The Back-story of Wilacre Park:
You might inadvertently think it’s called Wild Acre. I was given a tour of the park recently by Gary, a local who regaled me with stores about the good old days. As a youn-en, he drove his Model T on the fire roads in the hills overlooking Studio City. We tramped the Betty Dearing and the U-Vanu trails. Since the late 80s the park has been owned collaboratively by the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy and the National Park Service.
Gary mentioned that he thought the name Wilacre was not a contraction of Wild Acre, but he’d heard it was named after a person. Indeed Gary was right. The park is named after Will Acres a former owner and silent film star. Tracking down said Mr. Acres was impossible. If you have any leads, let me know.
1890s ownership records report that “a Frenchman” owned the land and ran a sheep ranch. Another trail turned cold. By the turn of the century farming in Studio City had cycled though several droughts. Sheep prefer grazing on weeds, which grew abundantly under the cover of the walnut and sycamore groves, which continue to thrive in the park.
Who bought and sold exactly which parcels in the hills is a little muddled, but we have enough information to get the big picture of how the park came into being. It is reported that after the death of Frenchie, the property was bought by Jules Viole, a Los Angeles pharmacist, who used it as a summer home. However conflicting records (1939 LA Times) report that Harry C Fryman, a developer, got his hands on 1,200 acres of land between Laurel Canyon and Coldwater Canyon running from Ventura to Mulholland. The tone of the story suggests he got hold of all of the land in the hills, but it was actually 1.87 square miles of land, which is not the entire hillside. Allegations were made that Mr. Fryman misappropriated public fire fighting funds to benefit this land. Not an unusual story given the Wild West nature of things back then. Fryman ultimately developed Briar Cliff Manor, which I think we now call Briarcliff Estates.
However if you continue north on Fryman Road beyond the main entrance to the park you’ll see an unkempt gated home with a mailbox with the letters “P.--oil” on it. Reportedly this is a 14 acre parcel still in the hands of descendants of the earlier owner’s family.
The road inside the park, now the Betty Dearing trail, was built by General Walter P. Story (National Guard), who acquired the parcel beginning at the parking lot and Ranger’s residence. Story who hailed from Montana became a prominent Los Angeles businessman and developer. (In 1908 he built the 14 story (The Story) building at 610 S. Broadway - which still stands). Apparently General Story lived and entertained extravagantly. He was said to have imported a bull-dozer through the Panama Canal to carve out the road which is now the Betty Dearing Trail, and the meadow at the crest of the trail. I’d have thought that it was the film star who built the road and home, of which only foundation flagstones remain - just off the main trail.
In the 50s Story tried to develop 95 condo units. He was foiled by Briar Manor residents-there’s irony for you. From that time forward the neighbors and conservationists waged a pitched battle to maintain the Wilacre property in its natural state. There were efforts to get the city to buy and preserve the land, lead by Betty Dearing, Nancy Pohl and Stanley Hirsch. There were statewide efforts to create a preservation area along Mulholland which included the Doheny Estate (Franklin Canyon); The Huntington Hartford Estate (Runyon Canyon); and Wilacre.
After much nail biting and close calls, the properties passed into the hands of the National Park Service.