LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hoping to prevent the famed view of the Hollywood sign from being spoiled by development, a group set out on Tuesday to raise $5 million to buy a nearby hilltop peak once owned by billionaire Howard Hughes.
The San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land is seeking to purchase the 1,820-foot-tall (555-meter) ridge, called Cahuenga Peak, from a group of Chicago investors who acquired it from Hughes' estate in 2002 with plans to build luxury homes there.
City officials and residents have worried since then of cluttering the postcard-perfect view of the landmark sign, whose four-story-high "H" stands just to the east of and slightly below Cahuenga Peak in the Hollywood Hills.
To launch the fund-raising drive, the land conservation group received permission to superimpose over the Hollywood sign giant letters that spell out the message "Save the Peak" -- to be fully in place from Thursday through next Tuesday.
"This is as an iconic a view as you'll see anywhere in the country," said Sam Hodder, California state director of the land trust. "People fly from all over the world to come to Hollywood and see this sign. And if there were houses put up on this hill, the Hollywood sign would never be the same."
After years of fretting and on-and-off negotiations between the city and the property's owners, the land trust recently struck a deal to buy back the 138-acre tract for $12.5 million, based on an independent appraisal.
The land will then be turned over to the city and incorporated into the surrounding acreage of Griffith Park.
The development group, Fox River Financial, stands to make a tidy return on the original $1.6 million it paid for the site, which was listed for sale a year ago for $22 million.
The trust's exclusive option to buy the parcel runs out April 14. If sufficient funds are not raised by then, the property will be put back on the open market.
But Hodder said he is confident the campaign will succeed.
More than $7 million in public and private money already has been set aside or pledged for the purchase, including a major gift from The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, a New York-based charity dedicated to preservation causes.
That leaves about $5.2 million to raise by the deadline in order to gain public ownership over what Hodder described as the largest undeveloped piece of privately owned open space left in the Los Angeles area.
The Hollywood sign on Mount Lee originally read "Hollywoodland" and was created to promote a housing development in 1923. The last few letters deteriorated in the late 1940s and the part that remained was restored in 1978.
Lesser-known Cahuenga Peak has its own storied history. It was purchased by Hughes, the reclusive aviation mogul turned filmmaker, as a love nest for actress Ginger Rogers in 1940, but their relationship ended and the house was never built.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Will Dunham