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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

The Old Rugged Cross of the Cahuenga Pass

February 26, 1996|Cecilia Rasmussen

It began as a universal symbol of peace and ended up a casualty in America's ongoing legal cross-fire between church and state.

For more than 70 years, a 34-foot illuminated cross looming over the Cahuenga Pass has been one of the landmarks by which motorists mark their passage between downtown and the San Fernando Valley.

In fact, the cross was conceived not as a purely religious monument, but as a memorial to one of Hollywood's pioneers, Christine Wetherell Stevenson, the heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune who helped arrange construction of the Hollywood Bowl. She was also an aspiring playwright who wrote "The Pilgrimage Play," a pageant about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

In 1920, Stevenson choose 29 acres across the Cahuenga Pass from the Hollywood Bowl and helped carry stones from the nearby hills to build the open-air Pilgrimage Theater. She died two years later and in 1923, her admirers memorialized her by planting the cross on the hill above the theater.

Within six years, a brush fire destroyed the original theater and in 1931 Stevenson's drama reopened in a concrete theater designed in what was described as an "ancient Judaic style."

For many years, the cross was lighted only at Easter and during the annual "Pilgrimage Play" season. But the public's affection for the landmark grew and soon Sunday school children were donating money to keep the cross lit. Ultimately, Southern California Edison Co. assumed that expense and bore it until 1941, when the theater and cross were donated to the county. After the county supervisors accepted the gift, they renamed the theater after Supervisor John Anson Ford, recognizing his 24 years of service to the district in which the theater is located. The play continued its annual run until 1964, when the first in a series of lawsuits triggered by the facility's religious uses forced an end to the performances.

The cross was damaged by fire a year later. The county replaced it with a steel and plexiglass structure and operated it routinely for years. But the tradition came under legal fire in 1978, when a California Supreme Court ruling ended Los Angeles' 30-year practice of lighting City Hall windows to form a cross at Christmas and Easter. Two years later, a college professor successfully argued in court that the county was violating the constitutional separation of church and state by maintaining the Ford theater cross as well.

The cross, however, remained--dark and unguarded, abused and unused. Vandals chipped away at its foundation until a windstorm knocked it over it 1984.

Afterward, a small group of crusaders began raising funds for a new cross by doing a video documentary, recording a song, "The Ballad of the Hollywood Cross" by Mindas Masiulis, and collaborating with the Hollywood Heritage preservation group.

Almost 10 years later, with little fanfare, a new cross was erected on the small hilltop patch after the group purchased the site from the county.

The glowing landmark rising above the Cahuenga Pass had survived wind and rain and, finally, even a strict construction of the Constitution.

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