While Yom HaShoah is again putting a spotlight on the horrors that unfolded in Europe beginning in the 1930s, Murphy Ranch, an alleged Nazi sympathizer compound in Southern California, inexplicably remains under the radar.
Hidden in Rustic Canyon near the Topanga State Park in Pacific Palisades, the eerie ruins once reportedly housed dozens of Adolf Hitler supporters who were awaiting the war’s arrival in North America. According to local historians, they had hoped to build the dictator’s Los Angeles headquarters there after riding out WWII.
“Of course, that never happened, but that was the plan,” said Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which operates the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Today, the property, which is owned by the city of Los Angeles, is in decay. The compound still features a wrought-iron gate, large water tank, horse barn, equipment barn, garden and power room, all of which are covered with graffiti. The power room is the primary structure, and nearly every inch of it has been tagged.
Breitbart said the group of Nazi sympathizers, who likely belonged to the Silver Shirts, an American fascist organization, never finished building the compound. He said there were plans for a bomb shelter, pool, gym and library.
The property was purchased in 1933 by Jessie Murphy, the mother of Winona Stephens, according to Pacific Palisades historian Randy Young. He said the project was the work of Stephens and her husband, Norman, who were in tune with the Silver Shirts way of thinking and its “brand of American Nazism.”
“It was just a weird combination of religion, the occult and Adolf Hitler philosophy,” Young said.
At the time the compound was constructed, several different Nazi organizations were creating centers across the country, at the request of Hitler, he said. Young said there were centers in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and a couple in Los Angeles.
“There were many of them,” he said.
The $4 million property was reportedly protected by armed guards, who patrolled Murphy Ranch’s many concrete staircases. Those staircases, one of which had more than 500 steps, have been highlighted in a book, “Secret Stairs”, by author Charles Fleming, who grew up in Pacific Palisades.
Fleming said that as a Boy Scout in the late 1960s, he had spent a few weekends at nearby Camp Josepho, where he heard campfire stories about “the Nazi Camp.” It wasn’t until 2008, when he was conducting research for “Secret Stairs”, that he found out the camp was real and the ruins still existed.
“I was delighted to find that the area included a legendary set of stairs — once private, but now public, and part of a set of several staircases — that made it possible for me to include the property and its strange history in the book,” Fleming said. “The walk is one of the most rigorous in the book, but it’s also one of the most popular, largely due to the colorful story of ‘the Nazi Camp.’”
The camp was reportedly raided by the FBI on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Freedom of Information Act request sent to the FBI regarding the raid was not returned by deadline.
The compound was more or less abandoned until the 1960s and ‘70s, when an artist colony set up camp. Young, who referenced Murphy Ranch in “Rustic Canyon and the Story of the Uplifters”, a book he wrote with his mother, said the Huntington Hartford Foundation purchased the land at the time.
Through his research, Young interviewed John Vincent, the former head of the UCLA music department who arranged the sale of the property for the foundation. Vincent had discussed the history of the ranch with the Stephens couple directly.
“That’s really the foundation for our story,” he added.
In that interview, Young learned that Winona and Norman Stephens felt somewhat swindled by a man named Herr Schmidt, the leader of the compound who they described as a Svengali. The couple felt they had been manipulated into building the property by the German national for the Nazis.
Young said the group, which included several followers, may have had a lot of money, but they were pretty pitiful. For example, they reached out to architects Welton Becket and Paul Williams to construct the compound. Young said it was ironic that the “master race” reached out to an African-American to construct the compound.
How the property transformed from an artist’s colony into what it is today — a large, spread-out canvas for taggers — is unclear, however. Breitbart suggested the 1978 Mandeville Canyon fire, which broke out in the area, as a potential culprit for the colony’s departure.
According to Breitbart, Murphy Ranch is largely forgotten, though “from time to time, the ranch makes [the] newspapers.” He said the property never became a Nazi shrine or anything of the like; instead, like the bigotry it represents, the site is deteriorating.
“It’s an interesting little story,” he added.
Young said he has heard rumors that the ranch may be razed, but nothing has been posted and he’s heard no official word. Besides, it would cost a “bloody fortune” to knock down the compound, he said.
“It’s built like a tank,” Young added.
To visit the site, take Sunset Boulevard west to Pacific Palisades. Turn right on Monaco Drive, take the roundabout to Capri Drive, turn right on Casale Road and park. Take Sullivan Fire Road, which will be west of Capri Drive, until the wrought iron fence, the entrance to the abandoned Nazi compound.
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