On February 23rd the City of Los Angeles plans to demolish and extraordinary historic ghost town, Murphy Ranch. It is an incredible shame to lose it. It is a WWII relic, a site of the weird and terrible, a Nazi training compound hidden in the belly of Rustic Canyon in Pacific Palisades. The place is oddly human and chilling. In this canyon there were boots on the ground, preparing for Hitler to arrive, victorious and set up headquarters in Los Angeles. It is important to preserve both sides of history (like Manzanar), lest we repeat.
“Germany must either be a world power of there will be no Germany,” declared Adolf Hitler in his autobiography Mein Kampf. This misguided certainty instilled confidence in Nazi sympathizers as distant from Germany as Brentwood, California. Some local defenders of the Axis alliance, certain that World War II would breach North American soil, prepared a refuge and training camp to shelter the troops here in Los Angeles.
Hidden within the dense foliage of lush Rustic Canyon is Murphy Ranch, the ghost town of a sturdily built, high-tech, Nazi compound. The ridgetop entry to the property features a beautiful stone wall and wrought iron gate worthy of any elegant property owner. Within the canyon are terraced gardens, a powerhouse, an irrigation system, a barn, a bomb shelter, a machine shop and a variety of other buildings and structures unidentifiable in their dilapidated state. Also, tantalizingly invisible and inaccessible to visitors, there are underground tunnels rumored to connect the canyon floor to the mountain ridge.
Murphy Ranch was purchased in the 1930’s by “Jesse Murphy” which is thought to be a pseudonym for a phantom property owner fronting for investors who wished to remain anonymous. The property was further funded and developed by Winona and Norman Stephens under the direction of Herr Schmidt who managed the compound. Architect Welton Becket (well known for designing The Capitol Records Building in Hollywood) designed several buildings in Murphy Ranch. During the 1930’s dozens of Nazi sympathizers lived in Murphy Ranch maintaining the property and practicing military drills.
The Stephens and Herr Schmidt had plans to construct a multi-million dollar mansion on the property for Adolf Hitler to use as his Los Angeles headquarters. Amongst the architects approached to build this mansion was Paul Williams, the creator of many prominent Los Angeles landmarks including the space age arched Theme Building at the Los Angeles Airport. Paul Williams was African American, thus an ironic candidate to design Hitler’s lair. In 1941, before the house was built, the FBI raided and closed the compound thus ending the life of Murphy Ranch as a Nazi colony.
In 1948 Huntington Hartford purchased 150 acres of Rustic Canyon to establish an artist colony. Hartford was a millionaire and self-proclaimed arbiter of artistic vision who funded and founded the Huntington Hartford Museum / Gallery of Modern Art in Manhattan (1964). His artistic tastes were very particular and exclusive of many fads of the time such as the undisciplined fruits of the beatnik art scene. His vision was to create an austere incubator of creative talent where serious artists could create profound art in an environment free from the distractions of society and vice. Architect Lloyd Wright to constructed artist living and working quarters on the property and for several years Hartford’s vision was realized, allowing a space for such artists as Edward Hopper, Max Eastman, and Ernst Toch to create some of their most celebrated work.
Hartford owned the colony until 1965 when financial strain compelled him to retrench and sell the property. Hartford’s compound was sold for a private residence and shortly thereafter Topanga State Park acquired the land and razed the colony buildings. Today, bathtubs, barbecue grills, and an overturned VW Bus seem to be the only remnants of Murphy Ranch’s free love years of the 60’s and 70’s. It is supposed that forest fire finally ended Rustic Canyon’s residential era and now the canyon road has returned to nature and this public parkland is only accessible by foot.
The buildings of Murphy Ranch, however, still remain. Every visible surface of the Murphy Ranch buildings are now covered with graffiti. Time and creativity have transformed them from the headquarters of an oppressive, controlling regime to a canvas for the technicolor expression of anarchic art. Unless you are Harrington Hartford himself, perhaps you can embrace the vision of the colorful chaotic vandalism as part of the organic evolution of this off-beat attraction. When viewed as a work of art itself, it is really quite beautiful and certainly unique.
Distance: approx 3.9 miles
Approximate hiking time: 2-3 hrs
Elevation Difficulty: Moderate
A notable feature of the hike is the 500 steps built into the hillside, leading straight up the canyon wall from Murphy Ranch if you can find them — maybe on the way back.
WHERE TO START:
At the corner of Casale Rd. and Capri Dr. in Pacific Palisades at 1601 Casale Rd, Pacific Palisades 90272. Park on Casale Rd. or on Capri Dr. Hike down the fire road toward Camp Josepho Boycott Camp until you reach ornate stone and iron entry gate. Walk into the canyon from there and turn left at the barn to see the rest of the compound.