For decades, hikers, ghost hunters, taggers, writers, and amateur historians have been drawn to an isolated cluster of urban ruins known as Murphy Ranch, in Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Mountains.
It’s a place that was meant to become a sort of Nazi White House, to accommodate the expected imminent arrival of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler himself, according to local legend.
Throughout the 1930s, neighbors in the Rustic Canyon area — less than five miles from the coast in L.A.’s Pacific Palisades — spotted men patrolling the hills on weekends, in uniforms that looked like those of the American fascist Silver Shirts group, according to oral histories.
What really happened at Murphy Ranch? Curbed Los Angeles examined a treasure trove of curling, seemingly forgotten plans, including those for and by the firm of a legendary local architect, that suggest the owners of Murphy Ranch dreamed of a complex, self-sustaining “utopia” with a mansion fit for a world leader.
Now, only some twisted and rusted infrastructure remains.
The legend of Murphy Ranch springs largely from a one-page affidavit that is the only available eyewitness account of life at Murphy Ranch. Its author was John Vincent, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and the director of the Huntington Hartford Foundation. Vincent’s story — propagated by local historians Randy Young and his mother, Betty Lou 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 two were eager to sell the money-sucking 50-acre property to Vincent, who was the director of the Huntington Hartford Foundation — and to tell Vincent their tale. (The foundation did indeed buy the property, establishing an esteemed artist’s retreat that occupied the land from 1950 to 1965.)
They said they were a wealthy couple who had moved to California, Norman a mining engineer and Winona a Chicago heiress with a deep interest in “metaphysical and supernatural phenomena.” This passion led her to a man identified only as Herr Schmidt, whom she believed possessed “supernatural powers.”
Herr Schmidt warned them that Germany would soon defeat the United States and that the end of the world as they knew it was at hand. (Whether Schmidt foresaw this outcome with his mystical powers or by his association with the increasingly bellicose government in Germany is unclear.)
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 the land in Pacific Palisades under the made-up identity “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.”
Herr Schmidt and his followers had grand plans for their “self-sustaining farm,” and began hiring architects to dream up a mansion for the property.
Many drawings dating from 1934 to 1941 survive. Though drawn in different hands, they have certain commonalities:
• A four-story mansion with a basement devoted to recreation, mechanical, servants’ work, and usually an indoor pool.
• A main “public floor” centered on a grand central hall, featuring multiple libraries, social rooms and sometimes grand bedrooms.
• Upper floors with a plethora of bedroom suites and private rooms of various sizes.
The drawings are now housed in the Lloyd Wright collection at UCLA’s Young Research Library. Lloyd — full name Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. — followed in the footsteps of his legendary father and also became an architect, as did Lloyd’s son, Eric Lloyd Wright.
Eric believes that his father was given these plans by the property’s “former owners” when Lloyd became the principal architect for the Huntington Hartford Foundation. (Lloyd does not appear to have worked on any projects for the owners of Murphy Ranch.)
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