When Neek and I first walked into the William S. Hart Museum foyer, two immediate impressions of the man formed for me: his love of art and his love of the Old West. This 10,000 square foot Spanish Colonial Revival style mansion completed in 1927 was designed by Arthur Roland Kelly, who was also responsible for designing the Arthur Letts, Jr. estate in Holmby Hills, more popularly known as The Playboy Mansion where Hugh Hefner lives. I noticed that along the spiral staircase leading up to the second story, there were beautiful paintings of Western motifs. It seemed very inviting, but Neek and I decided to explore downstairs first.
Usually they have guided tours, but Neek and I happened to arrive on a day where they were presenting the place “open house style.”
That meant they did have docents stationed throughout various rooms in the house where they would provide information and answer questions about William S. Hart and his spectacular home, but they wouldn’t guide you throughout the entire place. I really enjoyed this style as it gave me more time to go at my own pace and really take in all the details at my leisure.
I loved the dining room area and downstairs kitchen. First of all, I loved all of the things that were unique to a home of the early 20th century that you don’t see anymore, such as the plate warming area to keep food warm and the old-fashioned icebox.
Second, I enjoyed a lot of little personal details too, such as the Native American motifs painted onto the ceiling beams or the photo of the groundskeeper and housekeeper, Mr. and Mrs. Ito. They were a married couple that according to one of the docents, lived with and worked for Mr. Hart for over a decade, but were sadly sent to an internment camp during World War II. Third, I enjoyed seeing items you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a home at that time, like an intercom system.
There were many impressive things upstairs, but one thing that really impressed me for a home that is preserved as it was from the 1920s is that there is an upstairs kitchen! There was also a telephone room that had a one page Newhall telephone directory from the period featuring Hart which had some of the tiniest phone numbers (as far as numbers of digits) that I’ve ever seen. The long upstairs hallway has both sides filled with paintings from classic Western artists like Frederic Remington and Hart’s personal friend Charles M. Russell.
Throughout the home are so many personal items of Hart’s, such as pictures of him in various roles as a stage actor in New York, or on film sets.
There are copies of the books he wrote; when he retired from acting, he became a writer of both non-fiction (his autobiography) and fiction. One room where I could feel his personal love for animals was the room that according to a docent was originally for him and his dogs. But eventually his dogs grew so big they could no longer sleep with him, so he gave that room to the dogs and took another one!
We could see that love of animals after completing our tour of the house, when Neek and I went down the trail to see the final resting place of his horse, Fritz.
Fritz was more than just the first horse movie star, co-starring with Hart in approximately half of his films and paving the way for other stars like Roy Rogers’ Trigger, he was a dear friend and companion during his retirement too. It was a touching end to an inspiring day.
Walking into the foyer of the William S. Hart mansion in Newhall, California was awe-inspiring! The spiral freeform staircase leading upstairs had beautiful wrought iron bars and in the center of the ceiling was hanging a massive single lantern. This was William S. Hart’s retirement home that he lived with his youngest invalid sister, Mary Ellen.
The home was donated to the County of Los Angeles after his death in 1946 with the stipulation that his house and the ranch property were to be used as a museum and public park. Guest can visit on guided tours and it is free.
The home remains exactly as it was from the 1920’s. All of the docents refer to Mr. Hart affectionately as “Bill”. It’s hard not to feel his presence in this beautiful home. William S. Hart was an avid Western art collector. There are various paintings and sculptures by such well-known artists such as Charles M. Russell (who was a good friend of his) and Frederic Remington. He also collected an impressive amount of Native American art and artifacts which are mostly displayed in the upstairs parlor.
I especially enjoyed visiting the kitchen and seeing how different it is from one today. There were both an icebox and an electric refrigerator (I loved how the refrigerator was called “A life-preserver for food”). According to the docent, Bill Hart preferred the icebox.
On the counter was a photo of a young couple with one of Hart’s dogs. The docent mentioned that their name was “Ito” and work for Mr. Hart. Mrs. Ito worked as a housekeeper and Mr. Ito worked the grounds. They had a wonderful relationship with William Hart and Mr. Ito carved a wooden tray for him. The hand carved tray with the image of Hart is displayed in the kitchen.
Unfortunately, due to World War II, the Itos were sent to an internment camp and were not able to return back to the home.
Mary Ellen who passed away in 1943 had portraits of her sketched by James Montgomery Flagg who was mostly known for his illustrations of Uncle Sam’s “I want YOU for the US Army” posters.
Passing through hallways and the dining room, I would see little details such as Native-American and Western motifs painted on the ceiling beams, window shutters and doors. A dining table is all set for company with beautiful silverware, tea cups, and dishes. I wonder who would have been invited.
It was great to see all of the photos of Hart as a Shakespearean actor prior to starring in Westerns. He was popular with so many famous people of the time – taking photos with Amelia Earhart, Will Rogers, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Charles Russell, and so many more. He was not only well-respected as an actor but as a person and philanthropist.
He was active in the Newhall community and they honored him by naming the school district, “William S. Hart Union High School District”.
When Lex and I finished the tour, we walked over to Fritz’s final resting place. It was such a sweet monument commemorating a loyal friendship between man and horse.