Malibu Surfside News

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

NPS Rangers and Former Residents Share Some of Solstice Canyon’s Secrets

• Ranch House Ruins Preserve Remnants of Renowned African-American Architect’s Design


For most visitors, the National Park Service’s Solstice Canyon Park offers an oasis of lush green riparian woodland with the promise of a waterfall that flows all year and a romantic ruin as a destination.
For Jim Roberts and his daughter Lisa, the canyon is full of vivid remembers of the days when all 1000 acres were the Roberts’ family ranch, and the picturesque ruin was a masterpiece of mid-century modern architecture and the family's home.
Jim and Lisa Roberts met NPS Rangers Anela Ramos and Adali Olivares and a group of park visitors at the site of Tropical Terrace, the Roberts’ former house, on Sunday for a talk about the history of the property and their memories of the time when it was home.
Jim Roberts’ father, Fred Roberts, who founded Roberts Public Market in Santa Monica and developed a successful chain of grocery and liquor stores, bought several properties to form the 1000-acre ranch in the 1930s.
The canyon is one of only two in the Santa Monica Mountains to have reliable, year-round water in its creek. “In the winter the water would roar,” Roberts said. “All of the runoff from the canyon would come through, strong enough to wash away a car or truck. My mother refused to use the road, which crosses the creek in two places. My father built a road for her, cutting it out of the canyon side.”
According to his son, Fred Roberts stocked the creek with rainbow trout transported in a tanker truck. “He would get so made when the floods would wash them out to sea, but in the summer there was trout in every pool,” Roberts said he also remembers when steelhead trout made their way from the sea up the creek.
“My father was crazy about animals,” Roberts said. “He took everything. There were 25 Mexican burros, 200 head of cattle, two camels. Even a piglet that was rescued off of San Nicholas Island.”
The pig grew to be an enormous boar. Roberts said his daughter used it as a cushion. He remembers her doing her homework leaning against her pet.
In the early days, the ranch still had some of Malibu's early pioneers for neighbors. Jim Roberts described a Russian man who lived in a cave further up the canyon. “He looked like Jesus, with a long beard,” Roberts said. “He would hike down to see the family every Sunday.”
During World War II the family couldn't stay after dark unless they slept at the ranch, because headlights and streetlights were prohibited. A missile base on a nearby ridge kept watch on the Pacific, but would potentially have provided a bombing target if the war in the Pacific had ever moved onto the continent. Jim Roberts said his mother had a bomb shelter built into the rock wall behind the original cabin on the property. “She was afraid of bombs,” he said. The safe room served double-duty as a food storage pantry. The chamber remains intact today, but is locked by a metal grill.
Roberts also remembered Paul Williams, the celebrated African-American architect who designed the 1952 ranch house that replaced the original cabin, transforming the heart of the canyon into a tropical fantasy land.
Ranger Adali Olivares provided some background on Williams. Born in 1894, and orphaned at the age of four, and separated from his brother, Williams spent time in several orphanages before ending up in a foster home where his talents were appreciated.
Williams foster mother encouraged him to pursue his growing interest in architecture. When a guidance counseler at his high school said, “Whoever heard of a Negro architect?” Williams reportedly replied, “I’m going to prove I can.”
According to Olivares, Williams attended art school at night, working his way to the Los Angeles Beaux Arts School.
He won a contest to design a civic center in Pasadena, and went on to study architecture at USC in 1917. Williams was certified as an architect in 1921, and he became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects, AIA, in 1923.
Williams is credited with designing over 3000 homes and buildings.
He contributed to the design of the LAX theme tower, and his client list is a Hollywood who’s who, and includes Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball, and longtime former Malibu resident Jennifer Jones.
For the Roberts, he created a long, low ranch house surrounded by pools and cascading water.
“He was able to mould the home into the landscape,” Lisa Robert said. “There was a planter box in the entryway with live trees. The tropical landscaping made it feel like a different area. You drove across the cattle guard and onto smooth concrete. The box canyon opened up into a wonderland.”
Bananas, giant bird of paradise, bamboo, papyrus, ginger and other tropical plants still thrive in the abandoned garden. The house was destroyed in the 1982 Malibu wildfire, and became a park in 1988, but the foundation, fireplaces, and flagstone steps remain, like a life-sized blueprint.
Lisa Roberts said that Williams worked with her grandmother to choose the colors and fabrics for the furniture. “It was made specifically,” she said.
Williams also engineered a layered foundation to accommodate the constant flow of water from the natural springs that saturate the ground.
Jim Roberts described summers working at the ranch. “My father put us to work,” he said, adding that Fred Roberts assigned him to the slaughterhouse one year, a grizzly experience that he still recalls vividly. Asked what it was like to spend all of his summer vacations and weekends at the ranch, Jim Roberts replied, “I loved it. My father put us to work, but I loved it.”
Lisa Roberts echoes his sentiments. “I’m lucky,” she told The News.” “I always knew how lucky we were. I still live nearby. I still ride here often.”
BLUEPRINT—Seen from above, Tropical Terrace in Solstice Canyon reveals the floor plan of the modern ranch house designed by architect Paul Williams in 1952, and destroyed in a 1982 wildfire.