Malibu History: Early Land Sales and the Malibu Colony

Malibu Colony circa 1940, on the Roosevelt Highway (now Pacific Coast Highway) at Malibu Beach.  The original Malibu Inn is on the left side of the road opposite the entrance to the Colony. This image was scanned from a period postcard made from a Spence Air Photos picture.  It says on the back, Many movie celebrities and executives have erected their beautiful summer homes here.
Malibu Colony circa 1940, on the Roosevelt Highway (now Pacific Coast Highway) at Malibu Beach. The original Malibu Inn is on the left side of the road opposite the entrance to the Colony. This image was scanned from a period postcard made from a Spence Air Photos picture. It says on the back, "Many movie celebrities and executives have erected their beautiful summer homes here."

Development Along the Road to Malibu

Castle Rock area with Villa de Leon on the hill above.  Image scanned from a period postcard.Development of Malibu was perhaps inevitable and development was already knocking on the door while May K. Rindge was still fighting to keep Malibu her private preserve. The Las Flores Inn was built around 1915 to serve tourists driving up the coast, at the turn around where the rough coast road leading to Malibu ended and May Rindge's fence forbid further travel. Homes began to be built along that road, including a ranch house built in 1922 by Claude Parker on the site that is now the Getty Villa Museum. Then in 1928 Leon Kauffman built the Villa de Leon (seen in image to the left), a landmark estate on the bluffs of Castellammare at Coastline Drive above Claude Parker's property. Also built in 1928 was a retail center and seafood restaurant that became "Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe" at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway, where the unsolved murder of Todd, a blond bombshell film star, took place December 16, 1935. At Topanga Canyon, the Topanga Beach Auto Court (later Topanga Ranch Motel) used cabins originally erected for the Roosevelt Highway construction crews to establish the first motel on PCH (remarkably, closed but still there in 2015). Across the road, just west of Topanga Beach, in 1928 Greta Garbo built La Esperanza, her Mediterranean villa on 86 feet of beach frontage at 18862 PCH.

From the north, development in the Ventura-Oxnard area was creating pressure from that direction as well.

First Sale of Rancho Malibu Land

Although Malibu property has proved to be a golden investment over the long run, it got off to a difficult start. In 1926 Rindge's Marblehead Land Company sold the La Costa beachfront and hillside to developer Harold Ferguson for the sum of $6 million. Ferguson created the La Costa Beach Club for land-side property owners along with grand plans to develop the beach parcels. He laid out the La Costa development and gave the streets their names that remain today: Rambla Pacifico, Las Flores, Rambla Vista, and so on. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created the Tarzan books, bought a home there, at 90 Malibu La Costa Beach, and in 1933 and was elected honorary "Mayor of Malibu Beach." But the La Costa project collapsed into insolvency and Ferguson went to jail for fraud. Marblehead repossessed the property and undertook the development, but the Depression stalled the project. Marblehead itself declared bankruptcy in 1936.

The Malibu Beach Motion Picture Colony

To establish Malibu as a desirable location, starting in 1926 Mrs. Rindge offered beach lots to movie stars of the day, working with Art Jones to handle the leasing. To maintain control, there were no sales but thirty feet of ocean frontage could be leased for $30.00 per month on a ten year lease ($1/foot/month was the promotion). Swedish silent film star Anna Q. Nielson was the first to sign up followed quickly by Clara Bow, Ronald Colman, Bing Crosby, Harold Lloyd, Delores del Rio, Warner Baxter, Constance Bennett, Gary Cooper, Jack Warner, Mervyn Leroy, John Gilbert, Gloria Swanson, Barbara Stanwyck and many others. Studio carpenters were brought in to build cottages, at an average cost of $2600, and the "Malibu Beach Motion Picture Colony" was born.

Screenwriter and celebrity journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who calls herself the "World's Greatest Girl Reporter," wrote of how she first came to Malibu to interview Anna Q. Nielson. She passed the guarded gate at Las Flores, then followed the one-lane dirt road that would become PCH to a "small weathered grocery store and lunch counter and bar and Art Jones' real estate office." Across the street was the entrance to another dirt road leading to a few cottages at the beach. She met with Nielson and fell in love with Malibu.

Her son, Richard St. Johns, remembers:

I went from the hospital where I was born to the Malibu Colony in 1929. Mama loved the beach and her house ó No. 104 ó was the third or fourth built.

Ten years later the original Malibu Colony leases expired and residents were able to purchase their lots. Ownership led to expansion including larger homes, tennis courts and other luxuries. The Malibu Colony became and remains world famous as the beach retreat of movie, TV and rock stars, along with other wealthy personalities from the entertainment and business worlds.

Other Early Development

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who designed the California State Park system, advocated public ownership of at least 10,000 acres of the most scenic beach and mountain landscape between Topanga and Point Dume, but nothing came of the proposal. Homesteads and small communities were established in the mountain and valley areas by this time, in Decker Canyon, Malibu Lake and Monte Nido among many others. Malibu's brick courthouse replaced the original one room building in 1933, and still stands on PCH as an office building.

Silent film actress Pauline Fredrick built a home at the beach at Trancas Canyon in the 1930s. The villa included a lighthouse and boathouse that were a Malibu landmark for many years. In the 1930s merchant Fred Roberts bought land and built a fabulous home in Solstice Canyon, destroyed by fire in 1982. The Malibu Inn was opened across from the Colony (image at top of this page and on War Years to Late 1940s page) and later, when the highway was relocated, moved to its current address across from the pier. Olas Grandes Inn, across from La Costa Beach Club, was opened and later moved to the foot of Rambla Vista where stores today occupy the same building.

In the early 1930s, Associated Telephone built a switching station on Las Flores Road to serve Malibu. About 60 people had phones in 1930, in the Colony and the commercial strip at Las Flores, then the center of town. The Associated Telephone building was replaced after heavy rains in 1936 inundated the original. Associated Telephone became GTE, who built the building on PCH and another at Trancas Canyon that now show the Verizon logo. Malibu telephones grew slowly -- there were still only 1600 phones in Malibu in the early 1950s.

By the end of 1930, about 140 homes are recorded as built in Malibu. Impacted by the Depression, the typical price for a Malibu home in 1938 was... $1000.

Errol Flynn's films made archery popular so the Malibu Mountain Archery Club was established on property in Latigo Canyon during 1938. Sharon Prey, Club treasurer, told L.A. Weekly in 2009, "... it was very fashionable. Iíve got photographs of everyone from Shirley Temple and Bob Hope to James Garner at the old range." The club, which was used as a set for countless movies over the years, was closed after the land was purchased by U2 guitarist David Evans ("the Edge") in November 2006.

Continue with Malibu Development: War Years to Late 1940s ...

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.

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