Los Angeles city dwellers once enjoyed a sanctuary of gnarled oaks, serene pools and exotic ferns on Griffith Park's southwestern edge. But four decades of neglect have left the 20-acre Fern Dell retreat a shabby relic of its former self, which is why a band of park lovers is now trying to restore it to its early Hollywood heyday.
"Fern Dell is in pretty bad shape, but it is not too late to save it," said Bernadette Soter, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Friends of Griffith Park.
The volunteer group has launched a campaign to rejuvenate the 95-year-old stream-fed garden spot, restoring its 17 footbridges, ripping out thickets of invasive ivy and bamboo, and beefing up security.
Despite the decay, Fern Dell remains popular with park visitors, as day-tripping parents and children mingle with tourists out for a promenade and hikers heading up the scrubby hill to the Griffith Observatory.
Few of the 10 million people who visit Griffith Park each year realize, however, that Fern Dell was once a must-see Los Angeles attraction whose fern gardens, terraced pools and footbridges were celebrated in picture postcards.
Soter and others are leading tours of the area, hoping to build support as well as private donations and public funds for the newly organized Griffith Park Historic Fern Dell Preservation Project. She said the cost could exceed $1 million.
On a recent weekday, Soter walked along Fern Dell's meandering 1,800-foot gravel pathway and pointed out problems resulting from years of neglect, budget cuts, relentless vandalism and "expedient fixes that only made things worse."
"We'd like to tear all that out," she said, pointing toward crude metal piping and sagging chain-link fences erected long ago to discourage visitors from straying off the paths and thieves from helping themselves to ferns.
Throughout the area, clumps of remnant ferns are threatened by weeds, broken sprinklers and crumbling retainer walls. Ponds are dry or filled with muck. Picnic areas are marred by graffiti.
Maintenance crews recently uncovered the remains of a 10-foot-tall stone-and-mortar waterfall that had been hidden beneath dense thickets of weeds.
An earlier attempt to restore Fern Dell fell short. In the mid-1980s, the city Department of Recreation and Parks, with the support of neighbors and activists, spent nearly $650,000 in state and city funds on repairs and improvements that included replacing plant stock, installing a sprinkler system and replacing the original concrete-railed footbridges with prefabricated metal bridges.
Three thousand ferns were planted in 1984, but within five months half had been stolen or trampled.
This time, the Friends of Griffith Park, which was formed in 2010, is taking a different tack, rethinking old ideas, accepting hard facts and adopting new goals. The group is partnering with the city to promote the campaign, raise funds, sponsor cleanups and graffiti paint-outs, and develop long-term landscape maintenance strategies, said Gerry Hans, Friends of Griffith Park president.
To address cost and theft concerns, "a plant palette could be developed that emphasizes hardy, low-maintenance ferns and native plants," Hans said. "We don't have to fill the entire canyon with rare ferns."
To be sure, some corners of Fern Dell are still lush and picturesque. Some ferns are descendants of plantings made in 1914, when work began on the man-made idyll tucked in a narrow canyon beside Fern Drive, north of Los Feliz Boulevard, under the direction of city parks superintendent Frank Shearer.
By 1916, more than 400 ferns had been planted in what is now the southern half of the garden. The northern half was developed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The dell became an attraction in the 1920s for visitors, who ventured into the garden in their Sunday best. Eventually, bus operators put it on their sightseeing routes. Movie producers used Fern Dell as a "tropical" backdrop for films.
It has always been a haven for wildlife. Tree frogs and Western toads thrive in the stream. Gray squirrels bound across grassy slopes. Woodpeckers hunt for insects in native sycamores and oaks. Bobcats and coyotes prowl the grounds at night.
The group is preparing an initial assessment paid for by grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Griffith J. Griffith Charitable Trust. The findings will help lay the groundwork for a revitalization plan.
"You can see the value in what remains," Hans said. "It is too great a treasure to let go."