A Nazi Compound in Pacific Palisades Is Set to Be Torn Down

A controversial piece of World War II history has become a safety concern

There’s no doubt Angelenos love their hikes with spectacular views of the coast, but Murphy Ranch at Rustic Canyon may have the most colorful history of any L.A. hiking locale. The property is populated by graffiti-covered ruins that are thought to have been part of a Nazi-sympathizer compound dating back to the 1930s. You may at some point have walked right past them and not even known—the trail has been open to the public for years. But that’s about to change.

Parts of the Pacific Palisades site are set for demolition beginning this month, and some structures are already being torn down due to safety concerns. The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks has temporarily closed the area until demolition is completed on February 23.

“The structures at the site were a hazardous nuisance that generated a lot of concerned calls into my office, LAPD, and the park manager from people in the Palisades,” city councilmember Mike Bonin said in a statement.

The decrepit structures were the cause of many rescue missions, a Bonin representative said. A concrete water tank with a 30-foot drop posed a particular issue, as graffiti artists would often get stuck at the bottom of it.

“We had tried to erect gates that would keep people out of unsafe areas, and locks were brazenly cut,” Bonin’s rep said. “Unfortunately, the only option left was demolishing some of the structures and securing some of the others.”

Elements of the site with historical significance, however, will be maintained. A gate leading up to the complex, which has been credited to prominent architect Paul R. Williams, will be preserved, according to the councilmember’s office. Steel plates will also be installed on windows of the site’s utility building to ensure visitors keep out of the structure.

Murphy’s Ranch got its name from  Jessie M. Murphy, who according to county records purchased the 50-acre enclave in 1933 , the Los Angeles Times reported. Yet there is no other record of Murphy, and historian Randy Young suspects the name was an alias for a group of Southern Californian Nazis. John Vincent, a late UCLA music professor who negotiated the sale of the property in 1948, provided Young with an account of compound’s history: The story involves a mysterious German man known only as “Herr Schmidt”  who used the ranch to promote Nazi-inspired propaganda.  Schmidt recruited wealthy L.A. couple Norman and Winona Stephens to his cause, and convinced them to finance a $4 million, four-story mansion, according to Curbed LA. Winona Stephens was a strong believer in metaphysical phenomena, the Times reported, and was apparently swayed by the supernatural powers Schmidt claimed to possess. According to another Times article, Schmidt told the couple that the enclave would serve as a base of operations where stateside Nazis could hide out until Germany won the war.

The site, which has been featured on Travel Channel’s Off Limits, featured a 20,000-gallon fuel tank, 395,000-gallon water tank, and a power station large enough to support a small town. According to the Times, the compound could have been home to up to 40 local Nazis. But it was never completed, probably because they ran out of funds, Young speculated in the Times. The plan came to a halt on December 1941 when federal agents stormed the property. Agents identified Schmidt as a Nazi spy and arrested him, but nobody knows what happened to him. The Stephenses lived on the ranch until 1948 when they sold the property to the Huntington Hartford Foundation, according to the Times. The city of Los Angeles eventually bought the property in 1973, during which time the buildings were converted into an artists’ colony, but the property was abandoned after a 1978 fire and remained so ever since, visited mainly by scofflaws and the outdoorsy set.