July 31, 2023: This campaign is dedicated to the memory of Paul Reubens, who loved William S. Hart’s house museum, and advocated for its preservation.

In his 1946 will, the silent film actor William S. Hart left his 254-acre Horseshoe Ranch in Newhall, personal possessions and a trust account “for the benefit of the American public of every race and creed,” to be maintained and administered as a free public park by the County of Los Angeles. His Spanish Colonial Revival ranch home La Loma de los Vientos (Arthur Kelly, 1927) operates as a house museum managed by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

The City of Santa Clarita, in which Hart’s ranch is now located, wants to take control of William S. Hart Park, the house and collections from the County, and Supervisor Kathryn Barger has prepared a motion to initiate such a transfer. It comes up before the Board of Supervisors for a vote on Tuesday, July 12 at 9:30 am, and it is item #7. (Here is the statement of proceedings from this meeting, along with the report back requested.)

William S. Hart’s gift to the American public was carefully considered, and there is a clear clause in his will that states if the County “shall fail, neglect or refuse to perform each or any of the other conditions hearby imposed” that the property would immediately be conveyed to the State of California to be maintained and operated in the same way.

You can read Hart’s original will, along with the 1991 judgement that allows the County to hold ticketed and paid fundraising events on site, for the benefit of the park, the current motion and agenda, here.

The citizens of Santa Clarita love William S. Hart Park and make great use of the grounds all year round. We imagine their Parks Division could maintain the property in the manner that County Rec and Parks has for seven decades. And the dedicated volunteers of The Santa Clarita Historical Society and Friends of Hart Park and Museum would continue to provide passionate interpretation, programming and research to bring Hart’s life and films into focus.

Pictorial California, 1929 (Santa Monica Public Library)

But a house museum, packed with delicate and valuable artifacts, requires skilled staff, specialized resources, conservation, restoration, climate control, offsite storage, security and curation. All of these things are ably provided by the professional staff and facilities of the Natural History Museum. Santa Clarita cannot possibly offer the same level of care as an accredited regional museum that has been looking after William S. Hart’s legacy since his death, nor can it be expected to budget for the sorts of unexpected physical plant expenses that the County can afford to cover as needed.

We call on the County Supervisors to respect the spirit and intent of William S. Hart’s generous gift, and not attempt to break his will. If you share our concerns, you can let the Supervisors know that you want the County to remain the caretaker of William S. Hart Park by calling in to the July 12 meeting, and/or by sending written public comment. To address the board by phone, call (877) 226-8163, then enter participant code: 1336503 starting at 9:00 A.M. Press 1 then 0. You are giving comment on item 7: Initiate Negotiations for the Proposed Transfer of William S. Hart Park to the City of Santa Clarita. Written public comments may be submitted through the website at https://publiccomment.bos.lacounty.gov

One of the most sacred responsibilities of elected officials is the stewardship of resources held in the public trust, which are to be protected and maintained for current and future generations. Los Angeles is suffering a breakdown in stewardship, and the losses are piling up: the Egyptian Theatre sold to Netflix and gutted, LACMA demolished after false testimony by museum staff to the Board of Supervisors, State Landmark Old Trapper’s Lodge dismantled with sculptures thrown into the back of a truck. William S. Hart Park belongs to the citizens of the future, and nobody now alive has the right to risk taking that away from them.

Update July 13, 2022: It’s been gratifying to hear from William S. Hart fans all over the country who share our concerns about the stewardship of this unique museum and ranch. Big thanks to Paul Rubens / Pee-wee Herman and Michael McKean for sharing this post to their social media accounts.

We live-tweeted yesterday’s Board of Supervisors hearing, but after holding for 90 minutes, we were never called to speak. Two people did get through on the matter of William S. Hart Park: one concerned citizen who suspects this is being proposed to benefit redevelopment interests, and Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste, who explicitly confirmed that the city’s aim in taking control of William S. Hart Park is to enhance the Old Town Newhall arts and entertainment district and to “greatly expand” the annual Cowboy Festival. (You can listen to her comments here.) Also, you can see some of the written public comments submitted here, including a terrific unsigned letter about the worldwide significance of William S. Hart as a filmmaker; as of 7/11/2022 the breakdown is 6 opposed to the transfer and 3 in favor.

During yesterday’s hearing, the Supervisors voted unanimously and with no discussion to move forward with Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s motion to initiate negotiations, all of which is moot if the probate court doesn’t permit Hart’s will to be broken. We will track the progress of this motion and any court action, and update this blog post and our social media with future opportunities to speak out.

Back to Mayor Laurene Weste’s interesting comments. What’s going on with the municipal Cowboy Festival that seeks to “greatly expand” into Hart Park? On January 18, the city made this announcement: “Due to L.A. County Department of Public Health restrictions and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the City of Santa Clarita regretfully is announcing the cancellation of the 2022 Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival [scheduled for April 23-24]. The current county public health mandates regarding vaccination requirements for staff, volunteers, performers and vendors – make it unfeasible to hold the event this year.”

Many cities and private promoters are holding public events while abiding by public health requirements, but Santa Clarita decided to cancel instead, apparently due to low vaccination rates. We wonder if the impetus to break William S. Hart’s will has its origins in some local decision makers’ discomfort with Los Angeles County’s vaccine requirements, as demonstrated by December 2020 reporting that Santa Clarita was one of several local cities exploring options for forming their own Public Health Department independent of Los Angeles County. We also wonder if public health requirements might have anything to do with William S. Hart Museum having still not reopened to the public, when the County’s other museums have been open since July 2021?

As of this morning, the William S. Hart Museum webpage has been updated with a red banner with the misleading statement “The Hart museum will remain closed until further notice. The County approved a motion to transfer ownership of William S. Hart Park and Museum to the City of Santa Clarita.” That is not actually what the motion says, and it’s troubling that a County-run institution would misrepresent County legislative activity and misinform the public.

The banner links to The latest news about the Hart, which further states: “The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) are a public-private partnership between the non-profit Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History Foundation and the County of Los Angeles. On July 12, 2022, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to begin negotiations with the City of Santa Clarita in order to transfer ownership of William S. Hart Park and the William S. Hart Museum to the City. The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County have managed the Museum and collection since the 1960s on behalf of L.A. County and, pending successful negotiations approved by the Board of Supervisors and other required governmental agencies’ approval of the transfer, will work closely with L.A. County and the City of Santa Clarita to develop plans for a smooth transition. The Hart Museum remains closed at this time.”

We will continue to monitor this situation closely. The Los Angeles County Supervisors are charged with caring for institutions held in the public trust, not disrupting, dismantling, demolishing or giving them away. They blew it badly when they approved demolition of LACMA, and we don’t want them to blow it here.

The night before the Supervisors met, we got a phone call from one of Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s deputies, who was concerned about our concern.

We shared with her a litany of worries about stewardship, security, preservation and conservation of the priceless artifacts that are part of William S. Hart’s gift to the people, and specifically brought up the theft of $2 Million in Western and Native American artwork from the city’s poorly managed Southwest Museum. We didn’t mention the theft of the Navajo blankets donated by William S. Hearst to the Natural History Museum, another inside job.

So we will track the progress of this motion and any court action, and keep you informed about future opportunities to speak out. We expect that unethical art dealers and collectors are also paying attention, but together we can try to ensure Hart’s wishes are honored and his treasures kept safe.

Update October 28, 2022: In our latest newsletter you’ll find a video shot on a visit to the shuttered William S. Hart Museum, in which we share some of our concerns and hopes for the future of Hart’s extraordinary gift.

Update November 2, 2022: Here is the report back dated 10/24/2022 that the Board of Supervisors requested in July about the proposed transfer of William S. Hart Park to the City of Santa Clarita.

Update January 30, 2023: Perry Smith reports in The Signal on a strange exchange that occurred during last week’s Santa Clarita City Council Budget Committee meeting. Councilman Bill Miranda asked City Manager Ken Striplin “to estimate the cost of the purchase of Hart Park,” and Striplin declined, “noting there was still some work being done on the deal.” We are very confused about the potential transfer of stewardship of Hart’s ranch and house museum being described in terms of a property sale, and are seeking clarification from the city and County.

Update February 3, 2023: We reached out to the office of Supervisor Kathryn Barger for an update, and Gina Ender responded: “We received the report back from the Department of Parks and Recreation and Natural History Museum in October. I’ve attached that document here. The Natural History Museum has provided the background and context regarding the Museum collection to the City for their consideration. Since then, we have been waiting for the City of Santa Clarita to take their next steps. The City of Santa Clarita will have to submit their proposal to the County, which the County will review before putting it up for a vote before the Board of Supervisors. Until the city follows up to formalize their desire to proceed with the transfer, we are on standby. Many thanks! I’ll let you know if I receive any updates.”

Update May 9, 2023: At the book release event for Driving Force at the Natural History Museum Collection Center in Vernon, we were encouraged to hear NHM President Lori Bettison-Varga refer proudly to the three museums in the County’s collection: Natural History, Page (La Brea Tar Pits) and William S. Hart’s House! We hope it stays that way.

Update June 13, 2023: At its regular 6pm meeting, Santa Clarita City Council heard Agenda item #4: Analysis Related to the Feasibility of Transferring Ownership of William S. Hart Regional Park, with recommended action to review the analysis and provide direction to staff. We live tweeted the contentious hearing, and you can watch video here (fast forward to the last half hour). While superficial, the analysis is interesting, raising a big question: what’s in it for Santa Clarita’s taxpayers? If it takes control of Hart Park from Los Angeles County, the city will be on the hook for approximately $2 Million annually and unknown future costs to address the deferred maintenance of historic buildings, trees and landscape, plus for the creation of new curatorial and collections management positions. There is also uncertainty if Hart’s digital assets can even be moved from the Seaver Center where they are integrated into the Western History Research collection, and the worrying fact that under new ownership, Hart House would be considered a new institution and not be eligible for AAM accreditation for two years. Meanwhile. Hart’s house remains closed, while all other Los Angeles County museums are open. Whatever happens with the proposed transfer, we hope this changes soon. (See also: Santa Clarita Signal’s pre-meeting reporting, with quotes from the City, County and community stakeholders)

Update June 15, 2023: The Santa Clarita Signal (which has nutty owners) published this post-meeting wrap up. We attempted to make a clarifying comment, which was not approved. Below is the censored comment: Thanks for the coverage. One step not mentioned above is the need to seek approval from the probate court, because this proposal violates William S. Hart’s will, which states if the County doesn’t want his gift, it is to pass into State control. The City likely can do a better job maintaining the grounds than the County can, but there are serious concerns about the care and protection of the house museum and its contents, which require climate control, offsite storage, disaster planning, conservation and a high level of security. The proposed transfer, if approved, would result in loss of museum accreditation and it would be several years before the City could apply for it again, assuming significant profession staff are added to the job rolls. You can read the will and more about our stewardship concerns on our blog.