Opinion La Vida SoCal: Murphy Ranch’s Last Stand
City workers are demolishing the ruins of L.A.’s Depression-era Nazi dream house
By Tony Peyser
Rustic Canyon’s 50-acre Murphy Ranch has such an innocent-sounding name, but there’s a dark cloud over its past. The place should have been called The Fuhrer’s Westside Bunker When He Takes Over.
However, that’s A) a mouthful, and B) might have raised some suspicions in Depression-era Los Angeles.
It’s no matter now. Throughout the month, city workers are tearing out the last remains of this Nazi-inspired retreat with killer ocean views — apocalyptic-flavored concrete and rusted metal ruins that have become a favorite destination for Westside hikers, amateur filmmakers and apparently taggers most of all.
Shadowed in secrecy, it’s difficult to be certain of exactly what went down 80 years ago in these remote hillsides up the coast from Santa Monica. I’ll do my best with the little that’s been written.
The year was 1933, and Hitler had just become dictator of Germany. Norman Stevens, an engineer in Colorado’s silver-mining business, and wife Winona Stevens, an heiress with an interest in metaphysics, fell under the influence of a mysterious “Herr Schmidt” whom they believed possessed supernatural powers.
Schmidt warned the Stevenses that Germany was destined to defeat the United States. Thinking America was going to buy the farm, the couple bought the ranch under the pseudonym Jessie M. Murphy as a place to hunker down and await Hitler’s arrival.
They drew up plans for a $4-million ($72 million in today’s money!) self-sustaining ranch complete with a four-story mansion, multiple libraries, immense vegetable gardens, an indoor pool, a double-generator power station, a 20,000-gallon fuel tank, a 395,000-gallon water tank and a bomb shelter.
The concept for this sinister Shangri-La was largely designed by Paul Williams. Yeah, that Paul Williams: the legendary African-American architect whose accomplishments included designing more than 2,000 homes in the City of Angels.
Minority-hating Nazis hiring a black man to design an epic home for Team Adolf is odd, but chalk it up to taste running roughshod over prejudice.
Williams, apparently unaware of the project’s intent, was brought on after the initial plans weren’t seen as grand enough. Those had been primarily drawn up by Welton Beckett, another visionary architect whose work included the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
The Stevenses weren’t just expecting the Nazis; they were sympathizers with the Silver League of America, an underground fascist organization launched in 1933 by William Dudley Pelley. Initially a journalist and a short story writer, Pelley also wrote a few Lon Chaney movies but became embittered after his showbiz prospects dried up.
Hell hath no fury like a screen-writer scorned.
Pelley claimed to have had a near-death experience in which he met Jesus, who gave him his anti-Semitic marching orders, and insisted he could levitate and see through walls (which must’ve wowed Mrs. Stevens!). Pelley was even a third-party presidential candidate in 1936 for his brief-lived Christian Party. Back in the day he was considered an “eccentric.” Now we’d just call him “cray-cray.”
One oft-told version of Murphy Ranch’s demise has it being raided in 1941, whereupon “Herr Schmidt” and others living at the ranch vamoosed. Another account holds that the Stevens ran out of money and wound up living in a steel garage on the property instead of a grand mansion suitable for their dreams of world-domination.
As of last weekend the ruins of Murphy Ranch had already been fenced off, with signs warning people not to enter but plenty of hikers hanging out after hopping low walls or crossing cut fences. Large trash bins near the creepy stone-and-metal entry gates are already filled with tangles of rebar and spray-painted concrete, but the tagged up skeletons of many structures as well as the rusted-out husk of a vintage Volkswagen bus remain.
If you haven’t been, it’s kind of cool. It also looks like the kind of place where teenagers go to drink cheap beer and hikers’ dogs find decomposing bodies.
Now that the demise of Murphy Ranch is upon us, there are plenty of good things that can be done with the place.
A set of some 500 concrete steps should be cleaned up and left for athletes in training.
The groves meant for growing fruit, nut, carob and olive trees could be restored as just that, and nearby Camp Josepho should get a shot at putting up additional camp grounds for scouts who could maintain the gardens.
Thanks to Huntington Hartford, some of this space was renovated in the 1950s and 1960s as a retreat for artists — that is, until it burned in the 1978 Mandeville Canyon fire that left the place in ruins.
Hartford’s new structures were designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. Though modernity-hating Hartford was a cranky control freak, he managed to get a lot of famous creative types to be guests at his colony, including composers Arnold Schoenberg and Leonard Bernstein. Even Edward Hopper came here in 1957 to finish his haunting “Western Motel” canvas.
So putting aside some space for a new artistic retreat seems like it would have some historic resonance.
Whatever’s to be done with Murphy Ranch, it’s not likely to happen quickly. In the meantime, perhaps the lesson here is about hubris. The Stevenses probably would have been better off with a starter Aryan homestead than a colossal Nazi compound. Just sayin’.