of the bodies was found.
If spirits do indeed haunt Greystone’s halls, they were unsuccessful, at least at first, in driving out Lucy, who lived there until 1955.
She sold most of the estate’s land to The Paul Trousdale Corporation – developer of the Trousdale Estates – and then sold the rest and the mansion to Henry Crown, a businessman from Chicago who owned the Empire State Building, said Susan Rosen, president of the Friends of Greystone Mansion.
Crown leased the estate out to filmmakers, a legacy that continues today, but never lived there in any of the 10 years he owned it, she added
“It was vacant,” Rosen said. “He had a security guard, and some of the older Beverly Hills High School students, they’ll tell you they used to be able to go there and run through it and no one said anything. The city purchased it from Crown’s wife because she didn’t want to come west.”
By the time of the sale to the city in 1965, the property was in a sorry state, Rosen said.
“The doors didn’t close, the windows didn’t shut,” she said.
The city did significant work to clean up the mansion, which became a public park in 1971 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. But according to Rosen, it was the Friends of Greystone, founded in 2001, that pushed the city to restore the mansion’s original character.
The organization helped the city draft a master plan for restoration, and the city assembled a team to ensure the rehabilitations are done in keeping with the standards of the National Register of Historic Places, Rosen said. The restoration projects are guided by an extensive photo collection given to the Friends of Greystone, as well as architectural plans and other documents, she added.
“They’ve tried to be very faithful to the original property and the original materials,” said Cultural Heritage Commissioner Craig Corman.
Today, the mansion is a frequent site for city events and a popular choice for weddings and other private functions. It’s also a major tourist destination, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, Rosen would lead tours of the mansion, guiding visitors from across the world through a few of its 55 livable rooms, its bowling alley, its theater, its entertainment wing. Passing through the living room, she would advise visitors to look up at a gallery where musicians used to serenade people down below.
But despite all that grandeur, it was the kitchen that drew the biggest reaction, Rosen said.
“It was amazing to just stand there and watch people’s faces,” Rosen said. “Nobody could believe that back during 1927-28, that they had a complete kitchen with beautiful gas stove tops, a big range, a magic chef oven, a big refrigerator. It had one continuous long stainless-steel counter going into the kitchen. It almost looks like today.”
While the tours are still on pause, Rosen hopes they will soon resume, she said.
Few historic mansions have been restored with such a level of authenticity, making Greystone Mansion a portal into one of Southern California’s most critical periods of growth, and the lives of the people who powered it, Rosen said.
“Greystone is one of the greater L.A. architectural gems. There’s no better way for people to understand and appreciate the history than to see, touch and experience its tangible reminders firsthand,” Rosen said.
“It does exemplify the American Dream.”