By James Horrox:
Tangled in the undergrowth of Rustic Canyon, a couple of miles’ walk north up the Sullivan Ridge fire road from the manicured absurdity of Pacific Palisades, lie the ruins of one of L.A.’s more unusual landmarks. Not much remains of Murphy Ranch these days – just a series of crumbling concrete foundations, twisted, burnt-out skeletons of abandoned buildings, and a weird atmosphere. For while the graffiti-tagged wreckage of yesterday’s industry is no rarity in the hills around the Los Angeles basin, cradle to so many wacko cults, failed utopias and botched attempts at the American dream, this is a ruin with a peculiarly ugly past.
Acquired in 1933 by one Jessie M. Murphy — presumed to be a pseudonym, given the absence of any other historical trace of such a character — during the 1930s the site was home to a group of Nazi sympathisers, led by a mysterious German known only by the name of ‘Herr Schmidt’. Convinced of the imminent fall of the United States to the forces of the Third Reich, so the story goes, Schmidt enlisted wealthy L.A. couple Norman and Winona Stephens and persuaded them to bankroll the construction of a self-sufficient stronghold in which they and a group of fellow travellers would sit out the war and prepare for the arrival of the conquering German army.
Nothing is known about this ‘Herr Schmidt’. Details of the Stephenses are hazy, but it seems that Norman was an engineer who had made a fortune in the Colorado silver mining industry, and Winona a Chicago heiress. A devotee of the occult, Winona was apparently enthralled by the mystical powers Schmidt purported to possess, and throughout the 1930s she and her husband shelled out millions of dollars on landscaping, architectural plans and construction to make his vision a reality.
Even from the ruins that remain today, overgrown and unkempt as they are, it’s clear that what Schmidt and his acolytes managed to create in Rustic Canyon was something quite astonishing in scale. Narrow concrete staircases snake up and down the hillside, once terraced and irrigated to harvest nut, fruit and olive trees, now thick with impenetrable undergrowth; a driveway lined with eucalyptus and cedar sweeps down through the estate from elaborate wrought iron entrance gates; lodged in the hillside at the base of the canyon is the arched exterior of what looks like a Mediterranean villa, the iconic façade of what was once a double-generator power station, now boarded up and plastered with layer upon layer of graffiti. Behind it, twisted in chaparral and vine, the rusting wreckage of a steel fuel tank towers thirty feet or more into the forest canopy.
The whole area – maybe a square mile or so – is scattered with foundations: raised gardens, outbuildings and other, unidentifiable structures of concrete, metal and stone. Much of the foliage consuming the ruins is conspicuously not native to this place: incense cedars, usually found higher up in the mountains; white oleander blooms; huge ornamental cacti, and the brilliant red bursts of bottlebrush growing out of cracked concrete terraces. Overhung with coast live oak and sycamore, the slumped, rotting carcass of a burnt-out stable building cuts a terrifying figure.
All this, however, was only the beginning of a much more ambitious enterprise. Over the course of the 1930s, several different architects from the Los Angeles area, including Welton Becket, designer of the Tower Records building in downtown L.A., and the African-American architect Paul Williams, were employed to draw up plans for what has been described as a “self-sustaining ‘utopia’ with a mansion fit for a world leader”. Their drawings, preserved in the Lloyd Wright collection at UCLA’s Young Research Library, contain elaborate designs for a palatial, four-story mansion, with numerous bedrooms, libraries and dining rooms, an underground gymnasium, an indoor pool and a communal area built around a grand central hall. The plan, some historians contend, was to build a Californian Berchtesgaden, in which to wait out the war and greet the Führer personally.
What exactly went on behind the compound’s barbed-wire perimeter during the 1930s is still a matter of speculation, but oral histories from local residents recall armed guards patrolling the canyon dressed in the uniform of the Silver Shirts — a white supremacist pro-Nazi group modelled on Hitler’s brownshirts, which had local chapters throughout southern California — and weekend gatherings during which the sound of gunfire and military exercises could be heard echoing through the canyon.
Whatever plans Schmidt and his associates had for Murphy Ranch were thwarted when, in 1941, following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the ranch was reportedly raided by federal agents and dozens of its 50 or so inhabitants arrested. The subsequent fate of the community’s members remains unknown, but whatever happened, the mansion was never built. By 1948, the Stephenses were living above a steel garage, nearing bankruptcy, and desperate to rid themselves of the property.
This was the conclusion of UCLA professor John Vincent, who purchased the site from them that year on behalf of the Huntington Hartford Foundation. With L.A. architect Lloyd Wright at the helm, the buildings were renovated and several new ones constructed, and in 1951 the complex opened its doors as a retreat for artists, writers, poets and musicians. Andrew Wyeth, Max Ernst, Charles Neider and Mark Van Doren would all at one time or another call the place their home. Ernst Toch composed his “Vanity of Vanities” at the retreat, and Ruth S. Wylie refined her String Quartet No. 3 there. The essayist Max Eastman was a resident for a while, as was Edward Hopper, whose painting “Western Motel”, now hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery, was completed there in 1957.
The Hartford complex closed in 1965, and the estate was subsequently put to various uses until, in 1978, it was ravaged by wildfires and finally abandoned. In the decades since, the ruins have become a playground for taggers and local pot-heads, hikers, ghosthunters, amateur historians and Nazis, and the air hangs thick with the stench of spraypaint and weed. Despite the City’s repeated threats to bulldoze the place, only a handful of structures have so far been demolished. The rest remains for time and nature to reclaim, a crumbling monument to the eternal return where wealth, hubris and the urge for mastery collide.
James Horrox is a freelance editor, originally from the north of England, now living on the coast of Southern California.