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L.A. STORIES : Uncovering a History as Wild as the Canyon Itself

November 08, 1995|ROB A. CAMPBELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Late one hot summer night in 1982, three of my raffish teen-age friends and I left the Odyssey, a now defunct dance club, and headed north to the Sunset Strip looking for something rebellious to do. Feeling lawless, we drove up Fuller Avenue to Runyon Canyon. Benny had heard it was haunted.

"It used to be Errol Flynn's estate," he said.

"I heard an old opera star died there," said Billy, flipping his long blue bangs out of his eyes. "You can still hear him singing on quiet nights."

Tina, 5-foot-2 in spike heels and squeezed into a tiny dominatrix corset, told us the story of a bandit who was captured and hanged in the canyon back in the wild days before Hollywood was settled.

Ignoring the "No Trespassing" sign, we squeezed through an opening in the chained gate that read "The Pines" and entered a moon-washed canyon full of animal noises and crumbling ruins. We climbed a steep incline to an empty pool, nestled inside among the debris and graffiti, and told ghost stories until a pink and gray dawn broke over the eastern ridge.

Over the next two years, we returned occasionally with new friends, perpetuating the rumors we had heard and starting new ones of our own.

Recently, I learned the details of Runyon Canyon's history through Jenifer Palmer-Lacy, president of Friends of Runyon Canyon. It seems my friends and I weren't all that far off.

Spanning a wide gorge that runs from just above Franklin Avenue to Mulholland Drive, the tract was originally called No Man's Canyon and is believed to have been a campsite for the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe. In 1867, the federal government deeded the canyon to "Greek George" Caralambo for his services in the U.S. Army Camel Corps. The infamous bandit Tubircio Vasquez was captured while hiding out in Caralambo's adobe and later hanged--but not in the canyon.

In 1919, Carman Runyon, a wealthy coal merchant from the East Coast, bought the canyon, giving it his name and using it as a riding and hunting retreat.

With his salary from the 1929 talkie "Song O' My Heart," famed Irish tenor John McCormack bought the canyon from Runyon, built a mansion he dubbed San Patrizio (St. Patrick with a pinch of Mediterranean spice) and added lawns, gardens, a reservoir, a pool and tennis courts. During the 1930s, Hollywood stars--Janet Gaynor, Charles Boyer and Marie Dressler to name a few--rented San Patrizio during McCormack's frequent world tours.

In 1942, George Huntington Hartford II, heir to the A & P Grocery fortune, purchased the estate and renamed it "The Pines." He enlisted Frank Lloyd Wright and his son Lloyd Wright to design a hotel and country club, but the project was quashed by neighborhood opposition.

Lloyd Wright succeeded in building a pool house, a cottage for Hartford's sidekick George Headley, and a few studio apartments for the Huntington Hartford Foundation colony for artists, writers and composers, which provided residence fellowships from 1949 to 1963.

Flynn resided in Hartford's pool house in 1957 and '58 after forfeiting his Mulholland Drive home for back alimony, which accounts for the popular legend that the canyon was Flynn's estate.

When Mayor Sam Yorty refused to accept the canyon as a gift from Hartford in 1963, Hartford sold it to Kahlua importer Jules Berman, who planned a luxury-home subdivision. Berman razed San Patrizio and its accompanying structures to make way for construction in 1970, but neighborhood resistance put a stop to his development plan. In 1972, a fire ravaged the canyon leaving only stone foundations and dirt access roads.

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Palmer-Lacy was enchanted by Runyon Canyon the first time she laid eyes on it in 1980, and says she started giving "history hikes" even before it was declared a city park in 1984. Heated debate continues over the Metro Transit Authority's announcement in 1989 of plans to tunnel under the park to connect the Red Line to the Valley.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is asking the MTA to take steps to mitigate the damage to the park. Says president John Diaz: "Even if the MTA has half the problems they had with the Hollywood Boulevard site, they could irreversibly damage the park's ecosystem."

To top it all off, there's the question of the Lloyd Wright/ Headley cottage, currently owned by jeweler Robert Lyons. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission rejected Lyons' proposal to build a 10,000-square-foot home on the property. His appeal will be heard Tuesday.

Despite the turmoil, Runyon Canyon continues to be a peaceful escape for stressed-out city dwellers--and the center of Hollywood dog culture. During my frequent hikes in the park, I've learned where to get flavored dog water and doggy knapsacks, and I don't even own a dog. And this is the only place in Hollywood where people will look at you like you're crazy if you don't say hello.

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