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Beverly Hills Celebrates a Century of Dreaming

From an unassuming start in 1914, Beverly Hills has become the premier playground for the rich and famous, synonymous with glamour around the world. As the city readies for its centennial celebration, we reflect on the rise of one of L.A.’s biggest stars.

In this circa 1960 image captured by legendary lensman Slim Aarons, friends gather for afternoon tea by the pool at the palatial Beverly Hills home of interior decorator James Pendleton.

It’s an iconic image that defies context for those of us used to zooming Sunset Boulevard between the Technicolor palm trees and hedgerows shading a riot of Tudor mansions, mini chateaus and haciendas: an isolated, Mediterranean-style, turreted mega-hotel standing in the middle of bean fields abutting the chaparral-covered Santa Monica Mountains. But yes, those fields are indeed Beverly Hills, and that building is its namesake Beverly Hills Hotel in the early days. The Pink Palace—as it is now lovingly called—was a seemingly mad experiment built on the homestead of what was once the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, a spot so isolated that a mere half a century earlier, its owner, Maria Rita Valdez Villa, held off a band of Native Americans in the sort of shootout that would later be standard fare for the area’s dominant industry.

In 1914, two years after the hotel’s construction, a small village was incorporated around this improbable structure. In the sort of irrational optimism that has since been endemic to the spot, a group of speculators named it for Beverly Farms, Mass., whose green hills could hardly have reminded anyone of these brown scrubby fields.

Glamour quickly attached itself to the development as the era’s megastars, including Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Will Rogers, built their mansions here. (Rogers even held court as the city’s first mayor, after being appointed to the post in 1926.) The still cheap and scenic land parcels they snatched up were close to Hollywood’s studios, yet far enough into the country that they could horseback ride to each other’s estates, often using a rutted dirt road that traced an 18th century cattle trail stretching from downtown to the Pacific. Whoever started calling it Sunset Boulevard must have said it with a smile.

The lushness with which we now associate Beverly Hills was as deliberate as a movie set: At the city’s inception, residential lawns were required by law, and thousands of pines, eucalyptus trees and jacarandas were planted alongside curved streets laid out by Wilbur D. Cook, a protege of the renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architects.

Originally hoping to find oil here, land developers built a subdivision whose main street they named after their drilling venture, The Rodeo Land and Water Company. If they could see the Chanel, Hermès, Prada and Louis Vuitton boutiques overflowing on Rodeo Drive today, they might argue they had discovered oil after all.

They were dreamers, but they were so stubborn against all obstacles that, a century later, the mantel of the grace they willed upon this scrubland is internationally recognized. Even the ZIP code, 90210, is one of the most coveted in the world, while the Golden Triangle, bordered by Wilshire, Santa Monica and Rexford, attracts luxury shoppers from San Diego to Dubai.

And the dreaming continues. As part of the city’s centennial celebrations, art installations, a concert at Saban Theater and mass garden plantings are scheduled for 2014, anchored by a March 23 street party replete with a giant Guittard chocolate cake on—where else?—Rodeo Drive. Even local hotels are getting into the birthday spirit with their Suite 100 program. And, of course, there’s the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, which is ushering in a new era of entertainment for generations to come.

So happy centennial, Beverly Hills! Even though you’re the grand old lady of L.A.’s western reaches, you are looking more vivacious than ever—but what else would one expect from a star?