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Star's Gift to L.A. Wrapped Up for West Hollywood

May 05, 1988|RON RUSSELL | Times Staff Writer

Two years before he died in 1946, silent screen star William S. Hart made Los Angeles an offer it couldn't refuse.

He would give the city his two-story ranch house at the foot of the Sunset Strip and $50,000 in exchange for a promise to erect a fountain there and preserve the estate as a park in his honor.

It was an unusual proposition from the beginning.

Some, including the cowboy actor's son, believe Hart originally intended to give the estate to Los Angeles County--as he later did with his 260-acre ranch near Saugus--and may have contacted the city by mistake, since the nine-room house at 8341 De Longpre Ave. wasn't in Los Angeles.

Regardless, on a December afternoon in 1944, with movie stars and politicians among those gathered on the front lawn, the 72-year-old actor made the gift official in a speech in which he explained his generosity as an attempt to "give back to the American public some part of what the American public has given to me."

Few could have known that Los Angeles officials would in short order forget all about their promise to develop William S. Hart Park.

Now, after 44 years, the promise has been resurrected, thanks to a proposed 30-year lease with the City of West Hollywood that is expected to be concluded next month.

Although the estate--which is within West Hollywood's city limits--will remain the property of Los Angeles, West Hollywood has agreed to develop and maintain it in accordance with the late actor's wishes. A fountain and walkways will be built, and, eventually, the home itself will be restored, West Hollywood City Manager Paul Brotzman said.

To help cover the cost, West Hollywood will receive about $250,000 that has accrued from a trust fund established with Hart's original $50,000 gift. The city hopes to receive another $78,000 from the state.

Officials of both cities consider the arrangement ideal. Densely populated West Hollywood will get a choice acre of sorely needed park space, while Los Angeles will be relieved of a long-troublesome commitment to develop a park outside its boundaries.

"It's really a fluke that (the park's development) took this long," said Robert Vulcan, a longtime resident who heads the West Hollywood Historical Society. "L.A. didn't care about it. The county wasn't interested. And the immediate neighbors for the most part preferred the status quo.

"More than anything else, it was a case of nobody pushing and nothing getting done," he added.

As the star of 50 feature films from 1914 to 1925, Hart is credited with doing more than anyone else to help the adult western come into being. Along with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, he was among the biggest box office stars of the 1920s.

He moved into the house on De Longpre in 1919 at a time when some of the most important names in show business were acquiring similarly expensive properties as part of the first onslaught of Hollywood's wealth. He lived there until 1927, when work was completed on the ranch, 40 miles north of Los Angeles.

"It was the kind of place where in those days you could hear the wolves howling at night and look out over a cattle ranch that is today West L.A.," said his son William S. Hart Jr., 65, a Santa Monica real estate appraiser.

Court Battles

Although he fought unsuccessfully in court for years to overturn his father's will, which denied him a part of either estate, Hart has been an avid supporter of the effort to see the park developed.

"The other stuff is history," he said. "The important thing is that something be done to preserve my father's name in the way he would have wanted it. After all these years, I think he's owed that."

It was in the living room of the house that Hart and Winifred Westover, the daughter of Swedish immigrants and a young starlet who had met the actor while performing in one of his westerns, were married in December, 1921.

Five months later, the couple separated. Hart continued to live in the house along with his sister, Mary Hart, and his pregnant wife moved into an apartment in Santa Monica. They were divorced several years later.

A rare photo shows the couple sharing a chair in front of a roaring fireplace, with a sculptured bust that was part of Hart's impressive collection of western memorabilia, peering down from the mantel. It is a far cry from the room's stark appearance today.

Adorned with a drab table and a few worn chairs, the room is used mostly as a rehearsal area for the professional actors' group that occupies the building.

As an undeveloped park, the property has been something of a well-kept secret over the past four decades.

For the first 17 years after Hart's death, the estate was leased to a show business couple who had been friends of the actor, while Los Angeles officials from time to time debated what to do with it.

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