What Flattened the Top of Mt. Lee (of Hollywood Sign Fame)?

The Hollywood Sign stands on the face of Mount Lee, a 1,708-foot peak in the Hollywood Hills. 1960 photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A monument to a failed dream frames the Hollywood Sign. Behind the landmark letters rises the 1,708-foot summit of Mount Lee, a hilltop whose flatness is no geologic anomaly, no wayward mesa from the Southwest. Instead, it's the remnant of a movie mogul's abandoned plan to build the grandest mansion in Los Angeles.

One of the highest peaks in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, Mount Lee originally sported a rounded top. A narrow ridge connected the then-unnamed summit to nearby Cahuenga and Burbank peaks; together, they were known as the Three Sisters.

In 1923, a real estate syndicate christened the peak Mount Hollywoodland and opened at its base Hollywoodland -- a housing subdivision advertised in white block letters fifty feet tall. Among the developers was Mack Sennett -- a pioneering filmmaker best known for slapstick comedies like the Keystone Kops -- who reserved for himself an 18-acre mountaintop parcel where he hoped to build his dream house.

And what a dream it was. From the mountaintop, Sennett could see and be seen; he would enjoy commanding views of the entire city, and as the only structure on the crest of the Hollywood Hills, his house would become a conspicuous landmark. Plans by architect John L. DeLario placed a dining room, living room, drawing room, library, conservatory, kitchen, servant's quarters, and a butler's pantry all on the first floor. On the second floor, in addition Sennett's own apartment, would be four guest rooms and a suite of rooms for Sennett's mother. Outside were terraced Italian gardens, a 2,800-square-foot swimming pool with a sand beach, and a paddock with easy access to a bridle path that wound its way through Griffith Park. The design recalled a hodgepodge of Mediterranean influences, which the boosterish Los Angeles Times praised as "a new architectural style characteristic of Southern California and the sun-splashed hills and valleys." The total cost? One million dollars.

To create space for such a palace, workers would have to shave off the top of Mount Hollywoodland. By December of 1925, steam shovels were tearing into the mountain's sedimentary rock, shortening the peak by 69 feet, flattening four level acres at the summit, and carving a winding driveway that linked up with the Mulholland Highway.

But soon after the initial grading was complete, progress stalled. Then the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out much of Sennett's fortune, once valued at $15 million, further delaying construction. Finally in 1933, bankruptcy forced Sennett to abandon his plans. Others would find a use for the leveled hilltop -- in 1939, broadcaster Tommy Lee purchased the site, renamed the mountain after his father Don Lee, and installed L.A.'s first television studio there -- but the curiously flat mountain remains the legacy of a vanquished dream, a counterargument to the Hollywood Sign's alluring promise.

Hot Town: The Shape of Los Angeles and the 'Heat Island' Effect

Hot Enough?
| Photo from MS Gallery

For more than a hundred years, researchers have measured daytime and nighttime temperatures that are consistently higher in cities than in the surrounding countryside. This is the "urban heat island" effect caused, it is said, by the concentration of structures, hard surfaces, people, and the heat-generating mechanical systems that allow cities to survive.

Depending on geography and climate, the nighttime temperature of an urban core can be as much as 22 degrees warmer than its rural fringe.

A new study by Yale researchers has clues to why daytime temperatures are higher downtown, with implications for how Los Angeles may fare as average temperatures rise and the city's landscape is reshaped by development, drought, and public policy.

My Fourth of July Experience is Just Ending

On July 4, I boarded my dogs for the night. In my neighborhood, fireworks and explosives start early -- about a week before the holiday -- as a kind of test run for the big night. Things go off here and there, nothing like the barrage of the Fourth, but varied (booms, bellows, cracks sharp as lightning) and unpredictable enough to jar my animals, one of whom hears just one noise and immediately seeks refuge in the bathtub. The level of fireworks and explosives in a neighborhood correlates exactly with economics: the more upscale a place, the quieter it is because fewer people are outdoors as a rule.

Wealthier people live indoors. The wealthiest places, like some areas of Pacific Palisades, don't even have sidewalks, I suppose because they don't want to encourage anybody, even residents, to even think about wandering outside for any length of time, to say nothing of going in the middle of the street to set off fireworks for hours on end. Nor do well-off neighborhoods have much in the way of streetlights, which seems counterintuitive (aren't all safe places supposed to be lit?) until you remember that upscale people like their privacy, and darkness assures that. Too, why would you need lights when you know with great certainty that you live in a safe place? Streetlights are demanded by people who live with a certain level of unease, who are always striving to keep chaos at bay. The wealthy are, psychologically speaking, post-chaos.

My neighbor's two dogs ran off on the Fourth, unable to cope with the chaos that takes over our neck of Inglewood when the sun goes down. I felt semi-responsible for one, Rex, a rescue that my husband brought home from a gas station late last year: a big, friendly, tri-colored shepherd/Lab puppy wearing a city-issued license (good news) with a number that turned out to be 17 years old (bewildering news). A tag from a dead letter office.

Before the 110 Freeway, Figueroa Street Ran Through These Tunnels

Two-way traffic once ran through the Figueroa Street Tunnels, now part of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Driving through the Figueroa Street Tunnels might be one of L.A.'s most dramatic freeway experiences. As you plunge through the first Art Deco portal, the downtown skyline recedes in your rear-view mirror. A minute later, leaving the last of the four bores, you enter the world of the Arroyo Seco Parkway: sycamore trees, sweeping curves, and arched bridges.

The tunnels weren't always part of the state freeway system. Built between 1930 and 1936 by the city of Los Angeles, they originally carried Figueroa Street through the rugged terrain of Elysian Park. Two lanes traveled in either direction, separated by white double stripes. Pedestrians were welcome, if not expected; a single five-foot sidewalk (since removed) ran alongside the forty-foot wide roadway.

Designed by municipal engineer Merrill Butler1, the tunnels bore the aesthetic flourishes that distinguished Butler's more-celebrated Los Angeles River bridges. Art Deco patterns and ornamental street lamps adorned the concrete faces of the portals and retaining walls. Inside, reflective tiles reinforced a sense of motion. And above each of the eight portals, a stylized version of the Los Angeles city seal was cast in concrete.

Aesthetic considerations aside, the tunnels were first and foremost a traffic relief measure, the key part of a program to widen and extend Figueroa Street between downtown and Pasadena. (The grade-separated intersection of Temple and Figueroa is another legacy of this program.) Previously, the principal route north of downtown had been North Broadway, which often choked with traffic where it crossed the Los Angeles River. The four tunnels represented a shortcut around North Broadway and through Elysian Park, whose southeastern flank was sacrificed in the name of traffic flow.

Footsore: L.A.'s Sidewalk Mess Needs Better Ideas

It's no secret to anybody who is a pedestrian (and that would be all of us) that Los Angeles is a crumbling town. The decomposition of its sidewalks -- among other things -- has passed the tipping point and reached a tripping point. The city already pays $3 million to $5 million a year settling "trip and fall" lawsuits caused by particularly dangerous sidewalks.

The state of the city's walkways makes laughable the claim that Los Angeles is about to become one of the nation's most "walkable" cities.

Walkable, sure ... but only if you carefully pick your route and time of day. Otherwise, you're picking your way across heaved concrete slabs, dodging the open wells of street trees (thanks for the shade), or taking an ill-lighted path into the creepy unknown after dark. For those of us not young, not nimble, and not clear of vision -- and that's a lot of us -- there are miles of treacherous Los Angeles hardscape to be crossed on foot.

On Hollywood Boulevard, a Myth Becomes Reality

Gaudy Los Angeles can be a badly disappointing town. For its critics, wrote William A. McClung, the city is "a strange place, reached by a journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected." Even before Mike Davis bleakly ordered the city's apocalypses in "Ecology of Fear," the snarky authors of the travel guide "L.A. Bizarro!" wrote, "Any reasonably intelligent American knows that Los Angeles is a rotten, stinking dump."

Dump it is from time to time and a place where even the tinsel is simulated (Universal CityWalk comes to mind). The tourist fantasies of Hollywood and Vine turn out to be clip joints. The concrete in front of the Chinese Theater memorializes names you never heard of. And tours of the stars' homes take you past hedges behind which no star has lived since Gloria Swanson was driven off in her Hispano-Suiza.

Those of us here more or less permanently have become hardened both to the come ons and to the disappointments. We're pleased to define our lack of feeling as "sophistication."

That is, until the tourists reveal something else.

Are We Tall? Are We Flat? Ooze or Coagulate? What Should The Buildings of L.A. Say?

Peter Zumthor's proposed LACMA design | Photo: © Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, is asking some provocative questions about the overhauled design of the proposed replacement to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.

Both the former and the new concept for replacing LACMA's unloved, mid-1960s buildings are by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The first concept intruded on the footprint (and airspace) of the La Brea tar pits and their trove of paleontological specimens. The revised plan loops away from the pits and crosses over Wilshire Boulevard.

Hawthorne asks what Zumthor's flat, sinuous blob of a design says about Los Angeles. He wonders if Zumthor's intersection of place and structure is missing the point.

"(M)y feelings about Zumthor's LACMA have grown more complicated," he wrote in his Critic's Notebook recently. "The more I think about the plan's newly attenuated form, stretched like a piece of black bubble gum across Wilshire, the more I wonder if the architect's basic reading of Los Angeles could use an update."

Selling Your Town: Next Up, Simi Valley

I have a friend who lives in a small town where the beaches are like sugar and the sunsets are like fire. He likes his town for its sugary beaches and its fiery sunsets and its fine fishing and down home lifestyle, but mostly he likes it because few people know about it.

Not all my friends are so lucky. Just the other day, another friend in another beach town wrote, "Ok July 4th is over. I need the tourists to go home now. I'd like to grocery shop, get outta my driveway and be able to park at the beach. And no, I don't want to sit under the shade of someone's umbrella who I don't even know! Thank you. Good bye."

I bring these juxtaposed friends and towns up because last month the Simi Valley City Council approved a proposal by hoteliers to form the Simi Valley Tourism Marketing District. The name is pretty self-explanatory, but given this age when many clear things turn out to be unclear, let me briefly explain. Beginning July 1, the city of Simi Valley began collecting a two percent assessment on hotel room stays of less than 30 days. The city keeps one percent. The rest of the funds will be used by the Simi Valley Tourism Alliance, a private non-profit. Using this money the Simi Valley Tourism Alliance will attempt to trumpet Simi Valley's charms to the world -- the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Strathearn Historical Park & Museum, Skatelab Indoor Skatepark & Museum, the Santa Susana Depot & Museum, and Bottle Village.

Who's Reformed? Not the Legislature While Reform Bills Languish

We expect -- although experience argues against optimism -- that state legislators will be men and women of virtue. Realistically, they won't always be virtuous or even ethical. And so California has a system of laws to check unethical behavior before political corruption becomes endemic.

The system that checks corruption has failed. The quality of malfeasance in Sacramento has passed from reciprocal back scratching and pandering for campaign money to something uglier. The mess today includes bribery, political vendettas, globalized crime, and arms deals.

In recent polls, only 35 percent of voters approve of Sacramento lawmakers; 47 percent disapprove, largely since state Senators Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello), and Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) were caught up in widely publicized criminal investigations. (Wright has already been convicted.)

The investigations continue and may uncover additional criminal behavior, possibly by other members of the legislature.

Photos: When Trolley Tracks Ran Through Southland Beaches

A Pacific Electric trolley rolls down Redondo Beach in 1939. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Trolleys once rivaled the crashing surf in the soundscape of Southland beaches. Along much of the Southern California coast from Santa Monica to Redondo and from Long Beach to Newport, a red dot -- a distant Pacific Electric car -- would appear down the shore. As it neared, the click-clack of the wheels moving over the wooden ties, the squeal of steel on steel, and the monotonous clanging of the bell would temporarily overwhelm the Pacific's roar.

They might have been somewhat of a sonic nuisance (though no worse, perhaps, than automobile highways), but in the early twentieth century, trolleys were an essential transportation link between populated inland areas and the coast. Indeed, many beach cities were born of trolley lines.

The opening of Abbot Kinney's Venice of America coincided with the arrival of an electric car line. In the early days of Manhattan Beach, real estate sharks circled the seaside development's trolley station, waiting for prospective homebuyers to disembark. And one Orange County beach town so owed its existence to interurban trolley lines that it named itself after the region's preeminent trolley magnate, Henry Huntington.