Malibu Development: War Years to Late 1940s

From a scan of period postcard with caption Along the Malibu Coast, Roosevelt Highway, California.  Date is approximately 1940.
Scan of period postcard with caption "Along the Malibu Coast, Roosevelt Highway, California." Date is approximately 1940.

For Sale Signs on All of Malibu

In December 1940, the entire Malibu property of May K. Rindge went up for sale, under pressure of tax assessments, legal bills, and the collapse of the ranch and Malibu Potteries with the Depression. Broken and discouraged, the "Queen of the Malibu" died two months later, in February 1941.

Realtor Louis T. Busch worked with Marblehead Land Co. to subdivide the property and find buyers. Gradually all of the original Malibu Rancho land was sold off to individuals, developers, farmers, or commercial interests. Potential buyers were advised:

"to make an early selection . . . [of] ocean-front lots, sites for villas, hotels, golf clubs, estates, beach and yacht clubs, income and business lots, small summer home places, ranchitos, 100-640-acre ranchos, and acreage for further subdivision."

Within six years, over eighty percent of the Rindge holdings were sold.

Commercial development continued, to capitalize on the Roosevelt Highway traffic. The Albatross hotel and restaurant was built on land purchased at Las Flores beach in 1941. It was a popular Malibu hangout with a shady reputation, featured in the movie Strangers When we Meet. In western Malibu, the Malibu Trading Post was established at Trancas Cyn. in the early 1940s to service travellers on that stretch of the highway. The pay phone at Trancas was the only phone in western Malibu for years.

World War II in Malibu

1940s photo of the original Malibu Inn, located across from the Colony on the Roosevelt Highway. Image scanned from a period postcard.
1940s photo of the original Malibu Inn, located across from the Colony on the Roosevelt Highway.

By 1940 Malibu Colony had developed but the population was primarily summer-seasonal with few year-round residents. Other than the Colony, homes in Malibu were few in number, limited to Las Flores (then the town commercial center), La Costa, Malibu Heights (about 14 homes northwest of Art Jones' original Malibu Inn) plus scattered homes along the beach. Wartime photos of the Roosevelt Highway verify the sparse settlement, with for example, only one home on Latigo Beach, one on Solstice Beach, and four on Escondido Beach beach (all heavily damaged in a 1943 storm).

Immediately after Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) the Army began beach patrols in California, including Malibu. The threat was real: Japanese submarines were verified to be operating off California and the Germans had landed saboteurs on the East Coast. In August 1942, the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol established eight stations along the Malibu Coast with Headquarters in the Adamson Pool House at Malibu Point (now the Malibu Lagoon Museum). The Coast Guard facilities included barbed wire, roving coast watchers, jeeps and other military equipment. The Beach Patrol remained active until July-August 1944 when the war had progressed to the point where there was no danger of invasion along the Pacific shore.

The Malibu Bugle, the first Malibu newspaper, was started in April 1942 by Charles Lapworth. The short-lived Bugle served not only Malibu but the West San Fernando Valley and the Canejo Valley as well, in competition with the Santa Moncia Outlook and other local papers.

During the war, long military convoys were a common sight rolling through Malibu in transit from Pt. Mugu to Long Beach. Pt. Dume was used by the military as the northern observation point for Santa Monica Bay, with anti-aircraft gun emplacements, continual patrols and target practice. A joint lookout tower for the fire department and the Coast Guard was at the tip of the point, near today's intersection of Birdview Ave. and Cliffside Drive. Wartime blackout restrictions meant that no lights were permitted in coastal dwellings at night -- that meant everyone in Malibu -- and no lights were allowed for vehicles on the coast road, the cause of many accidents. The blackout rules were lifted toward the end of 1944, allowing Warner Bros. to film Mildred Pierce at the Frederick Rindge Jr. home on Latigo Beach during December that year.

Development in Western Malibu

The Paradise Cove lower section was built by Frank Wilson and Al Camp, starting with a Club House (Sandcastle restaurant and now the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe) and laundry/restroom building before WW II, but their plans were stalled by the war. They sold to Bill Swanson in 1945 who completed it and opened the trailer park.

In 1941, world-famous horseman Egon Merz bought property at Escondido Beach and built Rancho Sea Air. He attracted many equestrians to Malibu with trail rides, hunting with hounds, and superb training facilities. Elizabeth Taylor and "The Pie" trained there for National Velvet.

Also in 1941, Marblehead defaulted on LA County taxes due on Zuma Beach property. The County foreclosed, created the public Zuma Beach, and demolished the few beach homes there to create a vast parking area.

A general development plan for Point Dume published in 1939 identified the area as suitable for a 138-acre golf course, polo field, tennis center and hotel retreat. It was sold off in large tracts, but during the war shortages of materials for civilian use slowed development. After the war the original "Pt. Dume Dome" was flattened and subdivided. Trees were planted for the first time. Each lot came with deeded beach rights, an attraction that continues to command premium real estate prices.

In 1948 Alex Newton, Sr. bought an acre and a half on Point Dume (now Wildlife Road and Whitesands Place at Little Dume) for $3100. He was all alone out there, with the nearest neighbor a half-mile away. His family rode horses all over the undeveloped area and planted eucalyptus trees as windbreaks in the early 1950s that are still there today.

In 1948 the Holiday House was built by director Dudley Murphy on the cliffs overlooking the ocean at 27400 Pacific Coast Hwy., designed by Richard Neutra. It was a hotel plus apartments originally, now the building houses Geoffrey's Restaurant with condos on upper floors.

Getty Comes to Malibu

The 64-acre Getty Villa site in eastern Malibu off PCH at Coastline was purchased by J. Paul Getty in 1945 from Claude Parker, who built the ranch house in 1922. In 1953, Getty opened one wing of the house to the public as an art museum, expanding with a new section in 1957. The Getty Villa in Malibu, which currently houses part of the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a reconstruction and adaptation of the Roman Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The Villa opened to the public in 1974, replacing the original ranch house.

Residual Farming in Malibu

Photos of Malibu in the late 1940s and early 1950s still show miles of coastline, even near the pier, with scant few buildings and almost no structures on the slopes outside of La Costa. With little pressure from residential development, in the 1940s cattle were still grazing in Malibu, especially on the broad slopes near Ramirez Canyon down to Paradise Cove and on Pt. Dume. Malibu's last cattle ranch was located up Bonsall Canyon (Zuma) and remained in operation into the 1980s. The Malibu slopes were also used for dry farming -- fields of lima beans, tomatoes and other crops that could grow without irrigation covered the hills.

Use of the Malibu Beach Grows

When surfing at Malibu began in the 1920s and 1930s, the beaches were isolated and as pristine as a deserted island in the South Pacific. But when experienced surfers returned from WW II and went to Malibu, they were alarmed to find their secluded beaches "crowded" by as many as ten surfers at a time. By 1949, "a crowd of surfers" in Malibu meant 25 surfers.

Before the war, you'd call somebody before you went to Malibu because you didn't want to surf alone… What we considered to be a crowd, back then, would be a beautiful day, today.
Leroy "Granny" Grannis

Growth at the End of the 1940s

The post-war years were prosperous and expansive in Malibu, as in much of America. Businesses that became Malibu landmarks started in that period, such as Malibu Lumber (1948, later moved to larger site) and Frostie Freeze (1949, now La Salsa). The expanded population demanded schools and in 1949 the John Webster School opened in Winter Canyon with 120 students, four staff teachers and six classrooms.

Rick and Luella "Billie" Ulrich bought the majority of the oceanfront property at Latigo Point in 1943 from Marblehead Land Co. reportedly for less than $10,000. They moved a mobile home onto the land until they completed a guest house in 1947, with the address 26800 Pacific Coast Highway. The 6,000 sq. ft. main house, called Gull's Way, was completed in 1971. The Ulrich's rented the property to movie studios and hundreds of films and television shows have been filmed there including "Fantasy Island," "Hardcastle & McCormick" and "It's Only Money," starring Jerry Lewis.

In 1948, another far reaching change took place when Pacific Coast Highway was rerouted from the area of the Colony over the bluffs to Corral Canyon. As the "new PCH" went straight up the hill to where the PCH-Malibu Canyon Road intersection is now, then across the bluffs to descend to the beach level again at Corral, the old coast-hugging road was left behind to become what is now Malibu Road. The huge man-made ramp carrying the road up to the bluffs permanently bisected the historical lagoon on that side of the Malibu Creek flood plain.

Casa Malibu, built in 1949, was known as the hideaway for Lana Turner. They say she checked in for a day and stayed for a year.

Continue with Malibu Development: 1950s - 1960s ...

Sources and Recommended Books about Malibu's Development

These books offer a wonderful introduction to Malibu and its history, with many specifics and details not generally available. Highly recommended.

  • Malibu: California's Most Famous Seaside Community, by Marian Hall, is a delightful book with the details of Malibu's development from the original Malibu Beach Movie Colony up to 2005, with many beautiful current and historical photos illustrating the narrative.
  • Malibu : A Century of Living by the Sea by Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai, is basically an architecture book but is also far more. Its flawless photos of Malibu homes span the entire history from the Rindge Rancho to the 2000s with insightful commentary on the trends and architects who created the trends in each period. Many of the photos show more than the home, supplying a glimpse of life in Malibu at the time.
  • My Fifty Years in Malibu by Dorothy Stotsenberg, is a rich serving of personal reminiscence and research about Malibu's history, recent past, and current issues illustrated with an excellent collection of historical photos. The Stotsenbergs moved to Malibu in 1949 and have been actively involved in the community since. The privately printed book is available in book stores in the Malibu area.
  • WW II Homeland Defense: U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in Malibu, 1942-1944, by Ronald L. Rindge, is full of details, including the author's personal memories and experiences, of Malibu during World War II. Available at the gift shop of the Malibu Lagoon Museum if out of print elsewhere.
  • City of Malibu, General Plan, November 1995

In addition to the above publications, the archives of the Malibu Times -- articles by Rick Wallace in particular -- are invaluable, providing fine-grained details to illuminate the rich texture of Malibu's past and present. Other periodicals from Malibu, the Los Angeles area, and beyond have written about Malibu and its inhabitants. The Los Angeles Public Library, Malibu Branch, houses many unique items of Malibu history which can be uncovered there.

Return to Development & Diversification or up one level to Malibu History or up one more level to the Home Page.

© Copyright 2005-2021 by All rights reserved worldwide.