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When soot piles up on your window sills or a dusty film overtakes your car, you take out a wet paper tower or wait for some rain—just one of those little things about living in Los Angeles. But what do you do when the Hollywood Sign needs a cleaning? It’s a little more complicated.
Once a decade, the hilltop landmark’s 45-foot-tall letters undergo a deep cleaning and repainting to maintain their photo-ready status. This October, crews hauled hundreds of gallons of paint (a shade that Sherwin-Williams calls “Hollywood Sign Centennial White”) up and down Mount Lee to wrap up the Hollywood Sign’s latest refresh, one that happens to be timed with its 100th anniversary.
The Hollywood Sign Trust, which maintains the landmark, invited Time Out on an escorted trip to view the freshly painted sign from the steep hillside at the base of the letters, an up-close spot that’s otherwise very much closed off to the public. The short version: Yep, it sure looks clean and bright right now. But my biggest takeaway had more to do with everything else about those nine letters that you otherwise can’t see from the ground.
For starters, the letters aren’t actually flat: The sheets of corrugated metal have thick vertical ridges running up and down them that, even up close, tend to disappear in the strong SoCal sun. They’re also not really set in a perfectly straight line: From afar the sign looks as uniform as “HOLLYWOOD” does written on this page, but in reality it’s laid out along a pair of slight curves that hug the contour of the hill. Up close the first “O” sticks out noticeably farther than the rest of the letters while the “D” is kind of off on its own. (It reminded me of the mold made of my crooked preteen teeth before I got braces.)
There’s also a neat historical leftover next to that “D” that’s nearly impossible to spot from afar. When the sign was built as a real estate ad in 1923, it read “HOLLYWOODLAND.” By 1949, though, a restoration project had removed the “LAND” part of the sign (and, in fact, all of the sign was dismantled and rebuilt in the late 1970s after years of deterioration). But a pair of wooden posts that once supported that third “L” still remains on the hillside (the supports for all of the contemporary letters are made of steel).
It’s also set on a hilltop that’s way steeper than it looks from afar. To get to the off-limits area in front of the sign, I was first escorted toward the top of Mount Lee. From there, the Hollywood Sign Trust’s Jesse Holcomb secured a climbing rope to a sturdy post and briskly blazed a path with the sort of confidence that comes from doing this all the time. I, on the other hand, labored over every step, constantly curious about just how far I’d fall if I lost my foothold on the slope’s shifting dirt.
So kudos to the 10-person crew who had to hoof down and back up the cliff for four weeks (about half the amount of time that had been planned for the project’s completion). A team from commercial painting company Duggan & Associates set up scaffolding on each letter to pressure wash the dirt and rust off the sign, prime it and then coat it with about 400 gallons of Sherwin-Williams paint.
Though the sign certainly looks brighter now that it’s all clean, it’s technically an almost imperceptibly darker shade of white than its last refresh a decade ago; in 2012 the sign was painted “high reflective white” while this time around it’s been painted the slightly cooler “extra white.” Both renditions used an exterior acrylic latex paint, but this latest coat employs the company’s dirt-repelling “Emerald Rain Refresh” formula, which Sherwin-Williams says offers better UV and weather protection.
All of that care makes a lot of sense for what might be the most-watched spot in all of L.A. It’s something I considered a lot during my visit: Even if Angelenos don’t actively think about the Hollywood Sign much, they’re regularly confronted with it. It’s visible from so much of L.A. that it’s easily the city’s most pervasive landmark (and the one that every first-time visitor demands you take them to see). From atop Mount Lee, I could clearly spot the crowds at all of the popular viewing points: near the base of the fire road that doubles as a hiking trail to the peak; at a dusty turnout on Mulholland Drive directly south of the sign; along the curve above Lake Hollywood Park; and, way off in the distance, at the Griffith Observatory (where map apps will direct you when you punch in the Hollywood Sign as your destination).
I was also acutely aware of how closely watched the sign is from a security perspective. Sure, a “HOLLYWEED” or “HOLLYBOOB” prankster slips in every now and then, but I was surprised to find just how many different surveillance systems are monitoring the sign at all times. At seemingly every edge of the letter-shaped metal sheets I spotted motion sensors, speakers, infrared sensors or cameras—or some combination of all of the above. After about a half hour up there, Jesse advised that we should wrap up and leave before our scheduled time slot was up, or air support would arrive and make us—and yes, that apparently actually happens.
Security is a remarkably serious matter when it comes to the grounds near the sign (and the sort-of-hush-hush government-owned radio towers above it), and that also applies to getting anywhere near it; we approached a locked gate in the Hollywood Hills to begin our drive up at the same time as a utility worker headed towards the summit, who sounded very unconvinced that we should be there. It probably didn’t help that the surrounding area was pure automotive chaos at that moment: three black SUVs that seemed part of a totally-not-permitted film shoot were clogging up a dead end, which prompted a guy in a convertible with “I’m very important” energy to drive head-on toward my car until I reversed down the hill. In other words: I understand exactly why nearby homeowners so badly want to keep sign-seekers out of the area.
All of this had me thinking about how most sign-admirers will be viewing the freshly painted landmark—amid the navigation app-induced traffic woes in Beachwood Canyon and the theoretical gondola plans that seem to think they can solve them. Being as close as possible to those letters was an absolutely surreal experience, but being behind the sign was just as memorable, and that’s a spectacular vantage point that—if you don’t mind having to look through a chainlink fence—you can reach via the hike atop Mount Lee. But for the average tourist looking for a postcard-perfect photo of it? Lake Hollywood Park still has the best-framed up-close view, by far.