James Dolena (1988–1978) architect, interior and furniture designer
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1888, James Dolena immigrated to the United States in 1905 at the age of 17. His sketches helped earn him a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. Upon graduating with a degree in architecture, he worked on projects for the Canadian government. In 1923 he went to Los Angeles with the artist H. Valentine Fanshaw to install a mural in a public building. Permanently settling in Los Angeles in 1925, Dolena would remain there until his death in 1978.
In 1926 Dolena designed an estate mansion for actor Hobart Bosworth in Beverly Hills, with interiors by William Haines. Successively purchased by Carole Lombard, Dolena redesigned the mansion in 1933 in a Georgian style. The house set a new standard for glamorous Hollywood style. It was eventually purchased by producer Albert R. Broccoli, and more recently by Tom Ford. In 1932 Dolena designed the residence of film director Richard Wallace in Bel Air, as well as the private residence of actress Constance Bennett in Holmby Hills. He became known as the "architect to the stars," creating environments suited to the glamorous indoor-outdoor lifestyle of Southern California.
In 1935 Hollywood leading man William Powell had Dolena remodel his bachelor pad. Dolena made it into a classically inspired pavilion with colonnaded entrance, Corinthian columns, elaborate moldings and fine wood paneling, vanishing doors and secret panels, all set off by elegant furnishings with lines heightening a modern sense of space. Also in 1935 Dolena began remodeling George Cukor’s house, forging a modern take on Regency style that became known simply as Hollywood Regency. Here he also collaborated with decorator William Haines, creating leather walls and copper moldings, and adding strikingly unusual touches such as an aquarium-topped fireplace.
Dolena collaborated further with Haines on the latter’s own residence, bringing designer T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings onboard as well. He greatly admired Robsjohn-Gibbings’ updating of classical furniture, and would continue working with him on various projects. For the residence of Benjamin T. Gale, Dolena and Robsjohn-Gibbings created furnishings that included low Moderne sofas and slipper chairs around a low table, emphasizing the grand proportion of Dolena’s room design. In 1936 Dolena designed the home of renowned book collector Ingle Barr, and in 1937 he completed the original Farmers Market in Fairfax, which became a distinctive Los Angeles landmark, especially after he added the signature clock tower.
Dolena’s most famous work of the period was the 1939 Bel-Air residence for heiress Hilda Boldt Weber, a modern take on Georgian architecture that evoked the grandeur of a great English estate. (Dolena himself described it as “modern Georgian with Grecian influences.”) Known as Casa Encantada (enchanted house), its 64-room interiors and furniture were designed together with Robsjohn-Gibbings and design firm Peterson Studios, with Dolena supervising 4,000 drawings for all the interior details. Elegant furnishings such as a carved sycamore sofa testify to the unique appeal of the Dolena—Robsjohn-Gibbings collaboration, along with sleek upholstered chairs, eccentric tables and consoles - even over-the-top pieces such as a white grand piano mounted on carved sphinxes, griffins and dragons. Easily the most lavish home in Los Angeles, Casa Encantada and all its furnishings were purchased by hotelier Conrad Hilton in 1950.
Dolena’s trademark Hollywood Regency style comprised flat exterior walls with panels of trellises, picture-frame windows, and grand entrances, often with urns and finials placed on rooftops. His refined Neoclassical designs made him one of the most accomplished architects working in the revival styles that came to be identified with Los Angeles. Amid all the Spanish Colonial, French Regency, Monterey and Hacienda-style homes, Dolena’s Georgian Revival, Federal and Hollywood Regency mansions made an unmistakable mark. Together with Paul Williams, Wallace Neff, Reginald Johnson, Ronald Coate, and George Kaufmann, Dolena comprised the major force behind the architecture of Hollywood’s golden era. One of the most accomplished revival architects in Southern California, his reputation was symbolically capped by his design of Walt Disney’s 17-room mansion and estate in 1949.
Dolena collaborated with some of the best interior and furniture designers of the era. While he spearheaded the conception of the furnishings for many of his projects, as is often the case with architects, the furniture he created was long subsumed within the architectural context. With time however, Dolena’s furniture has gradually come into its own esteemed regard. Many of the pieces were produced with Peterson Studios of Santa Barbara (founded 1927). Along with those designed for Casa Encantada, other notable pieces include those from Dolena’s own residence in Brentwood (1935). Dolena continued designing furniture for his commissions through the 1950s, some of which evince the influence of Robsjohn-Gibbings. Spanning revival and modern styles, many of his artful custom pieces draw inspiration from an array of periods and sources, incorporating Moderne lines as well as more unusual and sculptural shapes, rich carved woods, rare and precious materials, lacquers, and other special finishes and treatments.
Dolena kept working in his unique mix of styles through the 1960s. Although Modern and Deco influences informed his work throughout his career, ultimately Dolena’s aesthetic can be seen more as a paring down of traditional design vocabulary than a full-on modernist espousal. Today he is acknowledged as a master revivalist as well as an enduring force in the permutations of modern style.
Hollywood Style, Arthur Knight, Macmillan, 1969
Furniture and Interiors of the 1940s, Anne Bony, Editions Flammarion, 2002
Houses of Los Angeles: 1920-1935, Sam Watters, Acanthus Press, 2007
Exterior decoration: Hollywood's Inside-Out Houses, John Chase, Hennessey & Ingalls, 1982
Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide, David Gebhard & Robert Winter, Gibbs-Smith, 1994
Artists in California, Edan Milton Hughes, 3rd edition