Los Angeles officials and environmentalists have launched a concerted effort to preserve the iconic view of the Hollywood sign by purchasing a mountaintop above it where developers want to build luxury homes.
City officials fear development of a peak just to the west of the "H" in the sign would encroach on the postcard-like scene.
But a group of Chicago investors who four years ago purchased the land from Hughes' estate are eyeing the 138 acres of the ridge as a place to nestle in five luxury estates.
That has prompted a hasty campaign by city leaders and conservationists to raise $6 million they think they need to buy back Cahuenga Peak and turn it into an extension of nearby Griffith Park.
So far they have amassed $3.1 million from various sources.
Representatives for the Chicago owners said Thursday that they are "open" to a bid from the city, though the investors are preparing to draw up their own development plans. They said previous talks with the city about the mountaintop fell apart. No current asking price has been set.
From its top, a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley unfolds for hikers who manage to climb the road-less peak just east of the Cahuenga Pass.
Though building homes on the rugged mountain would be a challenge, officials said they were concerned about the peak's future because of the boom in recent years of luxury home construction across even the steepest areas of the Hollywood Hills.
"With modern engineering techniques, there's no such thing as an un-buildable lot," said Hollywood-area City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who is leading the campaign to buy the peak.
"It's been sitting there for a long time. We kind of forgot about it. I was as surprised as anybody to find out we didn't already own that parcel. It looks like we do, but we don't."
Authorities say that Hughes, the aircraft builder turned filmmaker, acquired the land in the 1930s. That's when he drove Rogers up the mountainside and pledged to construct her a house there.
"He said, 'Sweetheart, see the city below you? I'm going to build a house here for you,' " said Rad Sutnar, a consultant working for the landowners who has studied the site's history.
In a 1991 television interview, Rogers mentioned Hughes' house plans as a reason she never married the eccentric tycoon.
"I knew what he wanted from me. He wanted to take me and lock me up in a hilltop house and never let me see anyone," Rogers said.
"That's exactly what he did to [actress] Jean Peters. He locked her up. I could tell how resentful he was of anyone coming close to us in conversation."
Hughes' relationship with Rogers didn't last. But the property remained in the Hughes trust for decades.
The investors, working through a partnership called Fox River Land Co., purchased Cahuenga Peak from Howard Hughes Properties Ltd. in 2002 for $1,675,000, according to Los Angeles County property records.
A year later, the investors divided their holdings into five pieces under a partnership called Hollywood Hills LLC.
None of the group's three primary investors could be reached for comment Thursday.
"The partners divided up the parcel, and each one took a piece," Sutnar said. "One wants to build a house. Each one is on his own trying to figure out what to do with it."
City leaders say residential development of the rugged mountaintop could be difficult, but is far from impossible.
Some of the individual parcels are landlocked, although public roadways connect with several sides of the property, which spans all sides of the peak.
They say the peak has the potential to accommodate a TV, radio or cellphone broadcast tower as well as homes.
The first time he jogged in the area 30 years ago, Chris Schwab, who has lived on Hollyridge Drive since 1965, said he was puzzled to find the peak fenced off.
"I didn't find out until last year that it was privately owned, that a Chicago company had bought it," said Schwab, a retired consulting engineer.
"It would be a crime to have buildings up there. It ought to be part of Griffith Park. They should get their few million dollars' profit and then get out and go home to Chicago."
Added David Schulner, a TV writer who has lived near it for three years: "It's a landmark — if not legally, then in the eyes of the universe. The fact that something so public can be privatized is deeply saddening."
On Thursday, proponents of the peak purchase appealed to a committee that is helping oversee the allocation of $1.5 million in acquisition funds made possible through 1996's voter-approved Proposition K.
"This is an emergency situation. This is preserving a piece of park forever. If we let it go now, it will be lost forever," said Richard Bogy, president of the Toluca Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Officials said City Hall has received hundreds of letters pleading for the peak's protection.
"Our children and our children's children deserve a Los Angeles that is not only mini-malls and high-rises," wrote North Hollywood film producer Tim Allen.
Louis Alvarado, a member of the bond allocation committee, said he agreed.
"I don't want to be responsible for a 10,000-square-foot house behind the Hollywood sign," he said. "We will not get a second chance."
When they think they have enough cash, city leaders intend to ask the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to negotiate with the property owners.
If a deal is reached, the trust will donate the land to the city as an expansion of Griffith Park.
Larry Kaplan, Los Angeles-area director of the trust, said no recent appraisal of the acreage has been made.
"If you had to pick a ballpark figure, $6 million is about right," he said.
The most recent appraisal about a year ago placed its value at $4,270,000.
The sale would leave the Chicago owners with a handsome profit.
But officials stressed that the public money can be used to buy the peak only if an appraisal finds that the asking price is fair.