Hollywood Cemetery, the Los Angeles Herald, May 21, 1905.
For over 115 years, Hollywood Cemetery, or what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery, has offered a bucolic place of eternal rest for those finding their everlasting reward. The first constructed within the boundaries of what is now Hollywood, California, the cemetery was organized to serve the citizens of Cahuenga Valley in finding a place of rest for themselves and their loved ones. Instead of slow, peaceful days of running their business, the owners from the very beginning concept of the memorial have battled to even stay open, opposed by real estate and land interests.
The Hollywood Cemetery Association was first organized February 18, 1897 when F. W. Samuelson of Humboldt, Nebraska, Mrs. M. W. Gardner of Santa Monica, Joseph D. Rodford, Gilbert Smith, and Thomas R. Wallace announced they had filed incorporation papers with $100,000 planned capitol to build a cemetery near Hollywood and Colegrove, per the February 19, 1897 Los Angeles Times, on land purchased from Samuelson. They intended the land to serve as a resting place for rich and poor alike living in the surrounding area, and the city of Los Angeles, just two and a half miles away.
Hollywood Cemetery, Hollywood Vagabond, May 19, 1927.
On July 27, however, the County of Los Angeles filed suit trying to obtain an injunction and restraining order against the Association and its employees from laying out the cemetery without first applying to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for permission to do so. Under a new law recently adopted, construction of a cemetery, crematory, or burial ground in the county required approval before doing so.
Judge Allen sustained the injunction in favor of the County on October 11, 1897, though the Association argued it had begun plans and signed contracts before the County enacted their rule. They also pointed out the proposed cemetery was two and a half miles from Los Angeles and three miles from a very large population.
The California Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of the Hollywood Cemetery Association on May 15, 1899 and approving their plans to construct the cemetery, after it appealed the earlier ruling. The Los Angeles District Attorney asked the Supreme Court to rehear the case because he felt the Cemetery could eventually become a nuisance in a district which could eventually be “largely used for residential purposes. “
On August 2, 1899, Judge Allen vacated his earlier judgment, allowing construction of the ‘Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard on 160 acres purchased from Samuelson for $40,000 in 1897. Two weeks later, a newly reconstituted Hollywood Cemetery Association announced on August 14, 1899 that they had incorporated with a capital stock fixed at $200,000. Directors included Samuelson, W. F. Botsford, Homer Laughlin, I. N. Van Nuys, N. M. Entier, John Freeman, and H. C. Brown.
Though everything looked like smooth sailing, nearby residents began complaining that the cemetery was too close to homes and calling for its demise, even though most cemeteries were located within city boundaries. William J. Fay used on October 3, 1899 to prevent the establishment of the cemetery, which his attorney stated would bring “Irreparable injury” to adjacent homeowners. The Los Angeles Times states that they felt the location was entirely suitable: the ground was too level in the cemetery and therefore wouldn’t drain; when dry, cracks and crevices in the ground would allow dead bodies buried there to become exposed to the air and noxious exhalations from them would corrupt the atmosphere. They argued that during the rainy season the grounds would flood, causing damages to caskets and bodies which would cause drainage issues and corrupt local wells. Just a day later, plaintiff Fay disavowed the injunction, allowing construction to move forward. Once again, the Hollywood Cemetery Association dodged a bullet threatening to end its livelihood.
Hollywood Cemetery, New Movie Magazine, 1930.
Newspapers announced on December 31, 1904 the grand opening of the Hollywood Cemetery Association ahead of schedule, with an ad in the Los Angeles Times claiming “easy driving distance of Los Angeles,” one of its many selling points. An ad in the January 1, 1905 Los Angeles Herald stated. “A hundred acres was purchased in that portion of the Cahuenga Valley that affords an unobstructed view of both mountain and sea, under the experienced supervision of Joseph Ernshaw, the distinguished landscape engineer of Cincinnati, Ohio. The management have (sic) cooperated with in establishing one of the most modern cemeteries in the world… .
The stories noted that only granite and standard bronze could be employed as headstones and markers, and that no fences would surround individual plots, and only trees and shrubs would demarcate corners. Even the lay out of the roads would accentuate the park feel of the property. In that vein, no footpaths would be laid out. They promised perpetual care of the lots by a perpetual care fund and that no lot would be sold unless buyers could provide perpetual care.
What advertisements did not point out at the time, but was common everywhere across the country, was that even in the cemetery, land purchased was restricted, only Anglos could purchase plots. While it was close to both Hollywood and Los Angeles, it was unavailable for any person of color.
Cemetery grounds included a gateway, office building, superintendent’s residence, and chapel constructed of granite all designed by Hunt and Eager, with the chapel free to those who needed to hold services.
The Hollywood Cemetery Association fought to remain outside of the Hollywood land annexed to the city of Los Angeles in 1910, fearing that taxes on their property would become too high in trying to maintain the business. Frank W. Hovey, attorney for those supporting Hollywood’s annexation remarked that the cemetery was located in the heart of land to be annexed to the city, something that would bring not only progress, but also water to the area. He believed the dead buried there no longer feared the future, and noted, “the living want progress.” The cemetery bowed to bigger forces and acknowledged they could not win, joining the annexation wagon.
Hollywood Cemetery, Hollywood Filmograph, 1930.
In late March 1910, however, surrounding residents once again protested the cemetery, asking for all operations to cease and the Association to abandon the land, claiming it was unfit for burial and allowed no drainage. The Hollywood Cemetery Association provided evidence of drainage for the rolling grounds, noting that 950 people had already been buried on the hallowed ground since its inception with no problems, and continued operation.
On April 7, 1910 the Los Angeles Herald reported that Couverly and Cotter Company had been awarded a contract to grade the land for further landscaping as well as to construct and build a second artificial lake to be encased in hole of cement with an artificial island containing fountains and rustic bridge in its middle, a moment of repose from all the controversy often surrounding its existence. The group announced that a Monterey Cypress hedge would be constructed around the whole property, and that architect B. Cooper Corbett was designing a more appropriate second entrance at Melrose and Gower, where train cars carrying the deceased unloaded their precious cargo.
In December 1921, real estate men circulated a petition to prevent the Cemetery Association from following through on certain improvements on the grounds, which would be financed by selling property along both Gower and Santa Monica Boulevard for business interests, a proposition they had been fighting for ten years. The Santa Monica-Vine Business Club hoped to obtain enough signatures on a petition to force the City Council from approving the rezoning of and selling of the land. They also requested that city streets be cut through the property.
The Association realized that they needed extra money for their perpetual care endowment, as selling of new plots would eventually not cover maintenance and upkeep. By selling the land as well, the organization could construct a new permanent chapel, receiving vault, office abiding, and superintendent’s lodge. They released publicity noting the costs of maintaining and operating a cemetery.
By the mid-1920s, the Hollywood Cemetery became like Mecca and Medina for death-obsessed tourists, who came to worship at the graves of the cinema idols they had admired from afar. Rudolph Valentino’s untimely death in 1926 added to those flocking to the burial sites of their obsessions, who soiled the ground but left no donations to help with its upkeep. This overflow of visitors increased costs for maintaining the security and look of the grounds, adding to financial burdens.
Hollywood Cemetery, the Los Angeles Herald, Sept. 3, 1905.
The Los Angeles City Council turned down protesters often irate or depressing tirades at a January 18, 1922 meeting, where certain businessmen railed against the project, joined by 99-year-old former Senator Cornelius Cole, who ended up with tears in his eyes.
The Association put their plans on hold for a few years instead of moving forward, reintroducing the planned sale in 1926, asking the City Council to waive a statute of their contract which forbid the selling of any land for commercial purposes in perpetuity. The attorney for William Andrews Clark Jr., who had constructed a grand memorial for his son on the island in the newly created lake in 1921, and the Arthur Letts estate joined those protesting any selling of land for commercial interests, or the addition of a crematory.
Film stars joined the protesters fighting to keep the cemetery intact, including Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Norma Talmadge, Sam Goldwyn, Henry B. Walthall, Alec Francis, Marshall Neilan, Ernest Torrence, and Carrie Jacobs Bond. The Oakland Tribune on November 18, 1926 joined the throngs providing misleading information by stating that Virginia Rappe’s tomb was threatened with destruction, though it was well outside of the boundaries proposed for commercial construction. Friends of Valentino stated that if the city approved the selling of the land for commercial development, they would not construct a planned memorial to the handsome actor on the cemetery grounds.
The Hollywood Cemetery Association once again shelved plans to proceed, but the financial darkness caused by the Great Depression forced them to reintroduce the selling of the land in 1930, as they owed $60,000 in back taxes. This time, William Andrews Clark Jr. joined the cemetery in their fight, per the June 12, 1930 Los Angeles Times. The former group of protesters found little support this time, perhaps due to monetary pressures others were suffering. The City Council approved selling of 600 feet of frontage along Santa Monica Boulevard, as long as 200 feet adjoining the main entrance was adapted into an ornamental and landscaped entrance.
While the Cemetery Association had suffered financially for years fighting the protests both in print and in the courts, they now enjoyed a period of peace in which to regroup and reorganize. Within a few decades, however, new owners of the Cemetery would bring notoriety and financial problems to the Valhalla on their own, reinvigorating public protests.