Land trust solicits funding to buy peak near Hollywood sign


Nobody seemed to want the mountaintop in the old days.

Legend has it that mining mogul-turned-ostrich farmer Griffith J. Griffith was scared into giving a huge chunk of the rugged ridge to the city of Los Angeles in 1896 after encountering the ghost of the former landowner on the property.

When aircraft titan Howard Hughes acquired the western end of the mountain in the 1930s and tried to build a love nest for actress Ginger Rogers high upon it, she refused to go along with the idea.

“He wanted to take me and lock me up in a hilltop house and never let me see anyone,” Rogers explained later. “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.”

Los Angeles officials all but forgot about the privately owned 138 acres next to the Hollywood sign known as Cahuenga Peak until a group of Chicago investors purchased it from Hughes’ estate at a bargain-basement price in 2002.

Jaws dropped when the new owners announced plans to subdivide the peak into five luxury home sites and put the lots up for sale.

Suddenly, everybody seemed to want a piece of Cahuenga Peak.

On Tuesday, city leaders and preservationists outlined what they describe as a last-ditch plan to purchase the peak and prevent its development by making it part of Griffith Park.

Officials of the Trust for Public Land have negotiated to purchase the mountaintop for $11.7 million. They have raised about half of that but must come up with the rest of the cash by April 14, they said.

The nonprofit trust’s leaders say Fox River Financial Resources Inc. executives had sought $40 million for the acreage, which features a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley.

The company paid nearly $1.7 million for the peak eight years ago.

The Chicagoans “found a Van Gogh in a garage sale. They knew enough about Hollywood to know not to give it away,” said Paige Rausser, a senior project manager for the trust. She said Fox River partners discovered that the peak could be made accessible to vehicles because in the 1940s Hughes had sued the city to prevent the site from being landlocked.

As part of the settlement of that lawsuit, the city in 1949 approved a 100-foot-wide easement to the peak from the end of Wonder View Drive.

Trust leaders said they are confident they can raise the remainder of the purchase price, which they say is tied to an appraisal of the property 10 months ago. Funding commitments so far have primarily come from public sources such as developers’ Los Angeles park, or Quimby, fees; fees paid to the city for development of the nearby Forest Lawn cemetery; the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy; and the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, said Sam Hodder, the trust’s California director.

As part of an effort to solicit public contributions and raise a total of $12.5 million, the trust plans to cover the Hollywood sign with a banner reading “Save the Peak.”

But getting approval to do that was almost as complicated as negotiating the land’s purchase.

Officials originally planned to do the sign covering Thursday in conjunction with an announcement of their purchase plans. But Los Angeles police beat them to it by warning Hollywood residents Monday that the sign would be temporarily covered “for an international campaign.”

City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area around the peak and solicited the trust’s involvement, called the acquisition of the mountaintop “absolutely critical” to Los Angeles.

“We’ve all got to pitch in,” LaBonge said. “I was as surprised as anybody to find out we didn’t already own that parcel.”

If the trust is unable to purchase the peak and give it to the city, the acreage will go back on the market. Real estate agents for Fox River have speculated that wealthy overseas buyers anxious to take advantage of the soft U.S. dollar -- perhaps from China or the United Arab Emirates -- might snap up the peak.

Leaders of the San Francisco-based trust said it is rare for the city and the Hollywood Sign Trust to grant permission to cover the 450-foot-long tourist landmark.

In the past the sign has been the target of pranksters who have used bedsheets and other materials to change the wording of the sign to such things as “Hollyweed” to comment on marijuana laws in 1976; “Ollywood” to protest the hero-worshiping of Lt. Col. Oliver North in the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings; and “Oil War” in a 1990 Gulf War protest. Other times it has been altered to read “Go Navy,” “Go UCLA, “Caltech” and “Fox” (the TV network got permission for its promotional sign).

An alarm system was installed in 1999 after nearby residents complained about trespassers and sign-tampering. The system was upgraded last year, according to sign trust officials.

Police said sensitivity over the iconic sign prompted them to issue Monday’s advisory “so we do not receive phone calls from worried citizens.”

The trust plans to have the banner up Wednesday through Monday.