"Topanga Ranch Motel Residents Get 30-Day Notice"
by Pablo Capra
On July 1, residents of the Topanga Ranch Motel were given a 30-day notice to vacate by owner Ray Craig, who is in the process of making a deal with State Parks to accept relocation funds for his 65-year-old business and retire.
The motel—which provides some of the last affordable housing by the beach (not to mention an ocean view), and is the only motel around that allows pets—has a rich history that is intimately connected with old Hollywood and William Randolph Hearst.
According to motel resident and film historian Dan Price, William Randolph Hearst bought the bottom of Topanga Canyon and much of the surrounding coastline in the Teens or ’20s. In the late ‘20s, Hearst built the motel cottages as a place where he and his mistress, actress Marion Davies, could put up their beach guests.
The ranch costume parties that Hearst and Davies held there were a fun get-away for the mostly Hollywood crowd who dressed up like cowboys and pioneers, and rode horses in the hills of Topanga.
According to Ray Craig, you can still see the foundations of a shower building and a dining hall that were originally built to serve guests.
In the ’30s, workers stayed in the cottages while they were expanding the PCH. They also moved several cottages that were originally on the beach side to the land side of the highway.
Hearst sold the bottom of Topanga to the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAACO) in 1938 to keep his empire going during the Great Depression. LAACO first leased the cottages out to a motel in the late ’30s. It was called the Topanga Beach Auto Court.
Price says that famous actors reported to have stayed at the motel include Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and Peter Lawford.
In 2001, State Parks bought Lower Topanga from LAACO for $43 million dollars; and for the past three years it has been relocating its businesses and residents, and bulldozing its structures.
Permanent motel residents—defined as residents who had been living in the motel for at least 90 days prior to the August 2001 purchase—were paid between $50,000-$60,000 to relocate.
However Price—who hopes that the motel will be saved and continue to stay in business as a part of the local history—and the approximately 50 residents who have moved into the motel’s 31 cottages in the last few years are not ready to leave, nor are they being offered any compensation by State Parks.
“State Parks says that they already compensated all the permanent residents when they relocated people two years ago. They don’t consider the residents being vacated now as permanent or deserving any compensation,” said Stephanie Grayson.
Grayson started working as the motel’s manager shortly after she moved there with her family two years ago. Her husband Adrian Graham does the motel’s maintenance, and two of their three children go to school in Malibu.
David Wrightsman, senior land agent for State Parks, said that although residents who moved into the motel after the 2001 purchase are not eligible for State relocation funds, they may be eligible for some kind of county relocation funds.
Approximately half of the motel’s current residents are permanent, and several of them are planning to hire a lawyer and stay beyond the August 1 deadline.
Fifty-three-year resident Aneta Siegel, who died at age 86 in June, was one of the only permanent residents who moved into the motel before the 2001 purchase but wouldn’t accept relocation funds from State Parks.
“Where will I go?” she asked a Malibu Times reporter in February of this year, shortly after her eviction notice was served to her in a Santa Monica convalescent hospital where she was recovering from major surgery.
“I’m 86, and I’ve just been ‘86ed,’” she joked gloomily. Neighbors say that the fear of having to leave, culminating in the eviction, had put a big strain on her.
Siegel moved into her $30-a-month two-room cottage in 1951. She had spent her early life working as a secretary at the American Embassy in London, and attending London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Siegel also served with the Women’s Army Corps in occupied Berlin and produced radio shows for the Armed Forces Network there.
She was born in New York in 1918, and died in the Santa Monica convalescent hospital on June 1. She had no known family, but is remembered by her neighbors for her intelligence and quick wit.
Lower Topanga resident James Mathers, says that State Parks is not being sensitive to the fact the low-rent areas attract older people and people who can’t afford health care. He believes that the unnecessary strain caused by State Parks mercenary tactics has contributed to the deaths of five Lower Topanga residents, including Siegel.
“At 154,000 acres, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the largest urban park in the world. So why is there this urgency to evict the Lower Topanga residents and business owners who occupy less than two percent of the Lower Topanga purchase?” Mathers asked.
Motel owner Ray Craig believes that State Parks will turn the motel into offices or storage space for its rangers. At present, there is already one ranger living in the motel.
“My hope is that one day Lower Topanga will become a nice campground like Leo Carillo,” Craig said.
Kathleen Franklin, superintendent for the Los Angeles / Topanga sector, said that State Parks still has no general plan for what to do with the Lower Topanga property yet. “We’re waiting for funds to draw up the plan.”
Franklin says that the motel is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and therefore will be treated as a historic place instead of being bulldozed like the Topanga Ranch Market, or the houses of Lower Topanga residents. However, she said that some cottages may be moved to make room for an ambitious lagoon expansion project.
Concerning the motel’s new function, Franklin said that State Parks may choose to run the motel in its historic role as a motor court. It is also considering turning the motel into a concessionaire, a youth hostel, or office spaces for non-profit corporations.
But there are also those who don’t believe that the state of California will ever have money to build the park.
As Hayden Sohm, the Malibu area superintendent for State Parks, says, “In view of the current state of the economy, whether it will happen is anyone’s guess.”