Guests driving into Camp Josepho navigate miles of chaparral, some overgrown fencing, new growth over a burned out area, maybe even some hikers and bikers and… impressive stonework and wrought iron gates. If you ever felt like you were passing Wayne Manor on your way down into camp, you are not alone.
The gates were the entrance to Murphy Ranch, a city-owned parcel that has been home to wealthy ranchers, immigrant bohemians, local artists, and even a famous novelist. The Nazi-narrative has captivated hikers and lovers of urban lore most recently, but the larger history of the landmark paints a picture that is much more complex and interesting, showcasing the intersection of great talent and civil progress with reactionary ideology. Jessie Murphy, who purchased the land from Will Rogers and invested $4 Million developing the area with buildings, a 375,000 gallon water tank, a meat locker, and more to create a haven for German refugees forced out of Germany by the ascendance of the Third Reich. The residents at that time were left-leaning radicals who were forced out of Germany at that time because of their radical beliefs (which were anything BUT Nazi-sympathetic), and wore handmade clothing and lived a “subversive” lifestyle by the conservative standards of the 40s and 50s. The stories of Nazi sympathizers emerged because the Rogers family and Charles Lindberg (both of whom did, in fact, openly support the Nazis) befriended the group while he stayed at Will Rogers Park to avoid the publicity after the sensational kidnapping of his child). Propaganda films were filmed onsite during the war, one of which described a haven of Hitler sympathizers waiting out the war on a compound, which is where docents of Will Rogers Park believe the Nazi stories emerged. The origin of the popular myth ad its veracity, however, remain in doubt to this day, and you are likely to hear various stories from every source.
In the following years, the property was briefly home to Henry Miller and was an Artist Colony until 1965, when it went into disuse. A large fire in 1978 (which burned down every building in Camp Josepho except for the Lodge) destroyed all non-concrete facilities on the premises.
The gates themselves, however, are part of much more complex and interesting history. They were designed for the original Ranch on the property by Paul Revere Williams, a pioneering African American Architect that designed more than 2,000 homes in the 1920s-50s for some of the brightest stars of Hollywood including Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnaz, and Lucille Ball. Williams was a master draftsman fluent in every popular architectural style, and he developed the skill of rendering design draws upside from across his desk so that white clients could see their designs rendered in real time without having to sit or stand next to a black architect. Today, it is Paul Revere William’s contribution to the lost structures in Rustic Canyon that is today most visible and most often misunderstood.