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90272: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea

Ryan McRee

The Pacific Palisades has been poetically described as “Where the Mountains Meet the Sea,” which is an appropriate epithet for one of L.A.’s most beautiful natural areas. The 90272 ZIP code stretches from the Will Rogers State Beach beyond the Santa Monica mountains and deep into Topanga State Park, reaching the border of Encino to the north, and is bordered to the west by the end of Getty Villa Drive and to the southeast by the Santa Monica city border, near San Vicente Blvd. With 24,000 residents spread across 22.9 miles, the Pacific Palisades has one of L.A.’s lowest population-density ratios.

One of the first major developments in the Palisades was the site of the Port of Los Angeles and the “Long Wharf,” built in 1893. About a mile long, it was the longest wharf in the world and became a tourist attraction and symbol of development in Southern California. It fell into decline after 1912 when the Port of Los Angeles was established in Long Beach, and was completely removed by 1933. The area drew further attention when filmmaker Thomas Ince, known as the “father of the Western,” built a massive movie studio known as Inceville in 1911. The site housed 700 people and was made up of above 18,000 acres of land that served as a backdrop for many different kinds of sets, representing locales ranging from Switzerland to a Japanese village to a Native American settlement. A series of fires that destroyed much of the complex and the opening of his studio company in Culver City led Inceville to sell the property to another studio, and in 1922 the land was bought by Reverend Charles H. Scott of the Southern California Methodist Episcopal Church, who envisioned the area as a spiritual and intellectual commune for his parishioners. They came up with the name Pacific Palisades and began development of the residential area. By 1929 the Palisades was an established town; the paving of Sunset Boulevard in 1925 and the opening of the Riviera Country Club in 1927 drew visitors and residents to the area, and further residential development boomed. The completion of the Roosevelt Highway (now known as the PCH) in 1929 connected the region to larger cities. The Depression slowed further construction, which had a brief peak in the late thirties and then was slowed again by the onset of WWII.

But the Palisades came to be affected by the war in Europe before the United States had entered it. in the 1930s a community of exiled German-speaking intellectuals and artists began to form in the Palisades. Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg was one of the first notable expatriates, leaving Vienna for Los Angeles in 1934. He was followed by composers Otto Klemperer and Ernst Toch. Writers Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger left Germany in 1933 as the Nazis came to power and arrived in Los Angeles in 1940. Playwright Bertolt Brecht arrived in 1941. Although several, including Brecht, ended up returning to Germany after the war, a good number of them stayed to make Southern California their permanent home. Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta Loeffler bought the Los Angeles Times Demonstration Home, which had been built to advertise both the latest innovations in household design and the charms of living away from the urban core of Los Angeles, and heavily renovated it. The new house came to be called Villa Aurora, and it became the hub for a community of European exiles and American artists and intellectuals. The community became known as “Weimar by the Sea” and they drew the attention of the L.A. Times, who called Mann “Goethe in Hollywood.”

Parallel to this celebrated community of free-thinking artists was a much more sinister counterpart. Also making a home in the Palisades was the mysterious “Herr Schmidt,” who to this day has never been certainly identified. Rumors began quietly circulating of a small following of mostly wealthy socialites who had become enraptured by Schmidt’s “mystical powers” and his foretelling of Nazi Germany’s conquest of the United States. One of the few remaining traces of this bizarre and mysterious chapter of Palisades history is Murphy Ranch, a series of ruins in the heart of Rustic Canyon that was apparently built to serve as a Nazi compound. Chicago socialites and sympathizers of the fascist Silver Legion of America Norman and Winona Stephens allegedly bought the land in 1933 under the pseudonym “Jessie M. Murphy” and, under the influence of Herr Schmidt, began to build “a self-sufficient farm based on National Socialist ideals.” Architectural drawings from 1934 to 1941 reveal a grand design that less resembled a farm than a grand palace. The compound had its own water supply, a 2,000-gallon oil tank, a double-generator power station, an irrigation system for terraces of plants, and a cold storage locker for food. The plans for the unfinished mansion included four stories, an indoor pool, a grand central hall, multiple libraries and social rooms, a large master bedroom and a number of bedroom suites of various sizes, a four-car garage, extensive patios and balconies, and a music room. By the late 30s only a few of the buildings had been constructed, and very little progress had been made on the mansion. In 1939 the couple hired renowned local architect Paul R. Williams to design the mansion, and construction was completed on the front gates. Plans stopped in 1941 when the United States entered the war. A newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Trouble for Traitors” vaguely hinted at the existence of Schmidt and a Nazi following in Santa Monica, and warned that traitors to the United States would be rounded up by the government. Though no concrete proof of his existence exists, rumors say that Herr Schmidt was arrested at Murphy Ranch the day after Pearl Harbor and his colony was scattered. Today the property is owned by the city of Los Angeles and is open for hikers and sightseers to appreciate the eerie landscape of decay.

In the late 1940s, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship acquired ten acres of land connected to Sunset Boulevard and dedicated the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, which today features the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial, containing the only portion of Gandhi’s ashes outside of India. George Harrison, Herb Jeffries, and Tom Petty all had their funeral services at the shrine, which is considered by the Fellowship to be a holy place for all religions and faiths.

Also constructed in the late forties is the Eames House, a landmark of modernist architecture designed as a home and studio by Charles and Ray Eames. The house, also known as Case Study House No. 8, was commissioned by Art and Architecture magazine as a challenge to develop progressive, but modest homes in Southern California. Charles and Ray lived in the house until their deaths, and it now operates as a museum that attracts 20,000 visitors a year by reservation.

The Getty Villa, also located in the Pacific Palisades, began construction in 1954 and was opened to the public in 1971. The Villa was originally built to create more room for J. Paul Getty’s extensive collection of Roman, Greek, and Etruscan art, which he had opened up to the public in his home up the hill from the Villa. After Getty’s death, the museum inherited a large sum of his estate and began building the Getty Center in Brentwood, and decided to split the 44,000-piece art collection between the two locations. The Getty Villa is adored by tourists not only for its art collection but for its stunning Romanesque architecture.

Today the Pacific Palisades is known for its many mid-century landmark homes and for the celebrity estates that adorn the coastline. The beautiful Will Rogers State Beach that stretches along the length of the Palisades attracts beach goers looking to escape the crowds of Santa Monica and Venice, and the Pacific Coast Highway is a common recreational drive for those who want to take in the gorgeous coastline and breathe the ocean air.

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