Bargain land and wide-open spaces drew Alan Kimble Fahey to Acton. A modest ranch house on a desert lot offered the outpost he sought.
But then Fahey wanted to expand. So he began to build.
And build. And build.
Fahey built a barn and moved in. He traded his motorcycle for a trailer and painted it to look like a rail car. He bartered other possessions for a dump-truck load of rocks and a 60-foot workers’ lift. Then he sank 108 utility poles a dozen feet into the hard-packed Antelope Valley ground. Reinforced steel beams came next. A giant tower began creeping skyward. A wing sprouted off the tower. Then another.
Almost three decades later, Fahey, 59, a retired phone service technician, was still working on what is now a sprawling, 20,000-square-foot labyrinth of interconnected buildings he calls “Phonehenge West,” stopping only when he was forced to. (The site is not to be confused with Phonehenge, a configuration at a theme park near Myrtle Beach, S.C., featuring England’s famed red telephone booths.)
His structure, sitting on 1.7 acres, is set back from the street and slightly obscured by junipers and a eucalyptus. A dirt road leads in; Fahey uses a motorized cart to get around between his buildings. His closest neighbor is about 100 feet away.
Fahey’s creation is composed of a hodgepodge of reddish buildings. The tower, now 70 feet high, juts above pepper trees and is adorned with Italian stained-glass windows. A winding, French-inspired curved metal stairway meanders from the elevated barn to the ground. Bridges and ramps connect the buildings.
People come from all over to take pictures. Glamour magazine recently used the tower as the setting for one of its fashion spreads. Fahey hopes that Phonehenge West might one day be unearthed by archeologists, just like the English Stonehenge.
But Stonehenge’s creators presumably didn’t have to worry about building codes.
Los Angeles County code enforcers are now demanding that Fahey’s Phonehenge be torn down because of an array of building and fire code violations. The district attorney has charged Fahey with 14 criminal misdemeanor counts of maintenance of un-permitted properties and unlawful use of land, offenses that could carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Fahey has refused to settle the case, and a jury trial is set to begin Thursday in Lancaster.
The battle over Phonehenge West has sparked strong feelings in the Antelope Valley. The high desert is vast and desolate, offering large parched lots at relatively reasonable prices. Many residents view it as a kind of modern frontier. They moved to the area to escape the confines of urban living, and they balk at what they consider authoritarian restrictions and regulations.
Truckers have been cited for keeping big rigs in their yards. Other residents have faced fines for storing cargo containers on their properties or keeping too much livestock. Local online forums and blogs are ablaze with complaints that code enforcers are overly aggressive.
But perhaps none of the Antelope Valley’s many code violations is as spectacular as Fahey’s. His case has triggered an outpouring of support from those who share his defiance toward code enforcement.
A Facebook page called Save Phonehenge West has almost 300 followers. A national group called F.A.C.E.OFF (Fight Against Code Enforcement Office), which states its mission as “eliminating abusive, aggressive, illegal and unconstitutional code enforcement practices,” is also backing Fahey. Supporters argue that Phonehenge West is an architectural marvel -- even a work of art.
“This is an exceptional place,” said David Lewis, a local advocate for code enforcement reform. “Most of the properties that are involved in code enforcement actions are not visually striking. It’s something the public can look at. It’s something special that shouldn’t be demolished.”
Fahey has been working on what he casually calls his “project” almost as long as did another ceaseless builder, Simon Rodia, who built the Watts Towers over more than 30 years beginning in 1921. Fahey said he admires Rodia’s vision and sees himself in the same mold.
Bill Guild, council president in the nearby Antelope Valley town of Littlerock, said Fahey’s creation “has far more charm than the Watts Towers.” Left to flourish, it “could become a significant tourist attraction,” he said.
But county legal officials say Phonehenge West is a gross violation of building regulations and that some neighbors have complained that it’s an eyesore.
Tony Bell, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents the Antelope Valley, said high desert locales such as Acton spent years developing rules for appropriate construction and deserve “to have development standards that protect their public safety and preserve their quality of life, just like anywhere else.”
Other county officials were tight-lipped about the case, citing the upcoming trial; but Patrick David Campbell, the deputy district attorney who is trying Fahey’s case, said none of the structures on his property -- except the original house and garage -- are technically legal, or safe.
“They shouldn’t have been built in the first place,” he said.
Fahey acknowledges he was cited by the county when he first started to make additions to his property in 1984. He said he tried to “play ball,” but inspectors demanded an endless list of changes and even lost his building plans. After about two years of back and forth, he said, county code inspectors stopped visiting his property for 20 years. In their absence, he admits, he “went wild.”
In 2006, county inspectors began issuing him citations again, he said.
County officials have declined to say exactly why the citations resumed when they did. Nor would they confirm that they failed to cite him during the preceding two decades.
Since then, Fahey says that he has appeared in court more than 50 times as the case advanced toward a criminal trial.
“It would break most people,” said Fahey’s wife of six years, Pat, who is as proud of Phonehenge West as he is and delights in showing visitors its highlights -- the great view, the double sink, etc.
But Fahey isn’t most people.
He is a Santa Claus look-alike, with a long white beard, denim overalls and rapid-fire speech, who can talk your ear off on most any subject, from World War II to giant squid, injecting jokes after almost every phrase. He is a self-taught craftsman who seems to have considerable skill. He constructs detailed miniature replicas of Viking houses, fire stations and Phonehenge West itself.
A political independent who stockpiles food and votes for “peace and freedom,” he carries a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution in his jacket.
After graduating from Hart High School in Newhall in 1969, Fahey embarked on a 30-year career as a phone service technician. He has been divorced four times; he and Pat, his fifth wife, have 10 children between them, most of them adults. The youngest, 16, lives with the couple, his bedroom a loft inside the barn. An adult son lives in a separate structure on the property.
Phonehenge West’s interior is as eclectic as Fahey’s mind. Inside the barn that Fahey calls his temporary home, curio cabinets hold collectibles, including Star Wars toys and dinosaur replicas from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. More than 20,000 books fill every available shelf that isn’t crammed with kitchen utensils or food, including the overhead rafters. There are military memoirs, a biography of Benito Mussolini and the 9/11 Commission Report.
Fahey’s own recollections are meticulously scripted in the pages of hardbound journals. The year is printed on each spine -- 1975 to 2011. The library also includes his self-published book, “Hollywood Unlisted,” about the many years he worked as a phone man for a host of celebrities.
A 19th century wood-burning stove heats the barn’s interior. The couple sleeps on a single-size water bed in an area partitioned off from the kitchen. Pat prepares meals on a compact stove. The kitchen lacks cupboards, so plates and platters are neatly stacked on shelves; pots and mugs hang from hooks. Fahey fashioned the dining table from the frame of an old water bed.
But Phonehenge West isn’t just a family pad.
Chickens, turkeys and guinea hens live in an aviary made from a yurt that Fahey said came from a movie set. The yurt’s roof is an old satellite dish. Koi and bullfrogs swim in a pond fashioned from a cattle watering trough.
Fahey said he wants to turn one wing of the tower into a museum, and another into a library and gift shop. He has plans for a crafts workshop for disabled children. He welcomes visitors and keeps a guest book. It’s full of signatures. Someone once inquired about holding a wedding there.
Lewis, the advocate, said Fahey’s openness adds to Phonehenge West’s appeal.
“He’s not putting up a wall to keep the public out,” he said.
Fahey said he plans to fight to the end for his creation.
“I don’t care what they do to me,” he said.