A History Lover’s Guide to Malibu
With its picturesque beaches and stunning Pacific sunsets, people often think of Malibu as more of a relaxing retreat than a historic haven. But fans of lore will be pleased to learn that the coastal city has a fascinating and colorful past worth diving into.
Originally a Chumash Native American village, the 13,000-plus acres of what is now Malibu were purchased in 1891 by Los Angeles businessman Frederick Ringe, whose vision was to establish a peaceful farm near the sea. When he died in 1905, Ringe left his legacy to his wife, May, and the region has since become one of the most treasured destinations in Southern California.
From legendary landmarks to prized institutions, here are four places in the ‘Bu to step back in time, all of them easily accessible to guests at Malibu Beach Inn.
The Adamson House
Photo: Darin R. McClure Wikimedia Commons / CC BY
Years after her husband died, May Ringe gifted their daughter Rhoda 15 acres of land near Surfrider Beach as a wedding present when she married prominent rancher Merritt Adamson. May then commissioned a two-story, 5,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Malibu Lagoon, now known as the Adamson House. Today, it’s one of the city’s most beloved landmarks for locals and visitors alike.
Typical tours at the Adamson House wind through the mansion’s themed rooms and detail the extensive and colorful tilework throughout — it’s sometimes referred to as the “Tile Taj Mahal.” The ornate tiles originated from the unique clay unearthed in the area and processed at Malibu Pottery, May Ringe’s former ceramics facility.
Through the house’s bottle-glass windows and from its jutting balconies, visitors can savor exquisite views of the rolling surf, the Malibu Wharf, and the property’s spectacular grounds — including the peacock fountain rising from the patio and 100-year-old coral trees.
Also on display are several oil-painted murals by two Danish painters, who returned to the house every day for a year to complete them. “When you see them, you know why it took that long,” says Betsy Handler, a docent with the Adamson House and Malibu Lagoon Museum.
“The house is almost 89 years old, and we want it to last for at least another 89 years,” says Handler, explaining that all tour fees ($7 per person) go to the Malibu Adamson House Foundation and M State for ongoing maintenance and restoration of the National Historic Site. Tours are offered every Wednesday through Saturday between 11 am and 2 pm.
Malibu Lagoon Museum
Photo: Damian Ruddy via California State Parks / CC BY
The Malibu Lagoon Museum adjoins the Adamson House in its former five-car garage. Free to explore, the museum has served as the mansion’s visitor center since 1983, highlighting its history through numerous documents and artifacts. It also provides ample information covering the region’s distinct ceramic art and design.
Hanging on the museum walls are rare photographs offering glimpses of the Adamson property’s storied past, including images of Bing Crosby and Delores del Rio standing in front of their leased homes on the former Malibu Colony — a collection of beachfront homes that May rented for almost a decade to secure extra income.
“People can buy books about the house, tiles, and Southern California in general,” Handler says. “You can also buy reproduction tiles, which are quite beautiful, as well as a few original tiles, which are also quite beautiful — but pricier.”
Photo: Wolffystyle via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY
The campus of George Pepperdine College debuted in the fall of 1937 as a liberal arts school located a few miles south of downtown LA. As Pepperdine burgeoned over the next three decades, its need for physical expansion presented enough technical difficulties for administrators to seek an additional site in Southern California.
In 1968, Rhoda and Merritt Adamson’s three children donated 138 acres of their undeveloped Malibu ranch land to Pepperdine for the construction of a new campus. Four years later, the Malibu campus — much of it designed by famed Los Angeles architect and urban planner William Pereira — opened with the largest freshman influx in Pepperdine’s history.
Shortly after, the school finished construction on two of Malibu’s most beloved landmarks. One is Phillips Theme Tower, a 125-foot-tall cross otherwise known as the Pillar of Pepperdine, which is programmed to chime 10,000 times per year. And just north at the heart of the university, Stauffer Chapel’s arching exterior sits on a bluff, stretching out with its immaculate stained-glass windows to greet a sprawling Pacific plain.
With its oceanfront scenery, Mediterranean Revival-style architecture, and ample green spaces, Pepperdine is widely hailed as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world. With an average enrollment hovering around 8,000 students, the Malibu institution is not only an inspiring place to study, it’s also an international hub connecting many cultures to the city’s past.
Photo: Prayitno via Flickr / CC BY
Just 10 miles south of Pepperdine along the Pacific Coast, the legendary Getty Villa sprawls along 64 seaside acres. The wealthy oil magnate J. Paul Getty bought the land in 1945, where he made his home and filled it with his growing collection of art. In 1954, the businessman and philanthropist began to intermittently open the house to share his extensive assortment of Greek and Roman artifacts, European paintings, and 18th-century French furniture with the public.
Enamored with Mediterranean antiquity, Getty decided to construct a Roman-style villa on the oceanfront property to serve as a more permanent and intimate setting for his collection. Modelled after the once-luxurious Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum in Italy, the Getty Villa was built with the help of renowned ancient architecture historian Norman Neuerberg. When it was completed in 1974, it immediately became one of Los Angeles’ cultural landmarks.
In 1997, about 21 years after Getty died, the Getty Center opened in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood and much of the art from the Malibu villa was moved to the new 105,500-square-foot museum. After closing for remodels for nearly a decade, the Getty Villa reopened in 2006 as an educational center focusing on the arts and culture of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.
Those visiting the Getty Villa today will have the opportunity to peruse one of the most eminent collections of antiquities available and immerse themselves in a cultural experience that brings them back to the ancient world.
Featured Photo: Los Angeles via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY