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.
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.
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.