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How Malibu grew

For decades, one family fought to keep Malibu to themselves—but its natural beauty proved irresistible

Malibu’s shoreline and mountains filled with homes.
By trekandshoot / Shutterstock

In the early hours of December 4, 1903, a fire broke out on the southeastern coast of Frederick and May Rindge’s massive Malibu ranch. In less than an hour, more than 30 miles of the coast was in flames, and the fire soon headed for the couple’s beloved Victorian beach house.

“As the sun began to rise, flames engulfed the rows of fan palms lining the entrance to the home,” writes David K. Randall in The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise. “Embers carried by the wind rained down onto the roof of the house itself, and before long it, too, was swallowed by the fire.”

Luckily the Rindges were in Santa Monica, although a ranch hand was severely burned trying to save the family’s treasures.

But it was no use.

When the fire had been put out, the couple toured their private playground of Malibu, now a “scorched moonscape,” the sea scattered with ash.

Besides two other houses the couple had recently purchased from the settlers and squatters they detested, no other homes had been destroyed. Except for a few hardy, equally insular homesteaders high in the hills, no one else lived in the great coastal expanse that was known as Malibu.

For most of history, Malibu, and the Santa Monica Mountains which surround it, were only sparsely populated by humans. From at least 500 B.C., Malibu was the home of the Chumash, a seafaring people whose tiny villages stretched up and down the coast, into Ventura, and all the way to the Channel Islands.

When the Spanish arrived, the Chumash in Malibu were largely left alone for the first two centuries of exploration. While the Chumash had learned to navigate the treacherous terrain over centuries, the Spanish realized what many later settlers would also discover—it was very hard to get to Malibu.

According to Randall:

Even in a region widely thought of as inhospitable, it [Malibu] seemed the least fit for human enjoyment. The sharp peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains nearly sealed it off from the rest of Southern California, while bears and mountain lions roamed its seventeen steep canyons. Great boulders lay scattered across its beaches like marbles discarded by a wanton giant.

Anyone who wanted to reach the Malibu, as the rancho was often called, had to first consult a tide chart and set off on horseback at the right time along the beach. A late start would result in finding yourself marooned on the coastline, the path forward and back flooded by the drift of the ocean. Attempting to cross the mountains, meanwhile, meant fending off rattlesnakes and bandits, both of which were in ample supply.

In 1802, the Spanish colonizers finally put the area they named Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit in the hands of Spanish subject Bartolo Tapia.

Tapia built a lone wood-frame house on his large estate. He also planted vineyards, and brought in a herd of cattle. In 1848, a Frenchman named Leon Victor Prudhomme bought the rancho from Tapia’s widow for 400 pesos.

In 1857, it was sold to Matthew Keller for 10 cents an acre, who in turn built a stone house for his family in Solstice Canyon. The family lived an isolated existence with their ranch hands. Keller tried raising sheep, but his ranch hands spent a good deal of their time chasing away hunters in the Santa Monica Mountains.

While this lonely existence would have turned many potential buyers off, it was exactly what the very wealthy, deeply religious business magnate Frederick Rindge wanted.

Rindge had moved to Los Angeles with his upright, stern wife, May, in 1897. He had long been in search of a secluded farm by the sea, and when a friend told him about Malibu, he could scarcely believe it. In 1892, instantly in love with Malibu’s extraordinary natural beauty, he paid the Keller family $10 an acre for the ranch.

Frederick was enamored with his new kingdom, which was over 20 miles long and two miles wide.

“Oh! to be free from assailing care; to see no envious faces, no saddened eyes; to see or hear no unkind look or word!” he wrote. “To absorb the peace the hills have, to drink in the charm of the brook, and to receive the strength of the mountains, by dwelling in their company—this is living! To lose one’s self by the side of the sea!”

The Rindges built their large Victorian mansion on the edge of Malibu Creek. They planted gardens and orange groves and herded cattle. Ranch hands did all the hard work, while the Rindges and their three children spent magical days swimming, hiking, and horseback riding.

Above: Rancho La Costa, the first subdivision developed by the Marblehead Land Company, circa 1939. Below: Cattle grazing on Rancho Malibu, circa 1938.
Malibu Historical Photograph Collection [digital resource], Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives

There were constant battles with the outside world, both with curious sightseers and equally stubborn settlers in the Santa Monica Mountains, who fought for the right to use Rindge’s rudimentary roads.

In retaliation, the Rindges had gates built on each coastal edge of their property line, which stretched all the way into the rocks in the surf.

In 1905, two years after the devastating fire, which May believed was set by Santa Monica Mountain settlers, Frederick died. He left May an estate worth around $700 million in today’s money.

Devastated and angry, May would spend the rest of her life fighting to keep the paradise she and Frederick had created as desolate as her heart. But the age of the automobile would make that dream impossible.

In 1907, Los Angeles resident W.H. Seely and his friends set out on a motor-trip to Malibu. Lightheartedly calling their excursion an “invasion,” they cut off the lock to the Rindge gate, and were astounded by the empty wonderland they found. The men soon spread word of Malibu’s natural wonders, and more and more trespassers began to arrive.

May was furious and demanded Seely be arrested. This incident sparked a decades long battle among May, the public, and the government over who had the right to enjoy Malibu.

With little else to occupy her, May was more than willing to fight. Walking her property with a gun holster on her hip, she tried various methods to keep intruders and developers out. She attempted to have Malibu declared a forest preserve under her control.

Her ranch hands constructed large barbed-wire topped embankments and filled the valleys bellow with smelly, noisy hogs. After a court decision came down in her favor, she dynamited every trail in the hills built by the Santa Monica Mountain settlers.

“When new paths began appearing in their place, she mounted a horse and rode into the hills,” Randall writes. “There, she took up a shovel and, next to a team of bodyguards, began filling them in herself.”

By 1918, the feud had gotten out of hand. Her chauffeur and a ranch hand were even involved in a gunfight with squatters, and there were attempts to capture May herself.

But all of May’s lawsuits, injunctions, and walls could not stop the coming of the age of the freeway.

In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the government had the right to build a highway through the Rindge property. May had lost tens of thousands of dollars, all for naught.

In 1926, a real estate developer named Harold J. Ferguson convinced May that he could turn a mile of beachfront on the ranch’s eastern end into a beach colony for the best Hollywood people. May reluctantly agreed, although she included several caveats.

The lots could only be leased, with the structures temporary so they could be torn down in 10 years. According to Randall, Ferguson put up billboards in smoggy Los Angeles, portraying happy families on empty beaches.

“He let the artwork do most of the selling for him,” Randall writes. “Including only a single word—‘Privacy’ on one billboard, ‘Tranquil’ on the next.”

Movie star Anna Q. Nilsson was the first to arrive. Then came the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Dolores Del Rio, Clara Bow, Jack Warner, and Gary Cooper. The little community became known as the Malibu Movie Colony.

“The Colony soon had its own police force, courthouse, grocery, post office, and general store, giving the most famous one-mile stretch of beach in the country the outlines of a small town, albeit one whose gate was guarded at all times by armed patrolmen,” writes Randall.

The Roosevelt Highway, before it became known as Pacific Coast Highway.
Malibu Historical Photograph Collection [digital resource], Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives

The Roosevelt Highway—now known as Pacific Coast Highway—through Malibu was finally finished in 1929. But the coming of the Depression meant growth was at a trickle during the 1930s.

Pioneering surfers began sneaking into Malibu to take advantage of the coast’s epic waves.

“Before the war, you’d call somebody before you went to Malibu because you didn’t want to surf alone,” LeRoy “Granny” Grannis remembered. “What we considered to be a crowd, back then, would be a beautiful day, today.”

But the elderly May was about to lose control of her private paradise forever. By 1938, May owed the government millions in unpaid taxes. She lost control of Malibu, and in 1940, the Marblehead Land Company was organized to offer most of the Rindge rancho for sale.

May died in 1941, just in time to see realtor Louis T. Busch subdividing her land, encouraging potential buyers. According to the website Malibu Complete, more than 80 percent of the Rindge’s Malibu holdings was sold in only six years.

The picturesque lure of the Roosevelt Highway drew developers, including Frank Wilson, Al Camp, and Bill Swanson, who were responsible for developing Paradise Cove. In 1948, the iconic Holiday House (now Geoffrey’s) designed by Richard Neutra opened, attracting such movie stars as Lana Turner and Frank Sinatra.

In 1949, Louis T. Busch continued his push to develop Malibu on all fronts when he opened Louis T. Busch and Associates on Pacific Coast Highway (he worked there until his death in 2014).

Malibu Movie Colony in the 1950s.
Eric Wienberg Collection of Malibu Matchbooks, Postcards, and Collectables / Pepperdine University Libraries

Throughout the 1950s, high property taxes forced May’s daughter, Rhoda Rindge Adamson, to keep selling land. As a result, more businesses, schools and commercial buildings went up during the decade. In 1956, the community was again devastated when a fire burned 35,000 acres and destroyed 250 structures.

In 1962, Rhoda’s son, the quiet, unassuming Merritt Huntley Adamson Jr., took control of the family’s remaining 4,000 acres in Malibu. Adamson had grown up in his family’s fabled Malibu home, Adamson House, but would become despised by many in his hometown for aggressively developing his family’s land. Supporters say he had no choice, like his mother and grandmother before him, as the land brought insurmountable tax bills.

Over the next few decades, Adamson’s projects would include the subdivision of Horizon Hills, the Point Dume Club and its famous mobile-home park, and the Zuma Bay Villa condos.

He sold what is now Malibu Bluffs State Park to the state and Zuma Canyon to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. The family also donated 138 acres of land to Pepperdine University, which opened its Malibu campus in 1972.

Furor over Adamson’s moves paled in comparison to the backlash to a plan floated by Los Angeles County in the late 1960s, which would have turned the village of Malibu into a city of 400,000.

“The plan basically would have extended Santa Monica to the end of Malibu,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “connecting the coastal communities with a huge array of condominiums, apartments, and businesses.”

After much protesting, the plan was killed.

Malibu was already unrecognizable to old timers. By 1969, Malibu had become famously hip, the home of Gidget and surf culture. In 1970, Malibu’s Civic Center complex opened. Growth continued throughout the ’70s and ’80s, as celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Johnny Carson, aided by advances in transportation and construction, built massive compounds both in the mountains and by the shore.

Another milestone was reached in 1991, when Malibu finally incorporated as a city.

In its time as a city, residents of Malibu like mega-mogul David Geffen have continued to battle any infringement on their privacy and have attempted to limit public access .

Anti-growth activists have been fairly successful, keeping the population at 12,877. But the populations of nearby upscale communities, including Calabasas, Hidden Hills, and Westlake, have continued to grow, and subdivisions are reaching higher and higher into the Santa Monica Mountains.

They build sprawling compounds in brush-studded canyons that for centuries have naturally and frequently experienced mammoth fires. It’s a menacing threat that’s growing ever-more present as global temperatures rise.

Through it all—the traffic on PCH, the tourists who pack the pier, and the ruinous fires—people keep moving to Malibu, looking for their own piece of secluded, Olympian paradise.

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