To sledding enthusiasts, the East Side mansion in the 400 block of Hebron Avenue facing Lincoln Avenue is known as the “big white house on the hill.” But to local historians, it’s known as the Cameron estate, built by a multi-millionaire oil baron with an eye for Hollywood starlets.
The property is now owned by the neighboring Bethel Temple Community Church at 4400 Lincoln Avenue. Church elders acquired the property in 1992 to use as a home for visiting guests and missionaries and a meeting place for Bible study groups. The first floor remains devoted to church activities, while the third floor houses an apartment for visiting missionaries. The second floor has been transformed into a home for Brian Kerney, Bethel Temple’s director of life development, who lives there with his wife, Amy, and their two young children, Joseph and Elizabeth. The Kerneys’ sloping front lawn has been a favorite sledding hill for interlopers for as long as they can remember. “People come from all over and use it,” Amy Kerney says. “Sometimes, we’ll sit inside and watch all the action from our house.”
The house was built in the early 1940s by Arthur Cameron, a Kentuckian who bought the land to fulfill a childhood dream of living in a mansion on a hill. At 400 feet above sea level, the house sits on one of the highest points in the city and at one time could be seen from a mile in any direction. Cameron made his fortune in the oil industry, and according to local history accounts, bought some of the construction materials on the black market, due to shortages caused by the war effort.
Cameron was married at the time to the 1930s B-movie actress June Knight – the first of his four wives. They built a swimming pool and a tennis court on the property and installed floor-to-ceiling picture windows on the back, known as “Hollywood windows.” Knight left town after Cameron divorced her to marry movie starlet Kay Aldridge (called “one of the most photographed women in the country in the 1930s” by The New York Times) who lived in the house for a few months before the couple sold it to move to Beverly Hills. Cameron had two more wives after that – model Jean Lawrence and the legendary long-legged tap dancer and actress Ann Miller (Gene Kelly’s co-star in “On the Town.”) The tennis court is long-gone, but the swimming pool remains, though it’s now part of the property owned by a neighbor. The home eventually ended up in the hands of Max Hartley, a longtime photo stylist for Donahue Photography Studios.
What’s changed in recent years is the addition of a retaining wall at the bottom of the hill, which now separates the property from the Bethel Temple parking lot. It hasn’t diminished sledders’ enthusiasm. “Some people slow themselves down before they get to the wall, but some people just fly off the wall on purpose,” Amy Kerney says. “I think that would be painful.”