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Summertime at Camp Josepho in Topanga State Park might be filled with Boy Scouts honing their BB-gun-slinging skills, fine-tuning their eye for archery or earning an equestrian merit badge. But less than a mile south of the youth camp lies a more sinister history.
Murphy Ranch, just off the Rustic Canyon Trail at the west edge of Brentwood, was supposed to be a safe haven for Nazis and the future of the Fourth Reich. But its founders’ plans went sour after it turned out Nazi Germany was not going to bring about the New World Order in the United States and would eventually be defeated by the Allied powers of WWII.
The failed commune was the plan of Herr Schmidt, a Nazi spy who convinced a wealthy couple, Winona and Norman Stephens, of funding his idea of utopia to the tune of $4 million, according to an L.A. Times archived story. The article’s author interviewed photographer and historian Thomas Young, whose mother wrote a book on Rustic Canyon’s history, in 1992:
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….
…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.
A power station, water tank and garage/machine shed were also built, and there were plans to construct a four-story mansion. Eventually, the money ran out, and in 1948, the Stephenses sold the property to the Huntington Hartford Foundation, which turned it into an artists’ colony. The city of L.A. then bought the land in 1973, and in 1978, the Mandeville Canyon fire destroyed most of the Nazi compound’s remaining structures, according to a 2005 L.A. Times article.
In a “wonderfully poetic” plot twist, a black architect, Paul Williams, was hired to draw up blueprints for the community after the original ones by Welton Becket – who would later design the Capitol Records building – were deemed insufficient, said Young.
To get there, travel on Sunset Boulevard west of the 405 and turn right on San Remo Drive and quickly turn left at Monaco Drive. At the roundabout, take Capri Drive north, which should end at Casale Road. Park, then walk west on Casale Road, which becomes Sullivan Fire Road. Continue past the yellow gate and Rustic Canyon Trail sign and hike about a mile until you see the iron gate.
- L.A. Times Magazine, Nov. 1992: Retreat of the Master Race
- Location of Murphy Ranch at Wikimapia.org
- Flickr: Noisepolution’s photos