The Traveler's Rest: Home at Nirvana and Topside

Burton Holmes was born and brought up in Chicago; but as a famous traveler, he came home to New York City and Hollywood.

Burton Holmes in his rooms in Chicago

In 1920, Holmes and his wife Margaret bought a large apartment in a newly constructed building at 2 West 67th Street in New York City. Thayer Soule says, in On the Road with Travelogues (pp. 27 ff):

"It was a duplex, fourteen rooms on the top two floors. By the late 1920's, however, they had found it too big, and had sold the top floor.

"The building faced West 67th Street, but the Holmes had a wondrous view over Central Park, especially at night when the tall buildings on the south side blazed with light. I knew all this, but was not prepared for the apartment itself. John, the doorman, took me up in a tiny elevator to the fourteenth floor. There I walked directly into an Oriental wonderland, designed by a Japanese architect, filled with things the Holmes had found on their travels. The living room had a 22 foot ceiling finished in gold leaf, supported by four columns with Japanese cloud capitals. Carpets from a Tibetan monastery covered the floor. Huge windows looked out on Central Park.

"'How do you like it? asked BH. 'Different, isn't it?'"

"He was dressed in a black kimono, his favorite attire, just right in those surroundings. For half an hour he showed me around. The room was a rich museum of Oriental art, most of it Japanese. He pointed out each object, told me its history, and where he had found it. he was most proud of a narimono, a tiny cabin suspended from a long pole, once carried by two men. It had been used by a Japanese empress. Just off the living room, at the south end, was a pantheon of more than a hundred buddhas, most of them finished in gold. Incense filled the air.

"'I call this place Nirvana,' he said, 'my Oriental heaven in the center of New York. You haven't met Louise, our housekeeper. She calls it Budapest. She has to dust the place'"

Holmes had been making short films for Hollywood as early as 1915, and by the 1920's, considering the amount of travel he was doing to California and the time it could take, it was clear that having a second house in California would be a good idea. First renting there, from 1927, in 1930 he bought a hilltop bungalow on a large lot in Hollywood, which Holmes christened Topside for its clear view of the surrounding territory. Irving Wallace, in his biographical essay "Everybody's Rover Boy," reprinted in Caldwell's The Man Who Photographed the World, described it as "rambling, plantation-style" and as a "dozen-roomed brown house, once a riding club for silent-day film stars, and owned for six years by Francis X. Bushman."

Topside, as shown in the 1939 brochure about Burton Holmes Travelogues

Shortly after the end of World War II, Holmes sold the New York apartment, along with almost everything in it, to Robert Ripley (of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" fame), and moved permanently to Topside. He lived there until his death in 1958, and his wife until her death in 1968.

Jim Armstrong, of Potter Valley, California, writes, "I have been interested in Mr. Holmes since the early 1960's, when a friend of mine and I happened on his home while driving around looking for architecturally interesting houses, especially those of Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene and Greene. It was a very different day [in 1962/3], and an inquiry at the front door to look more closely at the building got us an invitation to come in and join Mrs. Holmes for tea and a tour of the home. I had never seen a more varied and stunning collection of art work and other items. I guess I still haven't. The couple of hours we spent there and the gracious welcome of Mrs. Holmes have stuck with us both over the past 40+ years.

"Topside was (how sad to use that word) a quintessential Calfiornia Bungalow, larger than most and with a decidedly Japanese roof treatment. It was not a Greene and Greene, but close, with startling view. My friend may have some pictures, but it is not likely. We must not have seen the backyard, since neither of us remember a swimming pool. The interior was spacious and typical craftsman style and was full of artwork, statuary and ceramics—a veritible museum, mostly Japanese and Chinese to my recollection. The obvious value of the contents made her invitation surprising even in those more trusting days. Mrs. Holmes was in a wheelchair and frail, but very alert and full of stories, both about the collection and her life with Mr. Holmes. She invited us back, but, alas, we never went. I looked at an aerial photo of the property as it is now. What a shame; I imagine that it would have been worth in the many millions today. It is a measure of how impressive the afternoon was that it is still fresh these 45 years later."

BHI made a small amount of money renting space in Topside to individuals, but by 1971 the company was surviving only on unpaid labor and money from Mallet's family savings. To keep the company going they sold Topside the early 1970's to Shaun Dale, who was arranging an exhibition of Holmes' work in Japan. According to John Robertson, Dale in turn sold the property to a group of developers in the late 1970's; they tore the house down about 1979, but did not put anything in its place until the 1990's when a condo development went in.

Sources: The pictures of Holmes' rooms in Chicago are from the publicity booklet published by Burton Holmes Travelogues in 1939. The pictures of Nirvana in New York City are from Holmes' autobiography, The World Is Mine. All are used by permission.

Update history: This page created 27 August 2007