What’s our sign?
Sentimentality for the commonplace is one of the defining characteristics of grown-up cities, which can be so heartless otherwise. When even a corner bar closes, some locals get all weepy if the bar has been around longer than they have. That some Angelenos are getting sentimental over threatened Los Angeles landmarks signals something about a maturing city, but in the crazy way this city has of layering every good intention with irony.
The Hollywood sign is the current example. It’s a genuine icon -- blown up, blown away, shaken down and incinerated in a string of disaster movies dating from 1974’s “Earthquake.” But the sign on the slope of Mt. Lee isn’t the original. Put up in 1923 to boost sales in an upscale housing development, the sign first read “Hollywoodland.” The “land” part was jettisoned when ownership of the deteriorating sign was transferred to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in 1949. The “Hollywood” sign continued to decay until 1978, when some Hollywood stars donated $27,000 each to replace its sheet-metal letters and their telephone pole armature with a sturdier but slightly smaller replica. The sign was renovated again in 2005 by the Hollywood Sign Trust, which is now the sign’s official caretaker.Protected by monitoring equipment to deter pranksters who used to re-letter the sign into such configurations as HOLLYWeeD, the reworked sign stands for ... well, what exactly?
As a facsimile of the battered original (auctioned on eBay for $450,000 in 2005), the replacement is shamelessly inauthentic. That makes it an ideal L.A. landmark -- and we needn’t be embarrassed that we chose it ourselves. There are worse alternatives. In 1988, a blue-ribbon commission of architects and community activists picked “Steel Cloud” -- a proposed half-mile-long Brutalist train wreck of shops and movie theaters built on pylons down the middle of the Hollywood Freeway -- to be the West Coast’s answer to the Eiffel Tower.
Unlike “Steel Cloud,” the Hollywood sign may be the people’s monument, but much of the sign’s hillside setting is developable land owned by the Fox River Financial Resources, a Chicago investment firm. Bought in 2002 for $1.6 million and recently appraised by the city at about $6 million, the 138-acre site, which was part of the estate of Howard Hughes, is listed for sale at more than $20 million. According to the Chicago firm, the property could accommodate five residences of the sort favored by oil emirs.
Which means that Chamber of Commerce officials, historic preservationists, European tourists and other believers in the myths of Los Angeles are rallying to protect the integrity of a remake of an old real estate billboard from the developers of a new subdivision. And they should, despite the obvious incongruities. The public’s regard for the Hollywood sign is such an amalgam of memories, false associations, blatant huckstering, civic history and pure love that it’s impossible to unmix them. Preserving the sign’s setting -- or anything else of value in this city -- saves our delight in living here in all its garbled inauthenticity. The Hollywood sign glows in the collective imagination of the world, so universal is the sign’s symbolism. It sells itself.
Other significant landmarks in this city of easily edited memories aren’t so lucky. The monumental Felix the Cat sign on Figueroa Street failed to earn the protection of heritage status from the City Council last year. The Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, demolished in 2006 to make room for a high school, was taken down last month despite agreements to incorporate it into the school. The Wyvernwood Apartments in Boyle Heights, a rare example of 1930s-era cooperative residential development in L.A., is scheduled to be torn down. The Angels Flight funicular to Bunker Hill, closed since a fatal accident in 2001, has yet to reopen. Dutton’s Brentwood Books -- the epicenter of literary L.A. -- will close April 30 because there seems to be no business model that profits from the store’s earnestness and quirky individuality (qualities the city once had).
We’ve let so much of Los Angeles slip away in the undertow, but the good news is that landmarks are everywhere, probably at the end of your street or just around the corner. Take a look at the Million Article Thompson sign above a former hardware store on Vermont Avenue at 89th Street. It’s a tower of steel girders and blue and orange tin panels (and neon, once) that even in its shabby disrepair asserts more about the brazen optimism of 1920s L.A. than almost anything I know. Or the bungalow court at 1428 South Bonnie Brae Ave. designed in the Egyptian Revival style by Edwin W. Willit in 1925 and looking as if a set from “Intolerance” had been miniaturized to be rented out to the star-struck. Or drive by any one of the hundreds of Spanish-style houses on the Hollywood hillsides. They wrap up so much longing for a place in Los Angeles.
All of them -- and the Hollywood sign too -- are real places of memory even if they fail to be real in any other sense. Too few of them will survive, but some will. The mission of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the nation’s largest historic preservation organization, and as many as 300 other organizations in Southern California is saving what is so easily discarded.
There are Angelenos who understand that their nostalgia preserves more than old signs or historic buildings. Their sentiment saves us, too, from having no place to call home.
D.J. Waldie, a contributing editor to The Times, is the coauthor with Diane Keaton of “California Romantica.”