It's easy to speed through Malibu and miss the Adamson House. Sure, there's a colorful sign on Pacific Coast Highway next to the Malibu Pier. And yes, you can get a glimpse of a red-tiled roof if you know right where to look.
But it's only when you stop, walk down the curving drive toward the graceful asymmetry of whitewashed walls and shaded courtyards, toward the splash of tiled fountains and the freshening ocean breeze, that you really know the Adamson House is there.
Built in 1930 on 13 rolling acres that face famed Surfrider Beach, the Adamson House was the first real beach house on this stretch of coast. The land was a gift from May Knight Rindge, the matriarch of Malibu, to her daughter, Rhoda Adamson.
Rindge's husband was Frederick Hastings Rindge, the idealistic son of East Coast industrialists who moved across the country to live out his dream of owning a ranch on the California coast. He paid $10 per acre for the first 13,315 acres of the rancho in 1892. By the time of his death in 1905 at age 48, the Rindge family holdings totaled at least 17,000 acres and stretched from Las Flores Canyon at the southern end into Ventura County to the north.
Unlike the beach shanties and bungalows that came before it, the Adamson House was built to last. Stiles Clements, the architect behind such L.A. landmarks as the Mayan Theatre and the Wiltern, designed the place. He worked in the Spanish colonial style, with thick walls, sloping red roofs, wrought iron details, and what seems like acres of vibrant and intricate Malibu Potteries tile.
Six years after the 4,500-square-foot home was built as a summer retreat, Rhoda and her husband, Merritt Adamson, chose it as their primary residence. The 14-inch-thick walls kept the summer heat out and the winter warmth in. Tiles covered floors and walls and baseboards, filled bathrooms and created an exquisite and intricate Persian carpet, complete with realistic fringe.
Downstairs, the house puts on its formal face, with high ceilings, wide hallways and tall windows that look out on the matchless ocean view. Upstairs, tile floors give way to wood. The rooms are smaller, warmer, more intimate. A balcony that wraps around the second floor connects the bedrooms.
In 1968, two years after Rhoda Adamson's death, the state acquired the Adamson House through eminent domain proceedings. Three years later, the family moved out, and the house was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot.
But a determined group of residents and business owners, whose love for the house and the property turned them into activists, fought for six years. Despite setbacks, they managed to save the house. In 1977, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the house and its grounds make up Malibu Lagoon State Beach. The house remains as it was when the family lived there. Furniture custom made by Barker Bros. fills the rooms. In the closets hang the family's clothes, styles dating to the early 20th century. In the kitchen, you'll see the hand-crank ice cream maker, a luscious collection of Bauer bowls, even canning jars filled with bounty from the family garden.
Cristi Walden, a noted expert in California tile, remembers the first time she saw the house in 1979.
"I walked through that gate and felt like I was in a dream," she said. "Inside, with the tile and the furnishings and the family possessions, down to the bathing suits laid out on the bed and spices in the cabinets, it's like a time warp, like you've walked into the past."
That past belongs to Deborah Miller, Rhoda Adamson's great-granddaughter. Miller serves as president of the board of the Malibu Lagoon Museum, a nonprofit volunteer group dedicated to preserving the house and grounds.
The stories about the Adamsons are her stories -- Rhoda whistling as she went about her work in the house; Merritt riding his horse along the beach during World War ll, making sure everyone obeyed strict blackout protocols.
In the family garage, which has been turned into a museum, an exhibit outlines the rich history of the property. Glenn Howell, an Adamson House docent and historian, says artifacts dug up on the site show the land has been occupied for at least 9,000 years, settled first by people from whom the Chumash Indians are descended.
Today, the Adamson House belongs to all Californians.
"I'm so grateful to the people who have worked so hard to preserve the Adamson House and the Rindge family name," Miller said. "Thanks to them, you can come and literally walk through history."
Veronique de Turenne can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org