Tucked away behind an enclave of glass-walled mansions facing the Pacific Ocean is a relic of an ugly and half-remembered past, as hard to believe as it is to swallow. Built into a seam of the Santa Monica Mountains, not far from Sunset Boulevard, is a derelict compound once devised as the nucleus of a Nazi command center on the West Coast.
What little remains of the unfinished site — known as Murphy Ranch— has been warped by seven decades of decay and uncountable layers of psychedelic graffiti. Now, parts of the complex deemed unsafe by the city are being razed to prevent hikers from injuring themselves.
“It was, in fact, going to be the equivalent of the western White House for Hitler,” said Steven Ross, a University of Southern California historian who has researched the site. “What people don’t realize is that Los Angeles was a major center of Nazi and fascist activity in the 1930s.”
Murphy Ranch has long tantalized historians and hikers: allegedly a site in Rustic Canyon where Nazi sympathizers could ride out World War II and welcome a conquering Third Reich with a regal West Coast headquarters. Plans called not only for a vast mansion but libraries, equestrian facilities and extensive cultivation of agriculture.
More recently, the site has been the subject of long-running rumors about its looming demolition by the city of Los Angeles. Those rumors came to a partial fruition last month, when the Department of Recreation and Parks closed the area to the public and construction workers began removing some structures, including a shed and concrete cistern.
During a recent visit to the location, trucks could be seen hauling debris out of the canyon and down a fire road toward Sunset. Workers shifted metal wire and chunks of concrete with Caterpillar machinery, removing the last traces of the large cylindrical concrete cistern that was once covered in graffiti.
“The structures at the site were a hazardous nuisance that generated a lot of concerned calls into my office, [Los Angeles Police Department] and the park manager from people in the Palisades,” Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents the area, said in a statement. “We worked with the Department to ensure we are preserving historic elements of Murphy Ranch, such as the gates leading into the site, but we need to put safety first and I’m happy the site is being made safe for hikers to enjoy.”
The fire department had been called multiple times to fish vandals out of the now-demolished tank at the entrance to the compound, according to a spokesperson for Bonin’s office. A sign now indicates that the area is off-limits until Feb. 23.
Some structures will remain standing, such as a large utility barn built to house power generators, but workers will be installing steel plates to keep hikers from entering the barn.
The move to scrap parts of the compound was hardly unexpected.
“Pretty much for as long as I’ve known about the site, the city has been threatening to tear things down,” said Casey Schreiner, the Los Angeles-based founding editor of the parks and hiking website modernhiker.com.
Recently, Schreiner authored an article titled “Help Save Murphy Ranch From Demolition,” which ran as the website’s centerpiece for several days and encouraged readers to contact city officials to oppose the demolition. He said the site’s history is unique enough that it should be preserved in some way, though he also acknowledged the potential liability issues for the city, which owns the property.
“It’s probably a nightmare to have that there, because people crawl all over it,” he said.
Hikers have hardly been shy about climbing a rusting metal ladder up to the roof of the utility barn. And the irrigation pipes that crisscross the compound are a testament not only to a nascent attempt at yoking the land but also to the potential for a modern trip-and-fall incident.
At the far end of the camp, past the brick footprint of what was, until last month, a derelict machine shop, is a stable in precarious condition, windows blown out and littered with debris, surrounded by a chain-link fence that has proved no match for a pair of wire cutters. The only sounds are the wind and the clicks of iPhone cameras minting new Facebook profile pictures.
The gates leading to the Murphy Ranch site are being preserved. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Liu
The advanced state of dilapidation is part of the place’s photogenic charm as well as a reason for the demolition, slated to wrap up this month. Schreiner insists there’s another way, arguing the city could be doing more to preserve the site and its history. He has been trying, with little success, to figure out who personally runs the Murphy Ranch site as part of his work on an upcoming book on day hiking in Los Angeles.
“I have tried for months now to get a human being on the phone just to tell me who is in charge of this place and I can’t do it,” he said. “It becomes clear that the city of L.A. doesn’t have a desire or perhaps the resources to care for this land.”
The site’s history as well as its management can be hard to account for. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times described the compound and its founders as “a small group hoping to establish a Nazi utopia.”
Ross, the USC historian, first read about the site while researching an upcoming book, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews and Their Spies Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America,” which tells of how Jewish vigilantes in Southern California monitored Nazi activity when authorities wouldn’t. He said a picture has emerged from his research of what was meant to be a “self-sustaining community” that could act as “headquarters for the whole Pacific Coast” of a Nazi protectorate strategically located halfway between Berlin and Tokyo.
The site — acquired by a person named Jessie Murphy in 1933, according to records — was going to house “a power plant, a huge water tank, a meat locker, 22 bedrooms and a bomb shelter,” Ross said. “It would have libraries, a swimming pool, a dining room, a gym.”
Blueprints from archives at UCLA obtained by Curbed Los Angeles show schematics for a lavish mansion with porticos, ballrooms and wide-open foyers — a residence fit for a world leader.
Whatever shady details exist about the plans for the compound, one thing is clear: They were never realized, and only a handful of outlying structures were completed. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the site and it was never completed, according to Ross. It served for a brief period as an artists’ colony before taking on its current life as a haven for nature-goers, but it never housed any Nazis.
Their loss is our gain.
How to get there: Driving west on Sunset past the 405 Freeway, take a right on Capri Drive until it intersects Casale Road. Street parking is available on the right, while the trail begins at a fire road to the left. Leaving Casale, you can continue straight until you come across the site’s historic masonry gates or save time by taking a staircase on your left leading down a hillside directly to the compound. Alternately, the site can be reached using Rustic Canyon Trail, which starts at Will Rogers State Park.