Autry Museum May Be Cut Off at the Pass

Times Staff Writer

A proposal by the wife of former singing cowboy Gene Autry to build a museum for her husband at Buena Vista Park in Burbank has run into new opposition, this time from an area couple who want to preserve the park as open space.

Albert Hirschmann and his wife, Dorothy Edminster, this week launched a drive to gather support from other Burbank residents and environmental groups to block construction of the $2-million project. The couple met Wednesday with members of the Sierra Club, have contacted groups of area homeowners and horse owners and have planned a door-to-door petition drive for this weekend.

"I think the museum is a marvelous idea," Edminster said Thursday. "I just think it stinks to take away open space to build it."

Jackie Autry, wife of the 77-year-old former actor, proposes to build the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum on the south side of the Ventura Freeway by the Buena Vista Street exit. The museum would house Western paintings, sculpture, photographs and memorabilia collected by Autry and other stars of the Western era.

Charitable Trust

The Autry Foundation, a charitable trust founded by Autry's first wife, would pay for construction and operation of the museum, an accompanying parking lot and park improvements such as picnic benches and restrooms. The foundation has also pledged to spend up to $5 million to acquire museum items.

Burbank officials, eager to introduce a cultural center and tourist attraction to the city, have encouraged the foundation to build its museum in Burbank. Last November, the City Council tentatively approved the Buena Vista Park site, which would be leased free of charge to the foundation.

But Jackie Autry has had difficulty in selling the museum proposal to the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission. The Buena Vista Park site, legally part of Griffith Park, is leased to Burbank by the City of Los Angeles. Any improvements to the park must be approved by the commission.

Twice in the last six weeks, the commission has declined to approve the project, even on a conceptual basis. At a meeting last week, Commissioner Mary D. Nichol said she would not vote on the proposal because her husband works for a law firm hired for the proposed museum. Other commissioners said they needed to see more specific plans before they could approve the project.

Loss of Parkland a Concern

The commissioners also said they were worried about the loss of parkland, a concern that has been echoed by Hirschmann and Edminster. The couple, who live just two blocks from the Buena Vista Park, said the park is heavily used by area residents and that it is one of the few open spaces remaining in south Burbank.

"I admit my concerns are selfish," Edminster said. "I get intense pleasure from looking at the park after coming home from a day working in a high-rise building with fluorescent lights. When I get off the freeway and go under the underpass, I get a feeling of intense love."

Hirschmann said he and his wife have been circulating through the neighborhood to tell people about the proposed museum. They also contacted the president of the Rancho Homeowners Assn. and two horse owners groups. "No one in the area is aware of it," Hirschmann said. "The Sierra Club suggested that we get more people involved and that is what we plan to do."

At a Los Angeles parks commission meeting last week, Burbank city officials described the park as "under-utilized" and said it had been chosen for the museum because of its accessibility to the Ventura Freeway and its suitability for a Western theme. The park is adjacent to horse trails in Griffith Park and is near the city's horse-oriented neighborhoods.

Termed Inappropriate

"We do not feel it would be appropriate to place it in the middle of a commercial area or an industrial area, which are the other options in the City of Burbank," City Manager A. C. Lazzaretto told the commission. "The park is now primarily used as a stopping-off area for truckers and other people passing through the area. Public use of the park would be enhanced with the museum."

Edminster, however, said the park is a favorite spot for picnickers, joggers, sunbathers, children flying kites and residents "just wanting some fresh air." She said there are at least 50 people at the park when she eats lunch there two or three times a week.

Although Hirschmann and Edminster acknowledge that they started their protest late, a major campaign may not be needed to keep the museum out of Burbank. Jackie Autry, eager to build the museum before the death of her husband, said last week that she would wait just 45 days to get a green light to start the project before she takes her proposal elsewhere.

"The Autry Foundation has plenty of money and there are numerous areas in Burbank that sorely need to be built on," Edminster said. "I am very sympathetic to what they want to do, but the bottom line is the loss of free and open space for people who can't take weekend jaunts out of the city as well as for those of us who can."

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