Hart Park theft prompts concerns

A door to William S. Hart's mansion shows signs of wear on March 29, 2024. Perry Smith/The Signal
A door to William S. Hart's mansion shows signs of wear on March 29, 2024. Perry Smith/The Signal
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Recent theft and visible damage seen from the outside of William S. Hart’s mansion at Hart Park in Newhall left its advocates frustrated Thursday and asking about ways to get the facility into city hands sooner.  

In June, Santa Clarita approved 10 steps for city staff to acquire the park. 

The plan is to turn the last L.A. County park within city limits over to the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department, including the barn, the open space, and the mansion, which, while part of the pending park transfer, is currently operated as a separate entity by the L.A. County Natural History Museum. The land was willed to Los Angeles County by famed Western silent film star William S. Hart about four decades before Santa Clarita was formed.

 

The paint on the door to Mary Ellen's Tea Room is cracked and worn. Perry Smith/The Signal
The paint on the door to Mary Ellen’s Tea Room is cracked and worn. Perry Smith/The Signal

“As of March 2024, the city has reviewed the first draft of the master agreement from the county and has sent a revised version back to the county,” Carrie Lujan, city of Santa Clarita spokeswoman, wrote in a text Thursday. “Once the conditions of the transfer and draft language are agreeable to all parties, staff will bring the agreement before the City Council for consideration. This agreement must be finalized and approved before the county filing with probate court.” 

However, the probate process alone for such a property could take up to a year, said Leon Worden, vice president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. 

In the meantime, the mansion will need some care, he said, still in the work clothes he was wearing while working on the historical ranch house next door.  

Indeed, the teal blue paint was severely chipped outside some of the mansion’s doors Thursday, including the door leading to Mary Ellen’s Tea Room on the upper grounds. The floorboards inside looked missing and showed signs of severe wear. 

But a theft reported Tuesday — a large ornate wooden bench rumored to have been made by Hart himself — was what had some of the park’s staunchest advocates decry the state of care for some of Newhall’s most significant historical landmarks. 

“The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County is aware of the theft of an outdoor bench that was located behind the William S. Hart Museum. We are working closely with the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department to investigate the matter, along with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, who manage the William S. Hart Regional Park,” said to an email Thursday evening from Mara Naiditch, associate vice president of marketing and enterprise for the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County. “The bench in question is part of NHMLAC’s collection but was used by the general public. We can also confirm at this time that no other objects from the Hart Museum were stolen.” 

A note outside its door and on the mansion’s website said it’s been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“The closure, undertaken to meet county and state COVID safety guidelines, provided an opportunity to reassess the visitor experience. Los Angeles County has asked NHMLAC to not reopen the Hart Museum until a decision is reached,” according to the notes.  

Naiditch wrote in response to a request Friday that the organization was working on a response to questions about the mansion’s care. 

The floorboards inside part of the mansion are missing and show signs of disrepair. Perry Smith/ The Signal
The floorboards inside part of the mansion are missing and show signs of disrepair. Perry Smith/ The Signal

The park’s facilities are actually under the care of three separate entities, and all of them seem to be supportive of the city’s stated goal of taking over the park: the L.A. County Natural History Museum is charged with care of the mansion; the L.A. County Department of Parks maintains the park’s grounds and wildlife; and the SCV Historical Society, a nonprofit that has relied on donations and fundraising for the past 40 years for the care of its “gate-to-gate” facilities, meaning everything from its fencing to the train station to the park’s burgeoning historical center, according to Worden. 

The city has been a big contributor, too, he said, with about $400,000 coming from its coffers over the past four years.  

Worden was one of those concerned about the park, but first and foremost, he said he didn’t want to criticize the staff or the job done by those working at the park, its facilities and its volunteers. 

“It’s not their fault,” he said, commending their efforts at keeping things going.  

Santa Clarita Councilwoman Laurene Weste said there’s only a handful of them, and they work hard, but the park and its facilities deserve more help, which the city plans to give, she said. She added that she gets passionate talking about the hills she used to roll down as a kid and wants to get this done as quickly as possible for the park’s sake. 

Weste said that city staff will be on the grounds starting next week to begin preparations for the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. If everyone was amenable, she said, perhaps a temporary memorandum of understanding could be drawn up while the property awaits its procedural reviews and probate court. 

A representative from the City Manager’s Office was not immediately available Thursday afternoon to discuss any potential MOU plans. 

When reached by phone Friday, Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth thought it would be a good idea to run the city’s options by the attorney’s office. 

He said he knew the process might not be moving as fast as some might like but added that city staff have been working on the situation for months. 

If the city proposed anything new, he’d want to make sure it would save time. He added that any agreement between the city and the county would have to be vetted by both sides’ legal counsel regardless.  

Both Weste and Worden said L.A. County 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger has been understanding of the situation, and they also weren’t upset with her office over the challenges. Barger said she wanted to keep the momentum on the transfer going. 

“I am focused on keeping the Hart Museum and Hart Park safe, preserved, and accessible to the public. Hearing a bench was stolen today angered me and signaled we need to step up efforts to safeguard this cultural asset,” Barger wrote in an email Friday. “It deserves unwavering stewardship so that we can uphold William S. Hart’s wishes in accordance with his will. I am committed to keeping up momentum during the transfer of the museum and park and welcome collaborative ideas that help us keep moving forward.”  

Worden wants the city to take control so the park and all its facilities will get the care needed.  

“You can’t hold L.A. County accountable. You can walk into City Hall and hold the city of Santa Clarita accountable,” he said. “And that’s why we formed a city.” 

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