We watched the sun rise over the Pacific Palisades as we took a breather on the side of the canyon wall, casting a golden glow over the Santa Monica cityscape and silhouetting planes taking off from the airport. The midday sun sent shadows dancing across the bottom of the canyon, where remnants of a darker, untold story of LA’s history sat abandoned beneath the trees.
This history goes back to the 30s, a time marked by increasing political tensions, the Great Depression and Hollywood’s Golden Age. Some land in the canyons was bought by a “Jessie Murphy” in 1933, whose name has never appeared anywhere else. Many have thus assumed it was a pseudonym for Winona and Norman Stephens. A huge believer in spiritual and supernatural phenomena, Mrs. Stephens met a German man named Herr Schmidt who
convinced her he could see into the future. He told her the growing Nazi party would win the oncoming war and eventually come to take over America. In order to prepare then, he insisted they use their $4 million to build a completely self-sufficient compound. Schmidt, the Stephens and their followers stayed in the compound for almost a decade before police came to arrest everyone the day after Pearl Harbor.
Having wanted to visit this exhibit for years, I decided to take advantage of a lazy saturday afternoon. Some friends and I drove up the I-405 north towards Santa Monica, exiting on Sunset Boulevard. After turning right on Capri Dr., we finally parked on Casale Rd., across from a two-story mansion easily the same size as one of the dorms on our campus.
From there, we walked back continuing onto Seville Fire Rd. and passed by a few more fancy homes. We continued on the paved path for two more miles, stopping to take several photos along the way before finally finding the gap in the chain link fence at the top of one of several stone staircases.
We took deep breaths as we began the descent down the narrow staircase. Although we didn’t bother to count, there are easily over 500 steps that go to the bottom of the canyon in just a few yards. After a few pit stops to breathe and take pictures, we finally emerged through the trees onto a broken road that had been partially washed away.
We followed the road around the bend, where we took pictures on a tree covering the road and finally found our first building — the meeting house.
Empty spray cans and beer bottles litter the grounds and all of the buildings are covered in graffiti, showing how this place has not escaped the urban vibe that encompasses Los Angeles. The earth around the Meeting House allows for an easy access to fun pictures on the surprisingly stable roof.
Behind the Meeting House down a dried creek bank is a massive diesel tank, built to hold around 20,000 gallons of fuel. Continuing along the main road from the House, there is another cement platform where a building was torn down by the city two years ago. Scattered in several places around the main structures are bunkers under the main road, showing how these people were prepared for anything.
Past the platform is a small dirt path, that leads down the very bottom of the canyon, where a refreshing breeze carries a sound reminiscent of a waterfall, but is actually just the leaves of the trees.
After enjoying the break from the midday sun, we turned around and headed back up to the road. There we found another shorter flight of stairs showing the gardens and vineyards where they grew most of their food. To commemorate the use of the gardens, we decided to take a brief snack break on the walls.
From there, we climbed back up to the main road and followed it all the way up to the main entrance, passing more remains of a building long gone but still containing a bathtub and stone fireplace. Once upon a time, a beautiful, massive gate stood there, but was also torn down by the city. Just prior to the entrance, however, stands the rim of what was once a water tank big enouch to hold over 300,000 gallons of water.
No matter what the purpose of these people, one has to admire their adversity and ability to create a whole self-sustaining society for themselves at the bottom of a canyon just miles from Los Angeles.