Neighborhood Watch: A Sign of Change in Hollywood?

One of Hollywood’s most photographed stars could be on its way to becoming just another real estate selling point if a Chicago-based investment firm has its way.

Cahuenga Peak’s 138 acres of unspoiled mountains, which stretch behind the postcard-ready Hollywood sign, hit the real estate market earlier this month for a cool $22 million—much to the chagrin of Los Angeles city officials, who reportedly have been trying to raise funds over the past several years to purchase the property. The city hoped to preserve the mountaintop and join it with Griffith Park, where the sign sits.

According to the L.A. Times, city leaders have so far accumulated about $5 million and had intended to ask the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to help negotiate a selling price with Fox River Financial Resources. A recent appraisal estimated the ridge was worth about $6 million, resulting in all-out sticker shock from Fox River’s lofty asking price.

Ironically, the glitzy relic-turned-Kodak-moment dates back to 1923, when the Hollywoodland Real Estate Group spent $21,000 on the sign as an advertisement to promote a new residential subdivision. The sign’s 13 letters (it read “Hollywoodland” until 1949) each measured 30 feet wide by 50 feet tall and were only intended to be a temporary addition to the landscape.

Four thousand 20-watt bulbs glittered through the Hollywood night, visible from 25 miles away, and soon the sign became a symbol of the city’s glamour. But after several years the icon fell into disrepair and was replaced with the debut of a new 45-foot-tall sign in 1978.

Billionaire Howard Hughes bought Cahuenga Peak in 1940 with intentions of building a love nest for Ginger Rogers. But the actress rejected the idea, fearing Hughes would lock her up in a hilltop house like a bird in a cage. All that became of Hughes’ dream was the addition of a 100-foot-wide access to the site, and Hughes sold the gem of a property to Fox River Financial Resources in 2002. These days, real estate agents say the peak is zoned for five luxury homes. New owners would still have to get any building plans approved by the city, but the L.A.Times points out that “given the fact that the land is already zoned for residential use, it’s unclear on what basis the city could reject homes there.”

The 1,821-foot vantage affords unobstructed views south to the Pacific and north to the San Fernando Valley, promising what could be L.A.’s ultimate luxury loft. Even so, tourism officials seem skeptical any development would hinder travelers’ experiences. After all, hiking to the sign has long been forbidden, and Fox River representatives are quick to point out that a Cahuenga Peak development wouldn’t likely affect the view. “Nothing will obstruct the Hollywood sign. Homes would be built above it and behind it,” real estate agent Ernie Carswell told the Times.

And in some spots, the mountainous area reportedly tilts at a 45-degree grade, deemed unacceptable in city building codes. “At this time, nothing has been finalized and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not the land will be considered ‘build-able,’” explains William Karz, spokesman for the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau. Still, the challenge to L.A.’s most recognizable landmark has already stirred plenty of strong emotions.

“There’s never enough open space, in my mind, when you’re in the middle of a major metropolitan area,” says Chris Baumgart, chair of the Hollywood Sign Trust. “Best-case scenario would be that the whole hillside continues to look like it does now forevermore.”

Regardless of what happens to the land, the sign can be viewed in its as-yet pristine state from Hollywood and Highland Center, Beachwood Canyon Drive, Gower Boulevard, and Lake Hollywood.

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Photo: LA Inc.

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