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Beneath an Iconic Sign, a Great Barrier Beef

In Hollywoodland, a fence erected to protect a couple's property pits neighbor against neighbor.

August 28, 2004|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The latest Hollywood reality show is playing out right here in the hills -- just downhill from the iconic Hollywood sign.

Call it "Pandora's Fences."

They say good fences make good neighbors.

But an otherwise undistinguished fence has generated a fracas in the neighborhood called Hollywoodland. It has pitted neighbor against neighbor, and by that we mean actor against producer, producer against TV writer, real estate agent against producer. So many producers, so little tolerance.

Actually, said Peter Lavin, president of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Assn., "it's a very liberal, tolerant neighborhood."

"We've heard from every side of this, endlessly," he added. "It's ridiculous it has gotten to this level. It became deeply personal, with so much animosity on both sides. We want a compromise."

Lavin is one of many straddling the fence, as it were, urging the two sides in this long-running ruckus to find some common ground, preferably level, here in this community of sloped lots and steep drop-offs.

But first, some back story.

Two years ago, Mike and Laura Armstrong (TV and film writer and TV producer, respectively), then of Durand Drive, decided to build a fence along one side of their yard. The yard is on a slope that at its lowest point dips to about 14 feet below street level. The fence, a basic wooden structure, is 5 1/2 feet tall, set atop a concrete curb and snakes along 168 feet of curving Durand.

The Armstrongs said they needed a fence to protect their property from pedestrians and pedestrians from their property. It wasn't just the starry-eyed tourists backing up heedlessly to snap photos of the Hollywood sign, which looms on a hillside across from the three-lot property. The Armstrongs said they were also constantly picking up bottles and other litter that people chucked over the wall. And lawn furniture went missing.

Then there was the moonless night when, Armstrong said, a neighbor's friend, after having hoisted a few, tumbled into their pitch-black yard. It was so dark that he had to climb an avocado tree to figure out how to get out. This secondary plot has a happy ending: no injuries, no lawsuits.

All that aside, the fence sparked the ire of neighbors, including Crosby Doe, a real estate agent who deals in architecturally significant homes -- and, in fact, lives in a pristine 1927-vintage Spanish Colonial Revival house across the street with a view of Hollywood Reservoir. From the edge of his hilltop driveway, he can lean over and see the fence.

After the fence went up, Doe formed the Committee to Save the Hollywoodland Specific Plan and complained to the city that the barrier violated special neighborhood building rules that went into effect in 1992. Among other complaints, he said the fence was attached to one of the granite retaining walls that is included in the city's Historic-Cultural Monument No. 535. (The monument encompasses the neighborhood's granite retaining walls and stairs, built by Italian craftsmen in the 1920s.) Rules also, Doe said, dictate that new fences and walls be set back three feet from the front lot line. This one is not (since it's on a slope).

Moreover, Doe said, the fence fails on aesthetic grounds. It "degrades this area ... and imparts a 'back alley' look to what was once a scenic and beautiful drive with direct views of the Hollywood sign and vistas across the canyon which are now completely blocked," he recently told the city Planning Department.

Doe prides himself on being a passionate protector of historic monuments and neighborhood character. Years ago, he lambasted Madonna for painting her Mediterranean-style Hollywoodland house -- previously used by Bugsy Siegel as a gambling den -- with "mustard yellow and hot-dog red stripes." He said he viewed the fence as a test case in his bid to protect Hollywoodland's special building rules.

The neighborhood, at the northern end of Beachwood Canyon next to Griffith Park, is steeped in history. In 1923, it was launched by a five-member real estate syndicate (including former Times publisher Harry Chandler). The developers envisioned a neighborhood with a "superb environment without excessive cost on the Hollywood side of the hills."

Architects designed cottages and castles in Mediterranean, French and English styles. As a publicity ploy, a sign reading "Hollywoodland" (shortened to "Hollywood" in 1945) was erected on Mt. Lee and emblazoned with thousands of blinking lights.

The 1929 stock market crash stifled the developers' grand plans, but in the 1950s and '60s developers began adding more modern homes to the mix.

Hollywoodland has been home to many a celebrity -- Humphrey Bogart, the cowboy artist Charles M. Russell, writer Aldous Huxley, Doris Day, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Tork of the Monkees.

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