Defender of Malibu’s Beauty
She was both L.A.’s first female environmentalist and a passionate advocate of property rights, waging a bitter battle to preserve a slender stretch of Malibu coastline years before conservation became a cocktail party byword.
For her efforts, May Knight Rindge--the indomitable “Queen of Malibu”--was variously labeled an eccentric, a hopeless idealist and, by many, a troublemaker.
Her name may not be familiar today, but her monuments--from a dam and pier to a hilltop mansion--stand as reminders of her persistence against what seemed insurmountable odds. Among those monuments, none has a higher profile, literally, than her magnificent West Adams Heights home.
The 1.8-acre Harvard Boulevard site was the center of the Rindge family’s vast empire, which included the 17,000-acre Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit and parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
It was love at first sight when May Knight, a 22-year-old Michigan schoolteacher, met Frederick Hastings Rindge, a Harvard graduate and son of a wealthy Massachusetts wool merchant. They were married in 1887, and with her husband’s $2-million inheritance, they headed west for Los Angeles sunshine.
They settled on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica before buying the 13,300-acre Malibu Rancho from Irish immigrant Henry Keller for $10 an acre in 1892. Feeling a spiritual connection to the land, May Rindge would later expand her domain to 17,000 acres, stretching west from Topanga Canyon along 25 miles of coastline and as far as three miles into the Santa Monica Mountains.
Because they also spent a great deal of time in the city, the Rindges bought a hilltop covered with wheat fields and cooled by ocean breezes in a wide-open space southwest of downtown.
Important businessmen like Rindge and other founders of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., including George Ira Cochran, C.I.D. Moore and Harvey S. Mudd, also purchased sites in the area, which emulated nearby Chester Place and became Southern California’s second gated community. As the crown jewel of the city’s neighborhoods, West Adams Heights ultimately became known as “Sugar Hill” because life there was so sweet.
In 1902, the Rindges hired architect Frederick Roehrig, who had recently remodeled the Green Hotel in Pasadena, to design and build a three-story “townhouse” for them that reflected their increasing wealth and optimism about the city’s future. Although they raised their three children in West Adams after a fire allegedly set by trespassers burned their Malibu beach home to the ground, their coastal ranch remained the family sanctuary. Up to that time, they had allowed travelers to pass through the ranch, but cattle rustling, fires and vandalism prompted them to curtail access.
Together, the Rindges outsmarted Southern Pacific’s plan to run a railroad through their Malibu ranch. In 1904, making use of a federal law prohibiting construction of parallel competing railroad lines, the Rindges secretly began spending millions to build the Malibu pier and the shortest railroad in the West.
Though their Malibu, Hueneme, Port of Los Angeles Railroad would never be completed, it served its purpose and helped transport sacks of beans and alfalfa to a barge off the Malibu pier. It also held the mammoth Southern Pacific at bay.
Then came Frederick Rindge’s untimely death in 1905.
Fiercely devoted to her husband, May Rindge found an inner strength that would help her carry on the battle for the right to enjoy her pristine coastal property, no matter the cost.
She began putting high wire fences with chained gates around her ranch, and hired mounted, armed guards to patrol the property day and night. To further discourage trespassers and survey teams, she plowed up county roads crossing her ranch, planted more alfalfa and let pigs run wild.
But that didn’t stop tourists and homesteaders from descending on her land. They broke down the gates and overpowered the guards. Then the state announced it wanted to build a highway through her ranch.
The battle was on--both on the ranch grounds and in the courts--that would end up costing Rindge not only in excess of $1 million a year in attorneys’ fees, but also her relationship with one of her sons, who sued her for bankrupting the family estate with her lawsuits.
The press treated her unfairly, labeling her “Queen of Malibu.” She shot back by filing hundreds of criminal complaints and civil suits for trespass, libel and defamation of character.
It took the state more than two decades, plus a $100,000 payment and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1925, before the Pacific Coast Highway, then known as the Roosevelt Highway, could be built through her ranch.
Bitterly disappointed, but willing to compromise, May Rindge began subdividing beachfront property the following year, first leasing and then selling lots for $2,500 in what became the Malibu Colony. Its attraction was privacy as much as beauty. The colony’s six-mile strip was protected against sightseers and autograph hounds by uniformed guards at the entrances.
That especially appealed to many of the film stars, who had been chased out of their Los Angeles estates when advertising agent Don Belding began publishing a book with the home addresses of the most prominent movie people.
The Malibu Colony soon filled with residents like Bing Crosby, Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Ronald Coleman, Adela Rogers St. John, Barbara Stanwyck, Dolores del Rio, Jack Warner and Clara Bow.
In 1929, the same year the Roosevelt Highway opened, Rindge began building her own private retreat. Enveloped by lush landscapes and silence, her 50-room Mediterranean-style mansion on Laudamus--Latin for “we praise”--Hill became her dream home.
She brought in Italian tile makers to design tiles fired at her Malibu Potteries factory, where she employed 100 people whose tiles still are world famous and much sought after by collectors.
The Depression plunged her into bankruptcy. Never completed, her 26-acre Malibu landmark was later sold for a mere $50,000 to the Franciscan Friars, who transformed it into the Serra Retreat. In 1970, it was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt on the same foundation.
In 1941, Rindge died at 75 in her Harvard Boulevard hilltop home, which later was converted into a home for unwed mothers.
Today, the beautiful handiwork of architect Roehrig endures, along with an inscription etched in gold above the grand ballroom fireplace by Frederick Rindge:
“He who aims below the sky, aims too low.”