What Really Happened at Rustic Canyon's Rumored Nazi Ranch?
Wednesday, September 24, 2014, by Hadley Hall Meares
[A blueprint for part of Murphy Ranch. Image courtesy UCLA's Young Research Library.]
For decades, hikers, ghost hunters, taggers, writers, and amateur historians have explored the ruins of Murphy Ranch in Rustic Canyon. Many have developed their own theories about what happened in this valley in the decade before World War II. Rumor has it that, throughout the 1930s, neighbors in the canyon spied men patrolling the hills on weekends, in uniforms similar to those of the Silver Shirts, an American fascist group. Another rumor hints at an attempt to build a "Nazi White House" on the property in preparation for the Third Reich's arrival. But what really happened at Murphy Ranch? A treasure trove of curling, seemingly forgotten plans, including those for and by the firm of the legendary Paul R. Williams, suggest that the owners of Murphy Ranch dreamed of a complex, self-sustaining "utopia" with a mansion fit for a world leader. But the plans never went further than architectural drawings and the construction of some now twisted and rusted infrastructure.
The legend of Murphy Ranch springs almost exclusively from a one-page affidavit that offers the only available first person account of life at Murphy Ranch. Its author was Dr. John Vincent, a professor at UCLA and the director of the Huntington Hartford Foundation, an esteemed artist's retreat that occupied the property from 1950 to 1965. Vincent's story (propagated by local historians Betty Lou and Randy Young) starts in 1948, in the waning days of Murphy Ranch:
When I first visited … Winona and Norman Stephens were living in the steel garage, employing a caretaker to help maintain the extensive plantings. A guard was also employed who unlocked the gate to admit me. The entire property was surrounded with a chain link fence topped by barbed wire. A few people were present on the grounds. Goats, sheep and cows were kept on the flatlands at the bottom of the canyon ...The couple were eager to sell the money-sucking 50-acre property to the Hartford Foundation—and to tell Vincent their tale. They claimed to be a wealthy couple originally from the East, Norman a mining engineer and Winona a Chicago heiress with a deep interest in "metaphysical and supernatural phenomena." This passion led her to a persuasive man identified only as "Herr Schmidt," who she came to believe possessed "supernatural powers." Herr Schmidt warned that Germany would soon defeat the United States and that the end of the world was at hand. Whether Schmidt foresaw this outcome with his "mystical powers" or by his association with the fascist, increasingly bellicose government in Germany is unclear.
[Murphy Ranch blueprint courtesy of UCLA's Young Research Library.]
Schmidt urged Norman and Winona to build a "self-sufficient farm based on National Socialist ideals." So on August 28, 1933, the couple allegedly bought land in the Pacific Palisades using the pseudonym "Jessie M. Murphy, widow." According to Vincent, a building program was quickly underway, some of it under the supervision of Welton Becket of the respected firm Plummer, Wurdeman, & Becket.
A virtual Utopia was begun, with its own water supply from springs, a double-generator power station … and a 20,000 gallon fuel oil tank. Terraces were leveled and planted with trees, all supplied with copper pipes and a watering outlet for each tree. A culvert was built for the stream and a cold storage locker for storing food. The estimated cost of the improvements was four million dollars.
[What Murphy Ranch looks like today. Photos by Hadley Meares.]
Herr Schmidt and his followers had grand plans for their "self-sustaining farm." They began hiring architects to dream up a mansion for the property. Many of the drawings, dating from 1934 to 1941, are now housed in the Lloyd Wright collection at UCLA's Young Research Library. Though drawn in different hands, they have certain common features: a four-story mansion with a basement devoted to recreation, mechanical, servants' work, and usually an indoor pool; a main "public floor" centered around a grand central hall, featuring multiple libraries, social rooms, and sometimes grand bedrooms; and upper floors with a plethora of bedroom suites and private rooms of various sizes.
Architect Eric Lloyd Wright believes his father Lloyd Wright was given these plans by the property's "former owners" when he became the principal architect for the Huntington Hartford Foundation. (Lloyd Wright does not appear to have worked on any projects for the owners of Murphy Ranch.) And who were these former owners? Official documentation of Norman and Winona Stephens could not be found. But census records from both 1930 and 1940 show engineer Norman F. and Chicago native Winona B. Stevens living in Pasadena and Hermosa Beach during that time. Most telling of all are sets of architectural plans in the Wright collection from March 1935, which appear to have been signed, and possibly drawn, by an NF Stevens.
The Stevenses clearly had a great deal of money at their disposal, wherever it came from, and they spent it on some of the best architects in the LA area. In 1933 and '34, we know that Plummer, Wurdeman & Becket, designers of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, drew up architectural plans for the ranch: the Wright papers include a topographic map of Murphy Ranch from 1934 that was prepared for Charles F. Plummer, though the firm's name is nowhere else in the collection. The first plans for the mansion in the Wright papers are from August 1934, and the architect's name has been carefully cut out of each page. Another set of plans with the bottom right corners cut off, perhaps to obscure the creator and date, shows a large fountain in the center of the main foyer, rendering the 12 signs of the zodiac in detail.
[A Murphy Ranch blueprint with the architect's name cut out. Image courtesy UCLA's Young Research Library.]
The NF Stevens plans, rendered in a rougher hand than the others, features another odd detail. In the basement, near the dairy, maid's room, and laundry, is a four-car garage with specific spaces for two Packards, a Cadillac, and a Ford. There is also a mysterious "tower room" in these plans, extensive patios and balconies, a huge library suite, a music room, and even a "glass roof over pool terrace." One has the feeling of looking at an expanded "Clue" board game. Whatever the motives or apocalyptic expectations of the group, they certainly aspired to a high standard of living.
[The plans for the four-car garage.]
For all the owners' years of planning, it seems that by the late '30s the building program at Murphy Ranch had progressed very little. A plot map from the time shows only a few buildings on the property: the steel garage/living quarters, barn, and another small building, the ruins of which are all still visible today. Electrician David Trumbull of Sure Light Electric has confirmed that electric fixtures still present in what is left of the garage and barn date from the '30s and '40s. (Some rewiring took place in the '50s and '60s, when the buildings were repurposed by the artists' retreat.)
[A map drawn by Williams' firm showing the existing buildings on the Murphy Ranch property.]
In 1939, the owners hired one of the biggest names in Los Angeles, architect Paul R. Williams. Williams's firm designed an evolved but essentially similar mansion, although (perhaps due to financial considerations) there is no longer an indoor pool. They also created the only rendering of what appears to be the proposed exterior of the Murphy Palace, a gargantuan Neoclassical structure with detached servants' quarters. Many of the plans bear the initials JTR and ECD, while Williams's own signature or initials do not appear anywhere.
The Williams plans stop in 1941, the year the United States entered World War II. Close inspection of the rather sloppy flagstone and iron gate at the entrance of the property makes one wonder if they—along with other aspects of the ranch, like the endless concrete steps, the terracing, and concrete greenhouse—were a do-it-yourself project. Workmen and contractors had to have helped install the double-generator power station and the massive storage tank, but the construction process is as murky as the group's true purpose.
[Murphy Ranch as it looks today. Photo by Hadley Meares.]
And what of the mysterious "Schmidt," the man supposedly behind the Stevenses and the dream of Murphy Ranch? No proof of his existence has ever been found. But a Los Angeles Times article titled "Trouble for Traitors," from June 30, 1940, may offer the only known contemporary mention of the elusive "Schmidt":
Out in Santa Monica, only a few days ago, a man who is a veteran of the World War … answered the doorbell one night. "Vere is dot Herr Schmidt lives?" the caller asked in broken English. The former flyer appraised the man quickly, then smiled and directed him to Herr Schmidt's residence nearby. Within 10 minutes, the [man] had informed US Navy intelligence … and within 20 minutes the investigation was on. An operative who lived in the neighborhood was assigned to the case. You may be sure that when he finishes, Naval intelligence will know all about Herr Schmidt and his mysterious visitors, but whether they are right or wrong, no one but Naval intelligence knows.The article warned that as soon as war was declared, traitors would be rounded up and dealt with. Legend (backed by no proof) has it that the day after Pearl Harbor, Schmidt was arrested at Murphy Ranch and the colony scattered. The mansion was never built. By 1948, the Stevenses were living above a steel garage, instead of the grand mansion of their dreams.
What Really Happened at Rustic Canyon's Rumored Nazi Ranch? - Curbed Features - Curbed LA
From the LA Times
Nazi Sympathizers' L.A. Utopia Is Now a Ruin : Rustic Canyon: Little remains of an elaborate stronghold that was built in the late 1930s. It once had the infrastructure of a small town.
November 18, 1990|JOHN RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER
Tucked away up Rustic Canyon is a sordid bit of local history.
Surrounded by the rugged mountainsides and overgrown by brush, the burned-out and crumbling buildings are what remain of the Murphy Ranch, where during the late 1930s a small group hoping to establish a Nazi utopia built an elaborate infrastructure that included a 395,000-gallon concrete water tank, a 20,000-gallon diesel fuel tank and a power station.
Hikers who reach the site, usually by climbing the creek bed from Will Rogers State Historic Park, are sometimes surprised.
"People who don't know the story come upon this and say, 'What the hell is going on?' " said Thomas Young, a professional photographer, local historian and president of the Palisades Historical Society. Young learned about the ranch while growing up in the Pacific Palisades area, and it was included in a book on the history of Rustic Canyon written by his mother, Betty Lou Young. Thomas Young took the photographs for the book, which was published in 1975.
The story, which Young admits is sketchy, centers on the owners of the Murphy Ranch, Winona and Norman Stephens, and a mysterious but persuasive German named Herr Schmidt. Although county records say a Jessie M. Murphy purchased the property in 1933, Young said there is no other record of her, and no one in the area ever saw her, leading him to suspect that Murphy was a front name. The name Murphy Ranch, however, stuck.
Norman Stephens was an engineer with silver mining interests in Colorado, and apparently financed the operation. His wife, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, had a strong belief in metaphysical phenomena, and apparently fell under the spell of Schmidt, who claimed to have supernatural powers.
Schmidt convinced the Stephenses that once Europe collapsed and Germany emerged victorious in the war, anarchy would break out across the country, and law and order would break down. His plan was to create a command center in which the National Socialist community would wait out the war. They could then emerge from their mountain retreat and impose order on society.
It apparently made sense to the Stephenses, for they proceeded to spend an estimated $4 million to build an infrastructure that would be enough for a small town. They also made plans to build a four-story mansion that were never carried out, probably because they ran out of money, Young said.
"Thank God they didn't have the assets to pull it off," he said.
What they did accomplish, however, is amazing. The entire hillside above the ranch was terraced, and a sprinkler system, complete with timers, was laid out to irrigate the numerous fruit, nut, carob and olive trees and other plants that covered it. Several concrete staircases ascend the hillside, which were either to allow for maintenance of the trees, or more likely, Young believes, to patrol the property.
"What they did is they created a whole environment of their own," Young said.
The water tank and the power station, with its double generators, ensured that the community would be self-sufficient. The power station is the only structure basically intact, although the generators were removed and donated to Loyola Marymount University in the early 1970s. The inside walls are covered with graffiti, many of them typical of what one would find in an abandoned building, including, ironically, several swastikas.
"I think there are a lot of gangs and skinheads who come here," Young said. "Nuts are attracted to this place."
The only other structure standing on the property is a two-story steel-frame building that was used as a garage and machine shed. It is now a rusted hulk, everything around and in it having burned in the 1978 Mandeville Canyon fire.
"I mean, they were here to stay. This was to be a real monument," Young said.
Workmen hired to build at the ranch were reportedly confused at the scale of what they were constructing, according to Young, who spoke to several of them years later. Even for an estate, the scale of the project and the extensive infrastructure made no sense to them.
"They were setting up something beyond even what an extremely wealthy person could do," Young said, which makes him suspect that at least some of the funding for the project came from Germany.
Plans were drawn by architect Welton Becket in the late 1930s for a mansion, with barn, silo and cottages, for a client, "Mrs. Murphy." But these were apparently deemed insufficient, according to Young, and a new set of blueprints were drawn in 1941 by Paul Williams, the noted black architect. The client this time was Winona Stephens.
Young finds great irony in the selection of Williams as the designer.
"The 'master race' couldn't get it together enough, so they had to go to a black architect. I think that's wonderfully poetic," he said.
Although the Nazi utopian community was never successfully formed, Schmidt did apparently have some followers. There were reports from neighbors of the ranch that paramilitary maneuvers took place during the weekends. Young believes that people would drive up to the ranch from the city to take part in the activities, and then drive back at night.
"I think really that it was Joe Blow Loser coming up for a weekend," he said.
The plan came to a screeching halt on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when federal agents, who apparently had been watching the progress of the compound and its activities with some interest, stormed the ranch. They arrested Schmidt, whom they identified as a Nazi spy. The agents also found a powerful shortwave radio, reportedly for sending messages to Germany.
Schmidt was apparently imprisoned, Young said, but nobody knows what happened to him.
The Stephenses remained on the ranch, living in the upper floor of the steel garage structure until 1948, when they sold the ranch to the Huntington Hartford Foundation, which combined it with the property to the north and formed an artists' colony.
John Vincent, a UCLA music professor who negotiated the sale of the property for the foundation and served as the foundation's director until the 1960s, provided Young with most of the details of the story of the Nazi compound.
The property eventually came into the possession of the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, which wants to turn it over to the state as part of the Topanga State Park, said David Conetta, supervisor of land management and environment activities for the city agency. The state, however, will not accept the property unless the structures are demolished, a task the city lacks the money to do. So for now, the relics of the Murphy Ranch remain.
Although Young admits that many of the details of the Nazi presence at the Murphy Ranch are untraceable, and some aspects of the story have taken on the characteristics of a legend, the one fact about which he feels most certain is that there was a Nazi encampment in Rustic Canyon.
"There was a powerful presence here," he said. And then, looking around at the craggy hillsides that he has hiked and photographed since his youth, he concludes:
"It's such a pretty place for such a stupid pursuit."