The Spider Pool
Rome has the Colosseum, Greece the Parthenon, and then there’s Machu Picchu in Peru. In a city like Los Angeles, a mere infant in comparison, the idea of “ruins” and lost history doesn’t always come to mind. But here we prove otherwise by telling a story that involves a Hollywood eccentric, a house made of movie props, a spider-clad pool, a fire that nearly destroyed it all, and our modern quest to locate these, well, modern ruins—the “Spider Pool.”
Our greatest adventure yet took countless hours of research and planning that culminated in our trek to arguably the most cultish and elusive location in all of Los Angeles. While the pool itself is gone, along with the house it belonged to, the infamous tiled spider retaining wall remains. A handful of other urban adventurers before us have shared photos online of the crumbling ruins, and we knew we had to find it. Despite online chatter and whispers of the myth of the Spider Pool, its exact location has remained a secret. Carrying on that tradition, and in the interest of preservation, we will not be sharing details of the exact location or details of our journey to the Pool. We will confirm, as others have, that the Pool sits somewhere in the 7+ square miles of the Hollywood Hills, and that our hike to get there was arduous.
Before we get into the history of the Spider Pool, we first take you back nearly a century to introduce its creator, Jack McDermott. McDermott was a writer and director by day, and a Hollywood eccentric by night. Upon the property where the Spider Pool sits, Jack also fashioned a home that matched his bizarre character. It was here that McDermott lived out his proclivity for wild parties and crazy hijinks, and the unparalleled ability to entertain his guests with spectacle and oddity. He can best be described as a cross between Jay Gatsby and a non-homicidal version of fictional Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, for all you BVD fans out there.
In 1921, McDermott purchased a plot of land “so high above the valley, the address was listed as ‘Cloud 6, Hollywood.’” The land was in a largely inaccessible area of the Hollywood Hills, so remote that no direct roads led to the home even as late as 1962. As he was deciding what to do with his new property, several accounts recall how McDermott one day moved a large piano box to the empty lot of land, and used it as a makeshift weekend home. While we can’t be certain, we believe this was an actual box or crate for a piano, and not a “piano box” style home that was popularized in the mid-west after the turn of the century. Not long after the piano box made its debut, McDermott began to piecemeal his estate together into what would become known as the “craziest” and “zaniest” house in America, often lovingly referred to as simply, “the crazy house.”
McDermott and his crazy house made an appearance in the 1927 silent short Hollywood the Unusual:
McDermott’s work as a director, and later a comedy screenwriter of early Hollywood films, served as inspiration for his home. McDermott found intricate props and sets regularly discarded and destroyed once a film had wrapped. One day, while admiring the style and handiwork of an exotic temple set at his studio, he couldn’t help but think what a nice room it would make. Upon permission from the studio, McDermott took hold of the set, and, with the help of his donkey, hauled it up the steep hillside and started to build a home.
The house soon became “a monument to the whimsy and ingenuity of the man who built it entirely by hand from stage props used in lavish productions of the silent screen era.” The odd structure established itself as a nonsensical collection of various architectural styles and eras, incorporating elements from films including The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, Omar the Tentmaker, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As the house neared completion, a curious architect visited McDermott and asked what period he would call the home. McDermott replied, “no period at all. It’s an exclamation point.”
An exclamation point indeed. Elements of the home included butler-manned underground tunnels leading into the living room, a fireplace under the bed, no chairs, exotic art and pottery, an “armory of ancient guns and swords,” a Spanish galleon dining table, a faux graveyard, a bathroom equipped with a siren, a sunken bathtub, and of course, the pool. The Spider Pool dates back to at least 1933 where one account marveled at the clandestine nooks and crannies throughout McDermott’s home including a “playroom looking out beneath the waters of the swimming pool, with secret passages, sliding panels…” A 1949 article similarly commented on the home’s passageways and pool:
A labyrinth of dark subterranean passageways which honeycomb the ground under the hillside, the sliding doors and panels lend an eerie touch to the fantastic abode, which contrasts startlingly with the sun bathed swimming pool inlaid with thousands of hand-painted French and Italian tiles in a spider design. It was inevitable that such a storied castle should become the scene of gay film colony parties, and in the years gone by it rang with merriment by night.
McDermott lived as a bachelor among his tchotchkes and movie sets, but kept the company of a flock of domesticated white pigeons. In true McDermott fashion, he regularly dipped his avian friends in RIT dye, creating for himself a pastel flock of birds. The pigeons were far from McDermott’s only guests. McDermott regularly opened his home for wild parties not unlike other creatives in Hollywood at the time. As one 1933 article noted, in general, screen writers like McDermott became known to host the “gayest and longest” fetes of them all:
Screen writers these days are outdoing their fellow artists, the actors, in providing Hollywood with an atmosphere of gayety. The scribblers are the playboys, perpetrate most of the famous movie gags which are later told ‘round the world, and generally take the play away from their more serious-minded friends who get paid for acting. Lavish parties have been given recently by the film writers who can stay up all night, disporting in night clubs and Hollywood “hot spots” because they don’t have to look fresh and peppery the next morning. In fact, many a scenario or bit of film business has been turned out under pressure of a throbbing head.
McDermott’s parties outnumbered, outlasted, and out-marveled them all. His crazy house itself lent well to absurd celebrations, but McDermott always managed to take his parties to the next level by encouraging debauchery and reveling in his role as ringmaster. For instance, “legend has it that McDermott would beat on a drum while girls in harem outfits drifted out of the trapdoor.” John Barrymore was a frequent visitor and once tripped and fell down into an underground stairway that McDermott built. Sipping cocktails out of soup bowls, Barrymore and other Hollywood elite socialized at McDermott’s abode regularly, and were even encouraged to imbibe. McDermott, the trickster he was, would often put unsuspecting drunk guests to sleep in the “Upside Down Room.” It proved to be a source of hilarity to McDermott, and a source of “terror for the wary guest who drank too much. He would awake, apparently on the ceiling, looking down on velvet walls and a complete room of furniture below. When he recovered and sobered up, he would find McDermott and pals roaring with laughter… all the furniture had been wired to the ceiling.”
At times, McDermott’s predilection for thrills at the expense of his guests went too far:
One of his favorite pastimes was taking his friends for a ride at a breakneck clip around the mountain roads in his Model T Ford. When they complained about the danger, he would calmly lift the steering wheel off its post and hand it to the horrified passengers. The victims didn’t know that the car was rigged with a foot-steering device. The gag backfired one night, however, when he removed the steering wheel and then discovered that the foot apparatus was out of order. McDermott and his passengers frantically leaped out of the car just before it shot off a cliff and crashed to pieces on the rocks below.
McDermott eventually found himself pulling away from the film industry, and retreating further into the confines of his zany home. In July 1946, 25 years after a piano box on a hill started it all, 53-year-old McDermott drew the blinds in his crazy house and took a lethal dose of sleeping pills. The property was left to McDermott’s nephew, but friend and film director, Jacques Jaccard inhabited the house for some time after McDermott’s death. Unfortunately, the “house that Jack built” did not survive long without its creator. Not six months after McDermott’s death on January 31, 1947, a fire of unknown origin claimed much of the original structure. At some point between 1947 and 1949, the half-burnt house was sold to another eccentric, Carl Brainard, whose divorce made headlines in September 1949. Carl moved his wife Joyce and their infant into the remnants of McDermott’s home, at that time, “a half-burned out castle in a deserted spot.” This, combined with Carl’s frivolous spending habits on specialty cars and troublesome hobby of chasing around police cars, led to the couple’s demise.
After suffering years of neglect, the home was purchased by Darrell and Frances Gregory in 1958. By 1962, the city of Los Angeles urged the family to either tear down, or make requisite changes, to the dilapidated structure. Despite Mr. Gregory’s attempts to make necessary repairs, and despite neighbors rallying their support, the house was forcibly razed in late 1962. During the battle to save the home, Gregory noted, “about the only thing they haven’t declared dangerous is the swimming pool. I guess they overlooked that.” One 1962 LA Times article even shows a photo of the Gregory family swimming in the pool with its ornate tiles and spider-adorned retaining wall. And here’s where our story continues.
After being razed in 1962, McDermott, his crazy house, and its Spider Pool were all but forgotten. Enter the dawn of the age of the internet. In the early 2000’s a number of cheesecake and pinup enthusiasts shared photos in online chat rooms, and a pattern emerged. Behind these scantily clad and nude women, including the likes of Tura Santana, Betty Blue, and Jaqueline Prescott, was a Spider Pool. These photos from the 1950s showed a beautifully tiled pool, retaining wall with a giant spider, and lush greenery. The search for this elusive pinup Shangri-La had officially commenced. Over several years, the “Poolies” continued to exchange photos, emails, tips, and research in pursuit of the Spider Pool. Their hard work culminated in the 2004 re-discovery of the site. Interestingly enough, the two urban explorers who re-discovered the pool’s location did so before uncovering anything about its history or creator, Jack McDermott. They were thrilled to find the spider web wall intact, albeit crumbling, but the accompanying pool was long gone.
Over the last 13 years since its rediscovery, more details about McDermott and the “crazy house” have surfaced through historic research. We’ve even come to learn that silent film star turned photographer Harold Lloyd, and fetish artist and photographer John Willie, staged photo shoots at the Spider Pool.
Despite the Spider Pool’s cult following, only a handful of other adventurers have found the pool, or at least publicly posted about it. And although it is widely known that the location is somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, its actual coordinates have remained secret—not an easy feat in the Information Age. The curious urban adventurers before us have left some hints in the depths of the Internet, but finding the location took meticulous planning and research. Certain we had pinpointed the exact coordinates, one sunny Saturday morning, we got up before the sun to get ready for our treasure hunt.
The trek was difficult, to say the least, and was definitely a once in a lifetime journey. As our climb continued, we eventually happened upon ruins of old structures, hand painted tiles, and stairs that led to nowhere. We can only guess that these are the last remaining traces of the house itself. In between catching our breath, we laughed thinking about how these must be some of the tiles McDermott hoodwinked from European dealers—he posed as a dealer himself asking for free samples for his American clients, and his persuasiveness earned him nearly $7000 worth of free tiles.
Finally, we reached the peak of the hill and had made it to “Cloud 6.” We rounded a wooded corner, and there it stood in all its glory—the Spider Pool. Tired, sweaty, and a little banged up, we wasted no time with a mini cheesecake photo shoot of our own—paying homage to the mid-century women who shot here more than 60 years ago, and also as an act of preservation.
The Spider Pool is, at the end of the day, a modern Los Angeles ruin. How long it will remain intact is yet to be seen. We can only hope that McDermott would have appreciated our efforts climbing up the same hills where he once drove his Model T like a mad man; tumbling down the hills not unlike some of his party guests; honoring the many cheesecake photo shoots that overtook his beloved hill after his death; and searching for the zany and unusual in everyday life.
We hope we’re not the last to tell their “Spider Pool” story.
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