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

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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.

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These two views from Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park show how Sennett's construction project transformed the top of Mount Lee. The darker hump behind Mount Lee is the 1,821-foot summit of Cahuenga Peak. Top: Mount Lee circa 1905, courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection. Bottom: Mount Lee in 2013, courtesy of Flickr user dspouliot. Used under a Creative Commons license.
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A view of the Hollywoodland Sign and Mount Lee (or Mount Hollywoodland, as it was then known) circa 1923-25, before Sennett's construction project flattened the summit. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A steam shovel above the Hollywoodland Sign, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A steam shovel above the Hollywoodland Sign, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A steam shovel grades the summit of Mount Hollywoodland, circa 1925. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A steam shovel grades the summit of Mount Hollywoodland, circa 1925. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A drawing of Mack Sennett's never-built mountaintop mansion. Courtesy of the UCLA Library Special Collections.
A drawing of Mack Sennett's never-built mountaintop mansion. Courtesy of the UCLA Library Special Collections.

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