Mt. Hollywood: Small Mountain, Big Dreams
Small Mountain, Big Dreams
Mt. Hollywood, elevation 1,640 feet, looms over the Griffith
Observatory and the city. Since the park's early days, the peak
has been a favorite destination of hikers and equestrians.
Photo: Mike Eberts
On any reasonably dry morning, hundreds of hikers ascend 1,640-foot Mt. Hollywood, the highest point in Griffith Park. At the peak are several picnic tables, a hitching post and an unmatched 360-degree city, ocean and mountain view. Standing at the same spot, one person can look at Catalina, another can follow Ventura Boulevard into the San Fernando Valley, a third can spot the twin towers in Century City and a fourth can scan for snow on Mt. Wilson.
So with a view like that, it's understandable that there have been numerous plans to develop the peak as a tourist attraction. The first such dreamer was Col. Griffith J. Griffith, the eccentric, controversial millionaire who gave Griffith Park to the City of Los Angeles. "He had a great fondness for the top of Mount Hollywood," wrote Gordon Whitnall, one of the Colonel's old friends, "and envisioned it as a site for something that would make it possible for numerous people to enjoy the vista."
Col. Griffith saw Mt. Hollywood as the obvious site for the observatory and Hall of Science that would bear his name. He envisioned a funicular railway--an elongated version of downtown L.A.'s Angel's Flight, perhaps--trundling passengers to the mountaintop from Vermont Canyon, location of his other great gift to the city, the Greek Theatre.
Observatory Moved off the Peak
But the mountaintop observatory and funicular railway proved too costly, and the site had little room for parking. So the observatory was built on the south-facing slope of Mt. Hollywood, elevation 1,135.
In 1942 the Griffith Trust--Van Griffith (the Colonel's son) and Whitnall were its trustees--wanted to spend the remaining money bequeathed by the Colonel for park improvements on a development for Mt. Hollywood. They planned a revolving restaurant. The Park Commission gave its blessing.
Bulldozers rolled. A dirt road was constructed to the peak. The mountaintop was graded, into a sloping plateau. Sewer, water and electrical connections were prepared. Then work stopped. World War II, and then the Korean Conflict, turned attention elsewhere.
In 1951, the Board of Police Commissioners eyed Mt. Hollywood as a possible site for an underground civil defense communication center. The communication center was eventually established, above ground, on Mt. Lee, just outside the park.
In 1954, Van Griffith expressed interest in updating the 1942 development plans. Over the next 11 years, plans and architects came and went. Ideas included a combination public telescope and coffee shop, a "Griffith Starland" space museum, and a "Mt. Hollywood Observatorium" revolving restaurant and view deck. The observatorium might have been built if its price tag had been lower.
By the early 1960s, private developers began to enter the picture. In 1963, Glendale restaurateur Frank Abbott proposed a restaurant and curio and gift shops for the top of Mt. Hollywood. Abbott said he'd put $500,000 into the project if the city would grant him a lease on the eight-acre site. The Recreation and Parks Commission said no.
Then, in late 1967, the commission received a proposal from a well-connected, high-powered group of developers. Their plan was dramatic. It called for a Swiss-style aerial tramway that would ascend from a station near the Ventura-Golden State Freeway interchange to the top of Mt. Hollywood.
Mt. Hollywood--which the group said was not serving "any substantial recreational purpose"--would be graded to accommodate a 35,000 square-foot, star-shaped HOLLYWOOD HALL OF FAME. The HOLLYWOOD HALL OF FAME (It was shouted in ALL CAPS in the developers' press releases.) was to be "a beautiful and dignified structure" paying homage to the film, television, radio and recording industries. A revolving restaurant (buffet-style, no alcohol served) would be built on the site of Dante's View, a public garden frequented by hikers. The proposed development, budgeted at $6.5 million, also included a parkway promenade and an arts and crafts building.
The Mt. Hollywood syndicate included RKO General (a subsidiary of General Tire and Rubber), Don Fedderston Productions (producer of "My Three Sons," "Family Affair" and "The Lawrence Welk Show") and Cliff Gill (a partner in an earlier project to build an Alpine Village on Mt. Lee).
They presented the project as good business, generating money for the city in at least three ways: rent for leasing the site, a 2-5 percent cut of the project's estimated $2.5 million in gross revenue, and taxes paid upon the improved property. The Southern California Hotel & Motel Association and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (on a resolution moved by Peter Uberroth) endorsed the plan.
Reaction Was Swift
Opposition arose immediately. "Unbelievable!" blared the normally mild-mannered Los Feliz Hills News in a front-page banner headline, calling it a plan to "chop off Mt. Hollywood." Councilman Arthur Snyder blasted the project as "a carnival ride to nowhere" and "a prostitution" of the park. Local homeowners feared that tourist-laden gondolas would soon be floating over hillside residential neighborhoods, with one activist calling it "a honky-tonk development to line the pockets of promoters." Parents groups complained about dwindling free recreational opportunities. And the leader of a local parks group said it would take away "a favorite summit for hikers and nature lovers."
But the developers waged a defense as glittery as their project. Within an hour of submitting their bid to the Recreation and Parks Commission, they met the media at the Brown Derby at what one reporter described as a "Hollywood premiere-like press conference."
For the next five weeks, the Los Feliz Hills News printed articles consisting entirely of letters penned by local residents outraged over the mountaintop scheme. Finally, on the sixth week Fedderston was given a chance to respond to the verbal brickbats. He said that Mt. Hollywood "is already ugly and cut off at the top" and that preparing the site would be "more of a grading job than a cut." He said the development would be on a par with the recently-completed Music Center and that it would be free of "kiddie rides or other carnival tricks."
As a Recreation and Parks Commission vote grew nearer, the Mt. Hollywood group began to show both economic and political muscle. It had detailed plans, spectacular drawings of the proposed development, its funding in the bank, strong business community support, an affiliation with zoo architect Charles Luckman and the public support of Commission President A. E. England. They even turned out former Jack Benny Show co-star Dennis Day, father of 10, to pacify parents groups.
And they had the support of Mayor Sam Yorty. "This city certainly needs a tourist attraction," he told a televised press conference.
But in April 1968, the opponents gained a valuable ally--Harold Griffith, son of Van Griffith and grandson of Col. Griffith. Soon after, 80-year-old Van Griffith backed up his son, sending the commissioners a scolding telegram, calling it "inconceivable" that they were even considering the plan.
The commissioners voted on the Mt. Hollywood proposal on Jan. 9, 1969. Before an overflow crowd in a fifth-floor City Hall hearing room, Commission President England and Councilman Snyder engaged in an impassioned hour-long debate over the proposal. Supporters produced polls saying that 85 percent of the public wanted the development. Snyder cited the opposition of 68 homeowner, conservation and parent groups.
The commission voted 3-2, against. England stormed out of the hearing room. "It's going to be built," he shouted. "Right will prevail."
Here's an artist's conception of the Hollywood Hall of Fame Project, which
was proposed for the top of Mt. Hollywood in the late 1960s. Passengers
would have been taken to the highest point in Griffith Park by aerial tramway.
Illustration: Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks
Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.
What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?
Please call me at Glendale College 240-1000, Ext. 5352 (I have voice mail, so you can leave a message at any time.)
Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.
E-mail me at MEberts@glendale.cc.ca.us
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