The Big Sleep

At Hollywood Forever, the California lifestyle may be dead and buried.

In 1996, Los Angeles architect Tim Smith built the first recorded instance of a five-over-one apartment building in the city’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. The structure consisted of a cement base with five “stick-built” stories above it; Smith’s innovation was to use fire-retardant wood instead of cement or steel, which allowed for near-high-rise density for far below the market rate. Bloomberg’s Justin Fox reported that this approach, which was used by Smith’s firm to construct an affordable housing complex called Casa Heiwa, could pack in a hundred apartments at 60 to 70 percent of the typical cost. The simple model now tends to include style choices that reference the typology’s California roots: open-concept floor plans; large, rectangular windows; and neutral color palettes reminiscent of Rudolph Schindler’s low-slung homes in the Hollywood Hills or the glassy Silver Lake bungalows of Richard Neutra.

A drive through the city conjures a kind of architectural déjà vu, with pseudomodernist five-over-ones on nearly every block. On one small stretch of Gower Street, a new addition to the ubiquitous array rises five floors above street level, evoking the designs of Hollywood’s famous midcentury homes and their more recent, high-density iterations. This is no apartment complex, though. This is Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s first vertical mausoleum, an enormous three-building development that will eventually hold the remains of some 60,000 deceased Angelenos. From the cantilevered concrete volumes to the Frank Lloyd Wright–esque masonry, the building’s design elements evoke the ethos that once attracted outsiders to the city, embodying the area’s easygoing attitude and temperate climate. But as California Modern—its aesthetics and its locales—has become increasingly unavailable to regular Angelenos, the style has entered the next logical step of its evolution. It now gives physical shape to death—not life.

Between 1880 and 1920, an aggressive booster campaign advertised the city to potential pioneers, emphasizing the warmth, light, and open space that eventually typified LA’s midcentury architecture. According to historian Tom Zimmerman, the 1898 LA Chamber of Commerce “distributed 127,000 pieces of pro–Los Angeles literature in Omaha, Nebraska”—in just one year. The promo worked: By 1920, LA’s population was fifty-two times that of its 1880 number, with many newcomers drawn into Hollywood’s burgeoning film industry. The movie industry solidified LA’s position as the “20th-Century Garden of Eden” (in the wording of one early 1900s advertisement), producing films that trafficked in the city’s sunny appeal and its progressive social mores. These two facets of LA reached their apotheosis in the modernist homes shown on the silver screen: from the nudist alcove at the base of Laurel Canyon in The Long Goodbye to The Big Lebowski’s “Porno House” (John Lautner’s 1963 Sheats–Goldstein Residence), LA’s architecture enshrined a lifestyle now alien to most of the city’s actual inhabitants.

A 2020 USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation study found that three out of four LA households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, a number some link to the rise of luxury developments, which often deploy modernist styling to boost unit prices. Highland Park’s Marmion Royal offers one example: The building, according to Spectrum News 1’s Taylor Torregano, was bought and renovated by Skya Ventures, a development firm that forced out sixty families who couldn’t pay a 50 percent rent increase. The building now boasts a gray-and-white, modernist facade with large windows and a flat exterior. These new structures frequently use Tim Smith’s five-over-one model, which, as its derogatory moniker, “gentrification housing,” might suggest, has been criticized by opponents, who cite the complexes as a cause of soaring rent prices, evictions, and homelessness in the LA area. Ironically, the design actually made Smith’s affordable housing project financially viable: The five-over-one configuration enables these buildings to go up quickly and cheaply. In a city like LA, high-occupancy buildings are necessary: The Casa Heiwa still serves as low-income housing for disabled citizens and working families. At the same time, the aesthetic of such buildings has rapidly evolved to suit the tastes of a higher-paying market—one that can displace long-term tenants.

Smith’s firm, Togawa Smith Martin, recently completed one such project down the street from Hollywood Forever Cemetery: AVA Hollywood, a six-acre, mixed-use development with 695 units completed in the wood-and-concrete podium style (another term for the five-over-one). AVA Hollywood touts one- and two-bedroom units modeled after California’s original, modernist single-family homes: Large floor-to-ceiling windows line each apartment unit, and cantilevered balconies give the generic construction a geometric, Schindler-esque style. Brightly colored walls and doors dot the otherwise monochromatic buildings, a callback to the acrylic accents used in Joseph Eichler’s planned midcentury communities, where orange or yellow doors distinguished one house from the next in each large tract. The apartment’s perks—several outdoor patio and bar areas, gyms, and “work pods”—cater to young, urban professionals; these additions can boost each unit’s price to double or triple the rents at Smith’s Casa Heiwa. This contemporary aesthetic collides the midcentury modern single-family home with a material approach originally meant to suit lower-income families, a strategy that guarantees maximum returns in constrained urban locales.

A few blocks east of Smith’s AVA, Hollywood Forever takes the technique into newly macabre territory. The Gower Mausoleum’s five-story, concrete-and-marble form towers over its surrounding area; when I first went by the building, I thought it was a housing project under construction—until I saw the rectangular cutouts on one side, each the size of a coffin. The new sepulcher extends from the cemetery’s 1930s Community Mausoleum all the way to the edge of Gower Street, riffing on traditional funereal architecture while answering to the spatial constraints of the cemetery. Sandwiched between Santa Monica Boulevard to the north and Paramount Studios to the south—Paramount bought half the cemetery’s grounds, then called Hollywood Memorial Park, in 1920—Hollywood Forever is currently 95 percent occupied. The project, which was designed by Michael Lehrer of the LA-based Lehrer Architects and will be completed by Roberto Sheinberg of AyD: Arquitectura y Diseño, vastly expands the cemetery’s limited capacity, adding three nearly identical, five-story mausoleums by 2026. Like their counterparts for the living, these high-rise structures epitomize certain “affordable” adaptations to the area’s signature midcentury look: Horizontal beams extend over the sidewalk, and the structure’s concrete cubic volumes frame views of LA’s skyline. Its high-occupancy, minimalist construction addresses concerns over scarce or inaccessible resources in a town dependent on a rapidly changing film industry, all while attempting to maintain the elusive (and perhaps long dead) luxuries of the California lifestyle.

According to co-owner Tyler Cassity, nearly 99,000 unique headstone and crypt designs fill Hollywood Forever’s expansive grounds—a deviation from most cemeteries, which restrict tomb models to a select few. The resulting assemblage combines a variety of architectural styles, most of which reference the nostalgic or aspirational lineages of the people they entomb. The cemetery, which is nearly 50 percent Jewish, features several memorials that hearken back to the designs of Middle Eastern antiquity: The Hall of Solomon, a portion of Hollywood Forever’s Beth Olam Jewish Cemetery, uses golden Jerusalem stone with carvings that recall Egyptian Revival masonry, referencing the possible heritage of the deceased within. The tomb and garden of silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, who pioneered a Hollywood war bond effort during World War I, use the neoclassical signifiers of American government: A bronze relief on the front of Fairbanks’s crypt shows the actor’s face surrounded by olive branches, his garden encircled by small ionic columns. The styles present at Hollywood Forever reference a large number of architectural legacies, and most crypts canonize the deceased within a particular historical heritage, gesturing to the enduring power of their ancestors.

In the same vein, Gower Mausoleum canonizes a once-revolutionary ethos—California midcentury modernism—within the confines of the cemetery, rendering the design philosophy equivalent to Hollywood Forever’s other symbols of architectural might. Michael calls himself a “natural light and fresh air junkie,” a phrase that reflects the ideas espoused by Neutra and Schindler, whose open-concept, minimalist homes popularized California’s indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Their influence can be found in the mausoleum’s facade: Each floor features alternating recessed and cantilevered blocks that hover over Gower Boulevard, a feat of engineering popularized by Wright’s Fallingwater. (Lehrer notes that five engineers took on the new mausoleum’s construction, only to give up.) The Gower Mausoleum, in the ultimate expression of its forebears’ indoor-outdoor emphasis, is almost entirely outside: The only indoor components are an elevator and, of course, the spaces designated for caskets and urns.

The development, though, morphs the intended function of its source material. The original principles emphasized Los Angeles’s then-bountiful open space and celebrated the area’s relative lack of modern development as an opportunity for young families to forge new paths in an urban—or suburban—setting. Eichler pioneered the construction of modernist tract housing in California, utilizing the style’s lack of adornment and accessible materials in order to develop structures that could be easily replicated across the area at an affordable price. At Gower, a similar principle reigns: It is almost entirely concrete, the modular, monochromatic style triplicated by each of the freestanding structures. Where Eichler’s homes used floor-to-ceiling windows to encourage outdoor flow, the mausoleum simply exposes the dead and their future visitors to the elements; large volumes, ones that will eventually hold human remains, square off views of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Hollywood sign. Gower’s design carries the principles of midcentury modernism into the afterlife, securing a place for the dead that cements—literally—some of the area’s most aspirational designs.

The Gower Mausoleum negotiates a middle ground between the autonomy seen in most California midcentury modern homes and the pressures of LA’s population density. Groupings of fifteen hundred crypts compose each floor, with each individual (or tandem) tomb demarcated, on the building’s exterior, by a stone block adorned with a neat, geometric spiral. The masonry, which is visible from street level, recalls the Mayan-inspired exteriors of the Hollyhock House in neighboring Barnsdall Park; there, Wright drew from designs prominent at the Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, Mexico, casting concrete in the stark, rectangular adornments common to the local Indigenous group. The decoration originally served to differentiate his designs from the Spanish Revival homes common to the LA area, suggesting a way of living aligned with the area’s precolonial past; the innovation lay in transferring design elements common to communal, ritual spaces, like temples, to the single-family home. At Gower Mausoleum, the decoration has a practical function: The stonework sets each grave apart from the next. Spatial constraints necessitated this decision: Since the cemetery no longer has room for individual graves, each body at Gower will be packed in apartment style—with a midcentury flourish that suggests the freestanding, autonomous homes of Wright’s era, but without their corresponding amenities.

Hollywood Forever’s new “high-rise” burial options offer selling points—namely, views—that mirror those offered by Smith’s nearby AVA, an attempt to reframe decisions necessitated by land scarcity into sought-after units. In LA, views generate real currency: One 2001 Los Angeles Times article estimated that having a nice view could bump up price of a single-family home by as much as $1 million. There are even monikers for specific views, like “The Queen’s Necklace,” which describes a sight from the Santa Monica Bay down the coastline to Palos Verdes. According to a 2017 Hollywood Reporter piece, a pricing nomenclature stratifies rates at multistory buildings; DTLA’s fifty-story Ritz, for example, nudges prices up by $10 to $15,000 per floor in the lower half and by almost $50,000 on the building’s upper levels. Views, while not an explicitly commodifiable aspect of real estate, appeal to buyers’ (and renters’) emotional reaction to a space; Selling Sunset’s Jason Oppenheim calls a panorama view “the money shot.” High-rise buildings, though not typically aspired to by LA homeowners, multiply these dividends, transforming the luxuries of the ultrarich (a view from a Hollywood Hills mansion, for example) into more accessible commodities.

As California Modern—its aesthetics and its locales—has become increasingly unavailable to regular Angelenos, the style has entered the next logical step of its evolution. It now gives physical shape to death—not life.

Hollywood Forever adopts a similar strategy, adjusting pricing based on burial height and location. The Gower Mausoleum’s modular construction and open design ensure that the majority of crypts and cremation niches “view” the Hollywood sign, a feat accomplished by the elimination of walls, which typically surround mausoleums. The corridors at the building’s center open onto the Santa Monica Mountains to the north and the ocean to the south, enabling visitors to every grave site a near-panoramic outlook. The sights, however, are better higher up, and pricing escalates with elevation; on the fifth floor, there are a limited number (just a few hundred, compared with the 1,500 on the lower floors) of what Cassity calls “premium crypts,” the penthouses of Hollywood Forever. Tiered costs are common to the celebrity cemetery, where the value of plots is determined based on their proximity to the stars buried on the grounds. In a 2001 documentary, The Young and the Dead, one mortician gives a tour to a prospective client, noting the various available “properties” closest to Cecil B. DeMille’s plot, as well as their relative costs, which get higher the closer the sites are to the final resting place of the mogul. While no movie stars’ remains currently occupy the new mausoleum, Cassity expects an equivalent pricing structure; “the rules of real estate,” he says over Zoom, “will definitely still apply.”

Hollywood Forever’s appeal centers on the region’s synonymity with the film industry; the cemetery markets its grounds as a spot where celebrity culture and historic preservation collide. This positioning is relatively recent: In 1998, when Tyler Cassity and his brother bought Hollywood Memorial Park for roughly $300,000, there were more bodies disinterred from the cemetery than new ones buried, a reflection of the park’s dilapidation. The Cassitys quickly capitalized on the cemetery’s location, using Hollywood techniques to ensure the business’s viability: The brothers pioneered a video tribute memorial service, unique for the early aughts, that collected clips and other visual ephemera to honor deceased individuals. A few years after Hollywood Forever’s reopening, the cemetery expanded operations to include an outdoor film series, Cinespia, which projects popular films on Rudolph Valentino’s lakeside tomb each summer—now with accompanying food truck vendors and deluxe seating.

Hollywood Forever has also deepened its ties with its next-door neighbor, Paramount Studios. The cemetery and Paramount increasingly collaborate to show advance screenings from the “Paramount Scares” horror collection outside their Cinespia showings. (Cinespia, now a separate organization, shows elsewhere year-round.) The two institutions share a back wall, and a portion of the Gower development will also include two Paramount parking structures. The new mausoleum furthers their connection at street level: A private press release from Lehrer Architects and Arquitectura y Diseño notes that “the huge cantilevers that hover over Gower will create a memorable urban boulevard that is contiguous to the soundstage elevations at Paramount Studios.” The shift significantly alters the topography of the block, which currently features a clear demarcation between the two institutions: The backlot’s enormous soundstages dwarf Hollywood Forever’s leafy, low-slung park. But by 2026, the backlot and the mausoleum will be difficult to distinguish from one another, their tall silhouettes joined along Gower’s edge.

The mausoleum’s prominent facade marks a turning point in the cemetery’s architecture. The original design, formulated by a mausoleum architecture firm and unilaterally vetoed by LA’s City Council, featured a row of enormous blank cubes recessed from the street and hidden behind tall fencing. The failed approach necessitated another strategy: Lehrer Architects, a private firm specializing in master planning and affordable housing, came onto the project to address the cemetery’s scarce resources and showcase it at the street level, while integrating it with the architecture of homes, movie studios, and apartment complexes in the surrounding area. Previously, the cemetery adopted a more traditional orientation to the outside world, hiding its contents from view; large portions of its property along Santa Monica Boulevard, sold in the 1980s, now house strip malls and auto repair shops. The Gower Mausoleum, by contrast, will transform the traditional inner courtyard into a living garden on the building’s exterior, drawing attention to the cemetery’s more integrated, public frontage. The new structure announces its dual function as both a house for the dead and a necessary, high-density solution to the facility’s limited acreage.

Hollywood Forever’s street-facing development was, in recent months, matched by another public demonstration: the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. For months, my walks to the cemetery grounds included a brief joining of their picket lines. Strikers paraded in front of Paramount at the intersection of Gower and Melrose, right along my typical route. The workers, locked in a standoff with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), protested their low wages and job precarity in a saturated media landscape, conditions that left many writers and actors struggling to live in LA. Their presence on a prominent boulevard called attention to the guarded physical manifestations of the film industry, in contrast to Hollywood Forever’s recent additions. Paramount’s backlot and offices are largely restricted from public access by a large, wrought-iron gate; tours of the studio sell for $65 a pop, and they are often sold out. As the Hollywood bastion faces continued pressure to secure resources for its mass of employees, strikers made visible the struggle to maintain current business models in an increasingly dense, unsustainable urban environment.

On Gower, two heritage institutions—Hollywood Forever and Paramount—contend with the consequences of past financial decisions, many of which were designed to benefit only their most powerful employees. The Cassity family’s flair for the dramatic reached its own movie-worthy climax in 2013, when Doug Cassity, Tyler’s father, and Brent Cassity, Tyler’s brother and the former president of Hollywood Forever, were convicted of nearly $600 million worth of fraud—the result of one of the funeral industry’s largest Ponzi schemes. Through a holding company called Forever Enterprises, the Cassitys offered prearranged funeral packages at their cemetery sites and elsewhere—all while pocketing much of the sales, siphoning money from trust accounts, off-loading funds into luxury real estate, and upcharging clients for life insurance policies while swiping the difference. Eventually outed by a company whistleblower, the Cassitys still reckon with the trial’s aftermath: Following restitution payments of $435 million, Brent endured a five-year prison sentence, and Doug passed away in 2020 after a early release from jail during Covid’s peak. (He is buried at Hollywood Forever.) The five-story mausoleums are the nail in the coffin on twenty years of financial turmoil; after the complex fills, the cemetery will cease its usual operations.

Down the block, Paramount sits at a financial precipice. Industry insiders claim that the strike was a momentary boon to the studio, since it paused payments on overdue obligations to striking writers and actors. With the strike concluded, these lapsed debts resume in full force, putting Paramount’s CEO, Bob Bakish, back in the hot seat. A recent prediction from the Bay Area–based investment service Macroaxis put Paramount Global’s bankruptcy probability at 100 percent, a figure backed by leading Wells Fargo equity analyst Steven Cahall, who estimated that the current conglomerate would last just one to two more years, its failure catalyzed by the studio’s costly and mismanaged debut of Paramount+. And though the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have reached agreements with the AMPTP, there are few long-term safeguards for creatives employed at legacy companies like Paramount, a studio that has struggled to keep pace with streaming juggernauts like Hulu, Netflix, and Max.

Predictably, Hollywood Forever has had an easier time than Paramount accepting its death: In fifty years, Tyler Cassity predicts, the Gower Mausoleum will have reached capacity, and the building itself will have ensured that the grounds never fall into disrepair. The money received from crypt and niche reservations at the new development form an endowment that the cemetery’s owners believe will support the institution in perpetuity, turning it into a kind of museum. Paramount’s fate, though, hangs in the balance: By 2026, the studio will have more parking—but potentially little else.

Lehrer, in a short introduction to the Gower Mausoleum, calls the project “eternal housing.” His turn of phrase alights upon the parallels between the cemetery and the city’s housing solutions, which often serve a luxury market at the expense of more sustainable practices that might encourage long-term habitation. (There is irony in the fact that a tomb may be the most stable housing in Los Angeles.) The struggle between the promises of California’s original frontier and the constraints of its contemporary geography are felt throughout Los Angeles, not just in the funeral industry. The resulting new developments attempt to balance the conflict between the area’s dream and its pressing reality; on Gower, the three-building complex enshrines the architecture that once defined the city in the same cemetery where replica pyramids and classical temples also sit. A quick peek around Hollywood Forever reveals a new lineage: Here, where ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome are memorialized, so, too, are the Hollywood Hills.

Claudia Ross is alive and writing in Los Angeles. Her fiction and criticism have appeared The Paris Review, ArtReview, Frieze, VICE, and elsewhere.