The major remaining artifacts of the first Western star William S. Hart are, of course, his films. But there is another far more tangible relic of this Hollywood celebrity: his home. Having lived in ramshackle homes and cramped apartments in his youth, he was elated when he finally had the money to build his dream home-- an oasis where he could escape from the rush and strain of the business and relax. He found the perfect spot in Newhall, CA, where he moved in 1918. With his permanent residence still in Hollywood, Bill rented a patch of land and its small ranch house while he filmed in the Newhall region. He fell in love with it and by 1921 had purchased the lot from its original owner (George Babcock Smith). As the years progressed, Bill purchased more of the surrounding land and began planning the mansion that he would name La Loma de los Vientos ("Hill of the Winds"). After his retirement from film, he permanently settled on the estate. He lived on the property for over 20 years, and after he passed away, he left his ranch to the people of Los Angeles County, with the understanding that they be given free tours and reign of the land. It was his way of saying "thank you" to the people who had spent their time and money seeing his movies and supporting his career when he ruled as the King of the Cowboys. The house still stands as a monument to him, his life, and career.
Upon immediate arrival at the ranch, the guest will be met with glimpses of the petting zoo, the gift shop, and the park. Since rainy days are rare in California, it is a safe bet that the sunshine will make the lush green grass and the picnic tables look very inviting. The area is popular, but not busy, so a few families can be seen scattered about and enjoying the weather.
Opposite the gift shop is the original, smaller building Bill used as his home. This modest structure is nothing much to look at on the outside, but as the initial seed that sprouted the later hilltop mansion, it is still interesting to peruse. The interior is bedecked with some remaining Hart fossils, including his game room, kitchen, his sister Mary Ellen's initial bedroom, the tack and saddle room, and a room devoted to early film artifacts. In the main sitting room, a Hart movie plays to introduce the deceased owner to his visiting guests.
A shot hike up a dirt path will take you past the dog graveyard-- where Bill laid to rest all his treasured mutts-- the small bunk house, and a corner of land inhabited by bison-- most of whom were donated by Walt Disney. Following the path upward, you will come upon the modest mansion, gracing the top of the hill and overlooking wilderness views intercut only by the occasional passage of a steam engine. It is truly like stepping into the past. The exterior of the house is white stucco, painted vibrantly with turquoise trim, small colorful detail, and a red-tiled roof. It was designed by architect Arthur Kelly and completed in 1928.
Upon entering, the eye immediately goes up the spiral staircase to the rustic chandelier hanging in the foyer. The decor and style dictate from the beginning that this is a man's castle. Though replete with vibrant works of art and occasional hints of the feminine touch, the earthy style and tones are in keeping with Bill's masculine image. His adoration of the Native American culture is also firmly established, even in the original and never duplicated Indian designs applied to the crossbeams, which run throughout the house. Bill's boots, leather cuffs, and one of his shirts are also proudly on display at the entrance.
In a little room to the side, the original bathroom has been converted into a theatre tribute room, where pictures of Bill in some of his theater rolls are on display. The dining room is to the left, complete with an elegant place setting, Indian blankets covering the floors, and silver film appreciation trophies-- given to him by the likes of Marcus Loew (before the days of the Oscar). The walls are adorned with original works of art, all with Western themes, most of which were painted by Bill's good friend Charles Russell. Bill was a huge art fan and an appreciative collector, which becomes only more obvious as the tour of the house continues. A collection of horseshoes also adorn one wall, with his beloved Fritz's crowning the group at the top.
Continuing on, next to the dining hall there is a smaller dining room used for more modest occasions, followed by the kitchen. The hallway, complete with a dumbwaiter, leads back to the main entrance, which takes you upstairs. The main room at this level is the sitting room, which during Bills' life was complete with a projector and descending film screen. Holes in the back wall still reveal where this projector once operated. Samurai swords, a wooden bumper Bill bought off a passing car, and a bear-skin rug gifted by Will Rogers are proudly still in place, as well as an expensive, early record player. This is where Bill would have entertained guests. The room is still occasionally used for intimate parties and special affairs thrown by the museum.
Also present in the rotating display for silent film buffs, was a collection of artifacts from some of cinema's favorite heroes. A saber used by Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad, Harold Lloyd's specs, and Buster Keaton's hat were a pleasant surprise to me on this particular day.
Moving on, a glimpse down one hallway reveals the room that used to belong to Bill's sister Mary Ellen, who was sadly bedridden or wheel-chair bound for the majority of her time at the ranch. To get to her room, one would pass the telephone: a novel possession at the time, particularly in this less populated region. Bill's phone number was 20! Mary Ellen's private tea room leads you down another hallway, past a few more rotating displays, this time showcasing early lantern slides-- a form of entertainment made arbitrary after pictures started to move.
Down this hall, which is decorated with various paintings revealing Bill in the middle of some of his most famous film stunts, you arrive at his bedroom. With more of the same style of decor, Bill's desk-- where he probably penned all of his enjoyable novels and even his biography-- and his lengthy bed are the major eye-catchers. A fairly modest space, the room where Bill laid his head at night was actually a later addition to the mansion, for his original bedroom was overtaken by his large dogs. Bill later moved into his second room and left the first space for his slobbery dogs to sleep in.
Out the door of the dog/sitting room, you find yourself back outdoors, enjoying the scenery of an elevated patio, and another outdoor tea room delegated to Mary Ellen. Further investigation of the property reveals the area clearly used as the garage for Bill and his visitors. Walking back down from whence you came, you pass the decorative tower bearing the name of Bill's palace, which now seems to separate and protect his happy haven from the noise and clutter of the modern world. One brief visit can leave you a bit enchanted and unwilling to leave. After experiencing the peace and simple beauty of the property, a life of traffic and smog is not all that alluring.
If one has time to amble about, you can take time getting acquainted with the hogs, mules, and chickens, or perhaps take some time to peruse the gift shop, where proceeds act as donations toward the maintenance of the ranch. I purchased a copy of Bill's bio, a magnet, Hell's Hinges on DVD, and a first edition of one of his novels while I was there. (After such a lovely visit, I was on a high and easily departed with the dough). If you need a relaxed day away from it all, I highly recommend you giddy up to Bill's beloved abode. The tour is completely free, the guides are knowledgable and friendly, and even if you aren't a huge movie fan or Bill Hart fan, the interior and exterior of the ranch still give you the occasional gift of nostalgia we all need to remind us that life, indeed, is beautiful.