A Lasting Legacy : Merritt Adamson Jr.’s Land Dealings Changed Malibu Forever

Times Staff Writers

In the early decades of this century, there was just one owner of Rancho Malibu Topanga Sequit and her name was May Knight Rindge.

The heart of her 17,000-acre domain was an old Spanish land grant, bought by her late husband in 1891. The property stretched west of Santa Monica and Topanga, along 25 miles of coastline. The rancho reached as far as three miles into the Santa Monica Mountains.

May Rindge did not welcome outsiders. She fought whatever might bring them. She thwarted the Southern Pacific’s plans to run a railroad by the ranch. And she battled for years against the Pacific Coast Highway that she knew would cut a swath through her property.


By 1962, when her grandson took charge of the family lands, times had changed.

Merritt Huntley Adamson Jr., son of Merritt Huntley Adamson Sr. and Rhoda Rindge Adamson, became the one person most responsible for bringing new residents and visitors to the one-time rancho, now known simply as Malibu.

Adamson, who died two weeks ago of cancer at age 59, made decisions that changed the region forever.

During his quarter-century as manager of the remaining Rindge-Adamson lands, he donated the core of a campus to Pepperdine University. He built a mobile home park, a recreational vehicle park and condominiums.

He subdivided land and sold it for homes. He sold thousands of acres to the state and federal governments for open parkland that would both preserve wildlife and attract tourists.

And less than two months before his death, his company received long-sought permission from the California Coastal Commission to build Malibu’s first large hotel.


With those actions, he placed himself in the center of the gale-strength emotions that swirl around the issue of Malibu’s growth.

Though Merritt Adamson was by all accounts a private, quiet man, he acquired bitter critics and staunch defenders.

His opponents accused him of putting profit before the community’s best interests, of bringing in too many people for Malibu’s fragile road system, rugged hillsides and storm-battered beaches. Critics charged that he developed his vast holdings in a piecemeal fashion, with no overall concept in mind.

He was wounded by such attacks, his close friends said. He believed he was unfairly maligned.

In fact, Adamson would have preferred to keep the family land a working cattle ranch, his friends said.

His second choice apparently would have been to carry out a master plan he and his partners--his two sisters--secretly commissioned in 1965: a proposal by prominent architect William L. Pereira to develop much of Malibu with clusters of houses set off by huge natural preserves from surrounding large estates.

“He loved that plan,” said Louis Busch, Adamson’s real estate agent for more than 40 years and a friend since both were young men.

“They never unveiled the plan,” Busch said. “They tried to use some of his ideas, but the timing didn’t let it happen.”

What came between Adamson and his fondest hopes, his friends agreed, was taxes. In the 1970s, when land values skyrocketed, so did property taxes.

“His taxes were millions, just to hold onto that land,” said Hal Marlowe, Adamson’s lobbyist to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

So he had to sell some. And he had to make the rest pay for itself.

“Faced with that,” said Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, “he wanted an orderly transition from undeveloped to controlled zoning.”

“He certainly did not submit (development) requests in great volume,” said Supervisor Pete Schabarum. “Those requests he did submit were not even close to overdevelopment, in

most people’s opinion. Of course, Malibu residents had another idea.”

Malibu’s beaches, canyons and hills, filled with family history, clearly occupied a special place in Adamson’s heart.

He grew up at what is now Malibu Surfrider State Beach, in the family’s summer home, with its bath house and pool, outdoor patio fireplace and tile fashioned in the Rindge’s Malibu Pottery.

The Depression had plunged the family beef ranch into bankruptcy. Trustees were selling large parcels of the rancho to pay the creditors.

But the Adamsons had also launched a dairy. Called Adohr Farms (his mother Rhoda’s name spelled backward), it kept the family solvent.

Young Merritt loved the Guernsey herd, which became known worldwide for its quality and size. But he was allergic to the cattle; his skin broke out whenever he drew near the livestock.

Still, he intended to enter the family business. He got his degree in animal husbandry at University of California, Davis, and dreamed of raising his own beef cattle. In his mind, the remaining Rindge-Adamson properties would be forever open range.

Name in Mind

He confided to his friend Busch that he even had a name picked out: the Moonlight Cattle Co. “That,” said Busch, “was when beef was in vogue. That was before cholesterol.”

While he was still in school, in 1949, his father, Merritt Sr., shot himself to death, apparently despondent over his failing health after a stroke.

The spring of 1954 brought a happier time. Adamson married Sharon Geary, a friend since childhood. They honeymooned in Canada and Alaska.

But the empire was shrinking. “When Merritt’s mother was living, she continually had to sell off properties to keep up the overhead,” Busch said.

In 1962, Rhoda Rindge Adamson died. Merritt Adamson Jr. was in charge.

He had about 4,000 acres of Malibu land left to work with.

His first subdivision was Horizon Hills, Busch recalled. Adamson sold off 30 home sites, each more than an acre, between Zuma Beach and Zuma Canyon.

He thought of himself as an environmentalist, said Alfred Edgerton, legal services director for the Adamsons’ company. He was active in the early 1960s in the successful fight against a proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Corral Canyon, Edgerton said.

And then there was the Pereira plan. At that point, the famed architect had designed the CBS Television City Building, Marineland, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art-- and the concept for what would become the city of Irvine.

Wanted a Vision

Adamson and his sisters in January, 1965, hired Pereira to come up with a vision for Malibu. They spent “at least $80,000,” said Busch, a considerable sum in those days.

The resulting report recommended “extensive open areas punctuated by clusters of development at Malibu Harbor (a proposed marina at the mouth of Malibu Canyon) and Point Dume. An industrial park in Corral Canyon is recommended as a source of local employment.”

Adamson was delighted, Busch remembered. But Pereira had included plans for property that other people owned. And the time was not yet ripe, the capital not available, for translating the general scheme into reality.

Just the opposite, in fact. In 1966, the Adamsons were forced to sell Adohr Farms to Southland Corp. “Cattle cost a lot of money to feed,” said one family friend who asked not to be named.

Merritt Adamson was desolate. But, said Busch, “I don’t think he ever let emotions get him to a point where he made a bad business decision.”

For the rest of his life, Adamson would always be ready for a detailed discussion of dairy farming. He would tick off the locations of the family dairy property--the grazing land in Zuma Canyon, the bottling unit in Baldwin Hills, the large ranch at Camarillo.

His family business, however, was destined to center on real estate. In 1967, Adamson and his sisters formed the Adamson Cos., a partnership, with Merritt as the managing general partner.

“We didn’t buy land and speculate,” said Edgerton. “We were interested in ownership and planned development.”

Pepperdine Donation

In 1968, the Adamson Cos. gave 138 acres of Rancho Malibu land to Pepperdine University. The school, which was then based in Los Angeles, moved most of its operations to Malibu in 1972.

Some suspected that the donation was not completely unselfish. “In all frankness,” said Supervisor Hahn, a Pepperdine alumnus who met Adamson during the school’s transition period, “when he made the deal . . . making all that land available, it improved the rest of the (Adamson) property.”

Other developments followed: the 280-space Point Dume Club, hailed by Newsweek as the nation’s “toniest mobile home park,” and Zuma Bay Villas condominiums which “he would have liked to see a bit more spread out,” said Busch, “but he had partners on that.”

Adamson also made plans that fell through. On the 13-acre site of his boyhood beach house, he and his sisters envisioned a resort with a restaurant, theater, shops and housing.

The state condemned the land instead, planning to use it for parking for the adjacent Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Preservationists lobbied to have the beach house converted into a local history museum, instead--a move that touched Adamson deeply, Busch said. “He was really appreciative.”

He wasn’t always so happy about community reaction. He wanted to build terraced homes on a nearby bluff overlooking the sea. But the neighbors below on Malibu Road complained.

Joint Venture

He tried a joint venture with Alcoa to develop Zuma Canyon in a manner close to that suggested by Pereira: a large golf course surrounded by 5- and 10-acre estates. But “we had all the environmental freaks out,” Busch said, and the project fell through.

Later, he found another market. The 93-acre bluff site fetched $5.8 million from the state in 1980. It is now known as Malibu Bluffs State Park. And 1,530 acres of Zuma Canyon brought in $8 million from the state Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the National Park Service last year.

Adamson also sold about 900 acres of Malibu Canyon as state park land.

The revenue was nowhere near what the developments would have brought. But, said conservancy executive director Joseph T. Edmiston, “There was an advantage. The state pays cash.”

Adamson never appeared angry about the hue and cry raised by his neighbors over his projects, his friends said. But, said Marlowe, the lobbyist, “he couldn’t understand why people begrudged him getting any monetary return.”

To many Malibu activists, however, Adamson seemed to think his generation still owned the whole rancho.

“I think he loved the Malibu. I really do. But I think his basic approach was what’s good for the Adamsons is good for the Malibu,” said Frank Basso, a former president of the Malibu Township Council, a civic organization that frequently has opposed Adamson projects.

There were others to think about by then, Basso said.

Former Coastal Commissioner Marshall Grossman agreed. “I don’t view anything as him and him alone,” Grossman said. “There’s obviously an organization there, following a corporate plan. . . . All I know is that the results have been insensitive and out of character for the community.”

Galled by Hotel

Grossman is particularly galled by the Adamsons’ proposed hotel, a 300-room, 600-foot-wide structure that will cascade down a hillside above the coast highway.

“Why do they have to put a massive downtown-Los Angeles-type hotel on a mountaintop in Malibu?” he asked.

Even Adamson was not completely satisfied with the proposed look of the hotel--he wanted it redesigned, Busch said--but the project was dear to his heart.

It was readily accepted by four of the county supervisors.

The Adamson Cos. had been generous campaign contributors. Between 1981 and 1985, the firm was Schabarum’s largest corporate contributor, with $23,750 in cash plus hundreds in hunting trips and gifts.

The company was the sixth-largest giver to Supervisor Deane Dana, who represents the Malibu area. Adamson gave more than $10,000 to Supervisor Mike Antonovich and Adamson and his sisters gave almost $2,500 to Hahn.

Lone Vote

In May, only Supervisor Ed Edelman voted against the hotel, citing concerns about Malibu’s traffic problems.

By November, Adamson knew his cancer was serious. But he traveled to San Francisco anyway.

There, the Coastal Commission approved his hotel, 7 to 4, though the permit would not be issued until 36 conditions were met.

The Coastal Commission “really did the right thing on the hotel,” Dana said. “I am absolutely grateful to them for approving it before he died.”