Los Angeles city parks officials will turn over the William S. Hart Park and its $284,000 trust fund to the city of West Hollywood for the next 30 years, despite claims by the silent film star’s son that Los Angeles has mismanaged the fund.
The vote Monday by parks officials, coupled with approval that night by the West Hollywood City Council, officially clears the way for long-awaited renovation of the park at the foot of Sunset Strip. West Hollywood has already started working on the park.
Hart’s son supports the $750,000 renovation but asked that it be delayed until Los Angeles officials conduct “an accurate accounting” of the trust fund. The 67-year-old Santa Monica real estate appraiser estimates the fund should be worth more than $800,000 based on interest rates since 1944, when his late father donated $50,000 for the park.
“I would just like to see justice done and my father get something that he paid for,” William S. Hart Jr. said.
Hart Jr. is supported by the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which fears future gifts to the city’s Parks Department could be jeopardized by its handling of Hart’s money.
“It shows they are reckless and don’t really care that much about their credibility or the way they manage their money or other people’s money,” said Alexander M. Man of the club’s Angeles chapter.
But James E. Hadaway, the department’s general manager, said the city has already provided an adequate accounting of the fund. In a three-page report prepared in 1987, the department attributed the balance to low interest rates in the 1940s and 1950s and to decisions over the years to invest only part of the fund because of “current and anticipated expenditures.”
The department acknowledges the money could have earned more interest if it had been invested differently but maintains that it chose investments “providing a greater degree of liquidity and security.”
Hart Jr. and Man say the city’s explanation raises as many questions as it answers. As an example, they point to a reference in the report to a period in the early 1960s when none of the money was invested because of plans for park improvements. The improvements weren’t made, and two years later the money was turned over to the city treasurer to invest.
“I am beginning to suspect that they spent the money,” Hart Jr. said. “I believe it was just thrown into the general fund, and it was forgotten about.”
The Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners suggested Monday that Hart Jr. and Man request a more detailed accounting of the fund. But commissioners said there was no reason to delay the 30-year-lease agreement with West Hollywood. Under the agreement, Los Angeles will retain ownership of the park, but West Hollywood will operate it.
“If we hold this, it accomplishes nothing under the circumstances,” said Commission President J. Stanley Sanders. “The passage of time is not going to correct the accuracy of the past accounting.”
Commissioner Dominick Rubalcava said postponing the agreement would do a disservice to the actor’s memory by further delaying development of the park he dreamed of.
Hart donated $50,000 along with his De Longpre Avenue ranch house and about an acre of land two years before he died. The star of silent westerns wanted the city to erect a fountain there and preserve the estate as a park. During a ceremony in 1944, Hart said he was “trying to give back to the American people what the American people so generously gave to me.”
Los Angeles officials never took much interest in the property, which was the actor’s first California home and where he married actress Winifred Westover in 1921. The two-story ranch house has been leased to various tenants over the years--most recently Actors Studio West--but never developed as a traditional park.
West Hollywood, which has only two other parks, has been eager to have the estate as a park. For several years, it leased the property from Los Angeles on a monthly basis. The two cities stepped up negotiations three years ago for a long-term lease after Hart Jr., the Sierra Club and others helped defeat a proposal for a parking garage on the property.
Lloyd Long, West Hollywood’s director of human resources, said the city’s Public Facilities Board has discussed the controversy surrounding Hart’s donation, but the city has made no effort to check into claims that the fund has been shortchanged. Long said the entire $284,000 will go toward the current renovation and to cover maintenance expenses.
“At this point, we are taking the city of Los Angeles’ word for it,” Long said. “But that doesn’t preclude us from looking into it in the future.”
Hart Jr. said he is particularly upset about the fund because West Hollywood could use the additional money to renovate the park. The current development will include landscaping, a fountain, walkways, benches and an AIDS memorial, but West Hollywood officials say they still don’t have $500,000 needed to rehabilitate the ranch house.
“I am not going to get anything out of this,” said Hart Jr., who waged an unsuccessful court battle in the 1950s and ‘60s to overturn his father’s will. “The real beneficiaries are the older people who live in West Hollywood who use that park. . . . But it is as though (Los Angeles officials) just don’t give a damn.”