Falling tree just misses landmark

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood hadn’t suffered this kind of blow in more than half a century -- since the day a windstorm blew the H off the Hollywood sign.

A powerful gust whipped down Beachwood Canyon last week, toppling Hollywoodland’s oldest tree and sending it crashing toward the pioneering neighborhood’s oldest structure.

But a garage next to the original Hollywoodland subdivision sales office deflected the 30-ton Torrey pine, sparing by about an inch the landmark Tudor-style Hansel-and-Gretel house built in 1923.


A 20-man crew spent Wednesday removing the downed 170-foot tree, carefully maneuvering a crane to hoist 10-ton pieces of the pine away from the office at 2700 N. Beachwood Drive.

These days the steeply pitched, shingle-roofed structure continues to house the Hollywoodland Realty Co. and several other commercial tenants just inside the distinctive stone entryway to the neighborhood at the north end of Beachwood Canyon.

Tree experts credited the building’s 84-year-old garage with saving the wood-framed office.

The falling pine crushed the garage. Its branches damaged two other homes and at least three parked cars. Although there were passersby on the nearby street when it toppled at 9 p.m. the day after Christmas, no one was hit.

“We’re blessed. I’m sure that tree was protecting Beachwood Canyon Village. The amount of damage that was actually done was so minimal,” said Patricia Carroll, owner of the old house and garage and operator of the realty company. “It was an old tree with an old soul that saved us all.”

Pioneering developer S.H. Woodruff, whose investment syndicate subdivided Hollywoodland, spent $21,000 to build the Hollywood sign in 1923 to advertise the new neighborhood. The sign originally spelled out “Hollywoodland” before a windstorm sent the letter H flying. The sign was repaired and shortened to its present name in 1949 and totally rebuilt in 1978.

The canyon was dry and desolate in the early 1920s when Woodruff hired horse-drawn graders to carve dirt roads along its hillsides. He planted trees to shade new homesites; the Torrey pine next to his office was said to be the first to go in.

About 540 homes now dot the hills around Beachwood Canyon along Hollywoodland’s narrow, tree-lined streets. Homes that Woodruff originally sold for $10,000 are now routinely listed at $1.4 million and higher.

The neighborhood remains popular with screenwriters and others involved in movie and television work.

Mary Geary lives in a Spanish-style home on Woodhaven Drive that was the first house built in the subdivision. Its roof was damaged by the falling pine tree. She has lived there since 1950. Her father, cinematographer Alfred Gilks, was co-winner of an Academy Award for his work on “An American in Paris” in 1951.

“The tree made the biggest bang I’ve ever heard in my life,” Geary said. “There was a tremendous amount of wind when it fell. But there was no warning it was about to go.”

Arborist Paul Pondella, who used a 40-ton crane to lift huge pieces of the pine off the demolished garage, estimated cleanup costs at $10,000. He predicted replacement of the garage would cost $75,000.

He said the pine, which was 75 to 80 years old, was nearing the end of its life span -- which experts say is typically about 100 years. But Pondella suggested that construction of a nearby driveway had hastened its demise.

Fran Reichenbach, a leader of the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Assn., said city officials were made aware in 1998 that the tree’s roots were causing pavement on Woodhaven Drive to buckle. Street maintenance administrators determined that resurfacing could not occur until the privately owned tree’s root systems were trimmed.

The destroyed garage structure was used as a community exhibition space. Showings there have included historic depictions of the Hollywood sign.

Lamonta Pierson, an unofficial historian of Beachwood Canyon, was relieved to see that the garage’s original sliding barn door-style doors were battered but largely intact after the huge tree trunk was lifted away.

“Aren’t we lucky? It helped save the main building. We have a lot of tourists that come up here and would have been very disappointed if this place was gone,” said Pierson, a canyon resident for half a century.

Antique store owner Jeff Meyer -- whose nearby shop was once housed in the old realty office -- said the towering pine fell close enough to the building to strip away its copper rainspout.

Meyer displayed old photos showing the subdivision sales office being constructed on the dusty hillside. There are no paved roads and no other structures in sight. The pictures show that the Torrey pine has yet to be planted.

Mark Van Amringe, a marketing consultant who is a longtime friend of building owner Carroll, said she scurried on New Year’s Eve to get the proper city permits to remove the fallen pine in hopes of beginning the cleanup before the coming rainstorm.

As soon as the crane hoisted the final 1-ton chunk of pine trunk, Van Amringe poked through the garage debris, hunting for vintage door hardware that might have survived. He found some of the original barn door rollers.

He praised arborist Pondella’s light touch with the 30-ton trunk.

“He was accommodating -- and he has an aesthetic,” Van Amringe said.