The Hollywood Sign and the Eiffel Tower: Monuments to Modernity, With Differences

October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

The Eiffel Tower on 10/10/11/Except where noted, all photos by Hope Anderson Productions

The monument that is mentioned most frequently in conversations about the Hollywood Sign is the Eiffel Tower, and for good reason. Both became icons by accident, having been conceived as temporary structures, and grew to represent the cities in which they are located. Both were built during the Machine Age and project the dynamism of that era. Finally, both monuments are abstract symbols, allowing their admirers to imbue them with a variety of meanings. Just as the Hollywood Sign can symbolize the movie industry,  fame, or its physical location, the Eiffel Tower can embody the Belle Epoque, the City of Paris or a triumph of engineering.   

There are, however, important differences. While Gustave Eiffel’s iron masterpiece wasn’t supposed to be permanent, it certainly looks as if it were built for the ages. An engineering marvel, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world upon its completion in 1889. Its base, particularly the curved spans that support its legs, somehow manages to be both massive and delicate. To stand under it, as I did during a recent visit, is to see a breathtaking array of lacy patterns whose beauty belies their strength. As charming as the Tower is from a distance, it provides an even greater visual thrill a close range.

By contrast, in its original incarnation (1923-1978) the Hollywood Sign wasn’t engineered at all. The letters were anchored from behind by telephone poles, rather than bolted to a foundation. Unsurprisingly, over the years assorted letters were knocked down by windstorms and, in the case of the H, by an out-of-control car driven by  the Sign’s caretaker, Albert Kothe. After the old Sign was torn down in 1978, its replacement–the present-day version–was skillfully engineered. Caissons were sunk into the bedrock, and the new corrugated steel letters were bolted to a heavy steel scaffolding. In its 33-year history, the current Sign has never moved, whether during earthquakes or windstorms, or required any repairs. 

The Present-Day Hollywood Sign Under Construction, 1978/Courtesy Bruce Torrence

Perhaps because both my grandfathers were engineers, I have a great fondness for the back of the Hollywood Sign, where its support structure can be seen. The helicopter pilot on my aerial shoot told me that, to his knowledge, I was the only person who ever shot the back of the Sign.  I also shot the back from the ground at close range, both on video and in still photos.

The front of the Sign is another story. At close range, its corrugated steel resembles nothing more than an industrial fence, and projects the same appeal. The Hollywood Sign can only be appreciated at a distance, where its 45-foot letters can be read.

Which brings me to another difference. The fact that the Hollywood Sign is composed of letters that make up a word sets it apart symbolically from the Eiffel Tower. Though both monuments represent modernity, the Sign’s “wordness” (to quote Leo Braudy) gives it an abstraction that goes beyond any meaning attributed to the Eiffel Tower. By virtue of its height, the Eiffel Tower projects a common message that the Hollywood Sign does not. Which, of course, explains the Sign’s appeal to tourists in search of a photo opportunity. Standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, you’re an ant–albeit one that has traveled to Paris. But in front of the blank white letters of the Hollywood Sign, it’s all about you, the potential Hollywood star.

Looking Southwest from Mt. Lee, Circa 1925

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Hollywoodland (left) and Lake Hollywood (right), Circa 1925/Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

This photograph, probably taken from just below the Hollywoodland Sign, showcases the dramatic western view from Beachwood Canyon, circa 1925. At the time, Hollywoodland’s winding roads and Lake Hollywood Reservoir were brand new.

Though not apparent from above, the network of retaining walls that supported the roads was an engineering triumph in its own right. Hollywoodland’s developers, mindful of creating the first planned hillside development in Southern California, spared no expense in building the neighborhood’s infrastructure. Both the roads and retaining walls are structurally sound today.

Lake Hollywood, pride of the Los Angeles Department of Water’s Chief Engineer William Mulholland, owes its distinctive shape to Holly Canyon, which was flooded for the reservoir. In its design, Lake Hollywood is a virtual twin of the St. Francis Dam, whose failure in 1928 remains California’s greatest man-made disaster. That dam break, which killed some 600 people and flooded a 54-mile area from Santa Clarita to the ocean, prompted an immediate reinforcement of Lake Hollywood. Even so, Mulholland never dared to fill the Lake to capacity. Today, it holds just 2.5 billion gallons of water–as opposed to the 12.4 billion gallons held by the St. Francis Dam just before it broke. (Recent forensic studies have shown the St. Francis Dam disaster was caused by unsuitable geological conditions in the San Francisquito Canyon, in addition to design deficiencies.)

Looking beyond Hollywoodland and Lake Hollywood, one can make out the still largely undeveloped expanse of West Los Angeles. Only the Pacific looks the same, with Catalina faintly visible in the distance.

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