Apple Valley’s Abandoned Symbol – The deconstruction of Hilltop House

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Greetings and welcome to spring time in the air…

For those of you have been watching, there’s a movement at hand to reclaim Bass Hill as a community trail and turn back 2-3 decades of indifference to our cultural landmark.  How did the fall of Apple Valley’s unique, “better way of life” symbol  happen ?  As in any decline, it was a process; never sudden or quick.  It was the simple relentless drip of time, trial and error.  Like it or not, we’re the generation of Apple’s who can still recall the glory, the retreat and the sad state of todays’ Hilltop.

Owners (individuals or groups) have come and gone since Newt.  An honest evaluation of their time guarding the trust of Apple Valley’s symbol is a sad report card.  Around here, we like to say that the happiest day of each HH owner (after Bass) was not the day escrow closed…no – the happiest time was the day they sold to another starry-eyed buyer.  Rinse and repeat.

Want proof ?  No post-Bass owner has ever successfully developed, commercialized, rebirthed or re-purposed Hilltop House.  Some of these owners were well-meaning local folks.  Many of the people in our community with the means to purchase  chose not to and built their homes in more secluded, easier developed hillside locations.  Places where the community does not habitually – out of reverence and connection to the past –  hike through ones back yard.

Remember the old sports commercial in the 80’s:  “Bo Knows” ?

Locals know Hilltop House and act accordingly.

That does not mean people did not try and plan and meet with officials and banks and fantasize about ‘places’ like the elusive Italian restaurant, Convention Center, Observatory, James Bond Museum and Churches in the sky.  Money will buy anything, but Apple Valley ain’t Irvine – the price of admission to such wonderful places would preclude 90% of us from ever attending.  No spaghetti on Bass Hill is worth 200 bucks a plate to cover the overhead of ADA Access, fire sprinklers, (2) new driveways of points of access, parking, utilities, fire dept turn a rounds.  The unique geography of the place in the sky is also the achilles heel when it comes to development costs.  And oh, by the way, the property is not zoned for public uses anyway.  The OSC Zone where HH Ruin sits entitles the owners to things like parks, pavilion, hiking, equestrian, mineral extraction and-or one home per 20 acres.

So why did it all work so well for Newt ?  Newt is Apple Valley.

Newt Bass was that rare phat cat who could afford building his state of the art home , on the rocks and , at the time, in the middle of no where.  Throw in the AV Inn and an airport runway and the visionary developer extraordinaire just had to sit back and reel them into his own private resort.  Apple Valley’s rural living, dry climate, clean air and ease of access between Los Angeles and Las Vegas would do the rest.

Even his mansion in the sky was a shrewd, commercial venture.  Don’t forget, Newt actually lived below Hilltop House on Rancherias.  Business and parties were the order of the day at Hilltop House.  The penthouse perch served as the wonderful mountaintop experience where the elect and refined and cultured and potential investors/buyers were invited to see Apple Valley from the premier vantage point.  Deals flowed as fast as the cars and bubbly.  Apple Valley…..was born.

By the time the 1967 fire decimated Hilltop House, Apple Valley was maturing at an incredible clip.  The risk of the early development days gave way to generational stability.  Celebrities like Roy and Dale called Apple valley home and we met them regularly at Church or the store or Friday night Steak Fry.

Newt rebuilds a new structure in 1968 with echos of Hilltop House design, but this time offers it as a Corporate Conference Center (tax write off) and for a price allows the community to marry our daughters, banquet in the sky and celebrate inside our ‘better way of life’ symbol.  But if we’re honest, those of us who partook of HH Conference Center knew it was the ‘Place’ that had meaning.  The building ?…well yes, it kept the wind and rain out.  From a distance it looked like the original Hilltop House, but inside was a shell.  Maintenance up there was never the best, a mildew smell permeated because of the indoor pool which was always pickled with obscene amounts of chlorine.  Being on the crest of a hill, wind speeds build up and increase as they race over the top…ruining many an out-door wedding or brides freshly done hair.  But we paid and we went and it was all good.  Good because the ‘Place’ is off the hook even if the Conference Center was beginning to give away AppleValley’s symbol.  The corporate held enterprise was functioning just fine as a tax write off where any revenue losses were ok in the accountants hand.

One should understand that much of this freedom to “do as we please and where we please” was during a time, long ago, when life safety codes, laws and insurance underwriters had not yet strangled us into wearing bubble wrap suits.  Todays building codes require certain improvements to allow public occupancy;  introduce those to Hilltop House property and the price tag to comply kills the goose.  Sadly each new  buyer has to rediscover this while turning over the same rocks turned over by those who came before.  Gotta love image and marketing with past glory; but the truth is found not on top of the rock, but under it.

The 90’s saw new ownership, and last-ditch effort to reclaim and save the Hilltop House which was on its last legs, even though some of the lights still came on for ya.  But alas, when the owners of the 90’s could net reconcile their investment to any sustainable business plan they either walked away or had Hilltop House taken by the County via Tax default.  And there she sat, in the County’s coffers until 2000’s tax sale auction to the general public.

A local group of citizens made a bid of approx. $100,000 for the 20 acre parcel.  They saw it an ideal place for AQMD equipment or emergency transponders, etc.  The fact that it had already become a defacto community trail (who wants to live in the middle of any community trail ?), with no real commercial zoning or use only solidified their belief that their bid was not only fair…but practical.   Hilltop Ruin would be back in the communities hands.

Those at the bid that day (conducted at the Apple Valley Inn parking lot), recount their shock and amazement when the high bid of $180,000 went to an out of town investor .  The rest as they say, is history and a story that continues today.

The Ruin is now vandal ridden; the recent boarding up has invited squatters.      The secondary structures are fire ravaged and the steel super-structure is in need of survey to determine if water, fire and time has compromised it.  Antiquated at best, there are no known, functioning utilities serving the Ruin.  Hilltop House burned to the ground in 1968 – what we see now is the Conference Center remnant –  designed by another architect.  Today, Bass Hill is frequented by 100’s of non-vandal hikers each week where it continues to serve as a defacto trail. The human and animal trails etched deeply into Bass Hill are decades, if not centuries, in the making.  All the signage, marketing and wishing will never change its fundamental use as a defacto Trail carved in the stone of precedent.

In many ways, the AVLT initiative is a test of our community resolve to reconcile Bass Hill once and for all.    It’s the simplicity and honesty of the Trail answer, which forces us to face the question of whether we care or want responsibility.  The asking itself is provocative.  No longer do we have to rely on or blame revolving Hilltop Owners for the indifference which has plagued Bass Hill for decades.  A reasonable, community owned solution is at hand and we embrace the principal that this generation of Apple Valley citizens is uniquely qualified to bridge our past to our future within the  undisputed community treasure that is  Bass Hill.

We-Us-You understand  the AVLT is a symbolic mirror of who we are as a community.  We’re not striving to bring back the past in some nostalgic reach for the impossible. Rather, we hope to carve out a bit of our history for the next generation; preserving a chunk of cultural geography perched 300 feet above and in the center of our community. A simple pack-in-pack-out trail and unique, new legacy for Bass Hill; with your help, a legacy that breaks the cycle of indifference in a thoughful and practical way.

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Let us know your thoughts on the deconstruction of Hilltop House Ruin and the possibility of renewal.  Your voice matters.

Thanks !

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