Peter Strauss Ranch Joins U.S. Park Chain

Times Staff Writer

A small enclave where nature, the arts and quaint bits of history formed an odd alliance against the march of development became a part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area on Sunday.

About 500 people, most of them drawn by an outdoor performance of the Aman Folk Ensemble, found themselves also sitting through a ceremony that marked the transfer of the Peter Strauss Ranch to the federal government, which is buying it from the state for half of what the state paid for it only four years ago.

With a little explaining, it became clear that that seemingly peculiar transaction is just about the most ordinary event in the history of the idyllic, 64-acre property. Once known as Lake Enchanto, the ranch was a place where the pre-WW II set danced under the moonlight. Before that, Indians lived on the land and, later, some of Charles Manson’s gang held out there.


For the past four years the property, at the end of Troutdale Road in Agoura Hills, has been in bureaucratic limbo.

Conservancy Bought Land in 1983

Although the state and federal governments jointly negotiated its purchase for $1.125 million in 1983, the National Park Service didn’t have its $632,000 share at the time. So the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, formed by the state to buy land that is in danger of being developed, bought the land.

The National Park Service finally paid its share with monies from its 1986 congressional authorization and assumed control of the park Sunday.

The transfer had more than mere ceremonial significance. Beginning August 1, with full-time park rangers in place to supervise it, the park will be open seven days a week. During its four years in state ownership, the park has been open only two Sundays a month for concerts and at other times was rented for private activities.

“Some people say this place is blessed,” actor/producer Peter Strauss, the last of its private owners, said Sunday.

Followed by two constantly clicking paparazzi, Strauss, best known for his role in the TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” returned Sunday to take part in what he called for him a “Pyrrhic” celebration.


“This is the second saddest day,” Strauss said. The saddest, he said, was the day he sold the property to the state.

“The joy of it all is that now it belongs to all of you,” he told the audience, which sat on the stone terraces of an amphitheater in the shade of coast live oaks.

In a rambling, emotional speech, Strauss detailed the pitiful condition in which he found the property when he bought it in 1976 for $200,000.

The remains of half a dozen cars lay in the bed of Triunfo Creek, which runs across the property. The roof of the 1920s country-bungalow house was destroyed. The 640,000-gallon swimming pool where Esther Williams filmed movies was dry and sprouting weeds.

And county officials were waiting with three condemnation notices on the day he took possession, Strauss said. One notice was for the structure, the other two were for the property’s cesspools.

Ruth Kilday, executive director of the Mountains Conservancy Foundation, a private organization formed to maintain the park while it was in state hands, told how the property fell into that condition.

Developed in 1920s

The land was developed in the 1920s by Harry A. Miller, an auto designer and builder, as a mountain retreat with an aviary, zoo and fruit trees.

Visitors boated and fished in a lake, formed by damming Triunfo Creek, and rented cabanas along its banks.

During the Big Band era, an outdoor dance floor of Italian terrazzo was used for nighttime dancing while the band’s music was broadcast over the radio.

A later owner, Charles Hinman, planned to turn Lake Enchanto into Cornell World Famous Places, with replicas of Egypt’s Pyramids and Colorado’s Royal Gorge, among other wonders of the world.

But Hinman got in trouble with the law.

“Charles Hinman ended up in jail,” Kilday said. “This was the beginning of the demise of this property.”

In 1971, Hinman lost Lake Enchanto at a tax auction.

Hot Tub Removed

In his seven years as owner, Strauss rebuilt and enlarged the house, following its original style. He planted a large lawn and also a culvert to carry drainage water around it. He planted his private cactus collection in a prominent spot. He also put in a hot tub, which has now been removed to make way for public restrooms.

And after all that, he said, he realized that he didn’t have time to maintain the property properly.

It was time to decide “whether I wanted to be a performer or a chicken farmer,” he said.

He agreed to sell it to the state for less than the appraised value after the Conservancy promised that it would continue to use the property for the arts.

In the four years of state ownership, Kilday organized concerts there two weekends a month and invited a group of sculptors to work and show there. To raise money, the caretakers rented the property for weddings and private corporate retreats.

A volunteer group called Friends of the Peter Strauss Ranch, on which Strauss served, helped to keep the park in good condition.

Its labors and the private parties came to an end Sunday.

Daniel R. Kuehn, superintendent of the National Recreation Area, said he intends to continue the concerts and arts activities.

Weddings and parties are not out either, he said. But they can’t be exclusive any more.

And, as for the pool, it’s still empty and will probably remain so.

The Park Service doesn’t have the money to rebuild it, he said.