The elaborately detailed model of Gary Kellgren’s plans for the Dream Castle Record Plant resort/recording facility
One of the most persistent myths about Mt. Kalmia is that it was once owned by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy is frequently mentioned in stories about the estate that include a list of its previous owners. In most references, Gordy is said to have held parties at the mansion that were attended by 300 to 400 people and that racked up huge liquor bills.
The genesis of this myth is a quote in the Times from 1982. “Barry Gordon, a record producer watching Sunday’s sale, leased the mansion a few years ago,” the Times said. “He recalled nostalgically that ‘we had some fantastic parties here. We had 300 to 400 people over for (weekend) parties. Our liquor bill (was thousands of dollars). We (he and his partner) were tempted to buy it, but the lifestyle was too fast.’”
Note that the man’s name was Barry Gordon, not Berry Gordy. This was not a botched edit. There really was a Barry Gordon associated with the estate in the 1970s. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Berry Gordy ever stepped foot in the place. A woman who knew Gordy very well in that era tells us that “any association between Berry Gordy and Johnny Depp’s house is false.”
In a comment on a story about Mt. Kalmia, Pumpford Lawrence wrote that he lived in the estate when Kellgren owned it and that “Kellgren and I also had another friend who ran the limousine end of this venture – his name was Barry Gordon. During that time many, many people would call the castle asking for “Barry Gordy” and we would naturally always have to add the correction.”
So who was Barry Gordon? The Times described him as a record producer. From 1972 to 1977, Mt. Kalmia was leased by Gary Kellgren, a co-owner of Record Plant studios and one of the most important – and now forgotten – record producers in the 1960s and ‘70s. Kellgren had a dream for the castle. He had commissioned plans to convert the estate into a deluxe recording facility with luxurious short-stay accommodations for A-list artists while they recorded. Kellgren called his deluxe facility the Record Plant Dream Castle.
Gary Kellgren and Chris Stone founded Record Plant in New York in 1968. The studio’s first big hit was Jimi Hendrix’ “Electric Ladyland,” which Kellgren produced. The next year, they opened a studio in Los Angeles (at La Cienega and Third). Later they launched a third studio in Sausalito. The list of artists who produced hits at the three Record Plant locations over the years is a who’s who of the music industry A list: The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Barbra Streisand, the Eagles, Stevie Wonder, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Dave Mason, Bill Withers, Billy Preston, B.B. King, Bobby Goldsboro, The Animals, Carole King, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Rod Stewart, Ravi Shankar, Keith Moon, and Neil Diamond, among others.
After years of planning and thousands of dollars spent, prospects for reinventing Mt. Kalmia at the Record Plant Dream Castle were starting to fade. Early in the summer of 1977, Kellgren showed his friend, the writer Lucian K. Truscott IV, around the mansion. “All of the furniture had been moved out of the mansion,” Truscott wrote in his online memoir, “Dying of a Broken Heart,”“and the place had a dusty, decaying feel. None of its half-dozen or so bathrooms had been cleaned in weeks, and the kitchen looked like something out of a Dennis Hopper movie about the grooviness of communes. Everywhere there is garbage and filth, the silent remains of defeat.”
At the end of the tour, Kellgren took Truscott into the ballroom to show him the architectural model depicting his plans for the estate. Kellgren, he wrote, had “spent upwards of $150,000 on the plans for what he hoped would be his ultimate vision of the Record Plant as it truly should be: a place apart in time and space from the rest of the world, a sphere in which rock and roll could once again be magical, in which Gary would be undisputed master magician.”
The table bearing the miniature version of Kalmia transformed into the Dream Castle sat in front of windows looking down on the blanket of lights spread out across the Los Angeles Basin like fallen stars. “The model was elaborately detailed,” Truscott wrote. “Every tree was accurately reproduced and the castle itself was carefully etched in clay, every stone wall and turret carved to scale. The plywood board was slanted, approximating the angle of the hillside land. Above the castle, where now there was only scrub oak and pine, the model showed a medieval village, a collection of thatched roof cottages connected by pathways. The clay model was surrounded by a stone wall, turning the entire hillside into a compound, a fort accessible through a single gate where Sweetzer Street dead-ended.”
Progress on the Dream Castle project had been stymied by bureaucratic red tape. Over the years, the architectural firm he’d hired had conducted a series of studies and, more recently, had made presentations to the Los Angeles Planning Department. The property was zoned residential and Kellgren’s application to rezone it for commercial use had stalled.
After Truscott’s visit, Kellgren had surgery to remove a large kidney stone. Kellgren, a workaholic with a cocaine habit, had suffered from the pain for weeks, regularly pissing blood before seeing a doctor. The surgery was in July 1977. At some point around that time, Kellgren received word that the Planning Department had approved the rezoning. The Record Plant Magic Castle was finally a “go.”
On July 20, Kellgren was still recovering from surgery when he and Kristianne Gaines, described as both his girlfriend and secretary, were hanging out in the pool behind his house not far from Mt. Kalmia. Music was blasting from speakers both around the pool and underwater. Kristianne, who could not swim, was lying on a float. Gary was in the water, paddling around, when an underwater speaker went dead.
When he swam down to look at it, something went horribly wrong. It’s unclear exactly how it happened, but Gary Kellgren drowned. Desperate to help, Kristianne dropped into the water. But when she tried to dive down to rescue him, she also drowned. Police labeled the deaths “a double accidental drowning.” There was no evidence of foul play. Gary Kellgren, whose Dream Castle project also died that day, was 38 years old.