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.
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 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, and 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 $4 million.
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 on 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, Plummer, Wurdeman and 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.
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.
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 and 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.)
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.
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.