Gillette property could fill ‘donut hole’ in Santa Monica Mountains park system

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – January 3, 2005

Gillette Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains - courtesy Save Open Space
Gillette Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains – courtesy Save Open Space

The 588-acre Gillette Ranch, former home of shaving products magnate King illette, lies in a serene valley at the intersection of Las Virgenes Canyon and Mulholland Highway, a respite of coastal sage scrub and coast live oak riparian forest. A rare prize in the stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains, this untouched inholding in the far western expanse of unincorporated Los Angeles County has been the object of a long acquisition battle between developers and conservationists. Now, thanks to the efforts of L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the tract is apparently close to being acquired as parkland.

The present owners, Soka University, are somewhat surprise sellers, and with an April 15 deadline looming, park advocates are rushing to raise $35 million toward the purchase, which could rank in significance with the 2003 state acquisition of Ahmanson Ranch. Twenty-five million dollars are already in the kitty with $10 million yet to be raised.

“Ahmanson expanded the reach of the park system, [but] this property is right in the middle of the park system,” said Yaroslavsky, in whose district Soka is situated. “It’s the hole in the donut that is the Santa Monica Mountains National Park system.

“By acquiring it, we tie down once and for all a piece of property that has been on everybody’s radar screen for decades,” he adds. “Soka has treated the land well and has not really expanded its use to any significant degree, but somebody else might. There are a number of legal lots on that property right now and somebody else could build a dozen or more legal homes, which would be a tragedy for the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a very valuable piece of property environmentally, from a natural resources point of view, animal migration point of view, it’s got all the bells and whistles that a prized parcel has in the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Gillette Ranch supports a wide variety of wildlife, including mountain lion, bobcat, badger, mule deer, San Diego mountain kingsnake, and the Pacific tree frog. The Monarch butterfly, San Diego horned lizard, Cooper’s hawk, and the coastal western whiptail bird are among the eight “sensitive” species that inhabit the property. The ranch contains several sensitive plant communities that are being lost to development throughout southern California, according to state parks ecologist Suzanne Goode. Savannah graces the valley floor with large specimens of Valley Oak, “which is the largest oak species in North America and is experiencing reproductive difficulties throughout its range due to development,” says Goode.

The property is also rich in cultural history. Beginning about 7,000 years ago, the Chumash inhabited the site where the prehistoric village of Tagalop once stood. In 1898, Edward Stokes homesteaded the property and built the Stokes Adobe with its thick insulating walls and recessed windows. Disposable razor baron, King Gillette, bought the ranch in 1925 and commissioned Wallace Neff, the chief architect of California’s Golden Age, to build a mansion on the estate. Neff used adoblar brick, dredged from mud on the property, to construct a $500,000 two-story, 25-room Spanish Colonial Revival style hacienda popular in southern California in the early part of the 20th century. Gillette reportedly wept upon first laying eyes upon his palace, which he festooned with hundreds of varieties of shrubs, flowers, and trees that he collected on his foreign travels. The eccentric socialist, who dreamed of a utopian society where 60 million people would live in gigantic glass-ensconced apartment buildings with centralized kitchens, died at the ranch at the age of 77 after losing most of his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929.

MGM movie director Clarence Brown (Anna Karenina and Flesh and the Devil) bought the property in 1930. Brown constructed a private airstrip for elaborate MGM “fly-in parties” that were attended by such luminaries as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino. In 1952, the director sold the ranch to Bob and Delores Hope, who promptly donated it to the Claretian Order of the Catholic Church. It was then renamed Claretville.

The first attempt by the state to buy the ranch failed in 1976, when the California Department of State Parks and Recreation fell short of the funding needed. That same year, the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious group headed by the controversial Elizabeth Clare “Guru Ma” Prophet, bought the property for $5.8 million and renamed it Camelot. The sect was notable for its adherents’ daily use of spiritually therapeutic enemas. After a decade, 100 of the faithful followed Prophet to the wilds of Montana to build a “New Jerusalem.”

In 1986, the National Parks Service attempted to buy the ranch for use as public parkland, but was outbid by Soka/Gakkai/Nichiren Shoshu of America. That same year, the National Parks, State Parks, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy made a futile attempt to purchase the property – the group couldn’t come to terms with Soka’s shared use proposal, and Soka rejected the park agencies’ land swap proposition. That same year, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) made two fair market value offers, but were rebuffed. MRCA then received approval to begin eminent domain proceedings in the early ’90s when Soka proposed building an extensive new campus for 5,000 students.

In 1994, MRCA and Soka settled a condemnation lawsuit, and Los Angeles County and the State Coastal Commission okayed an application which would allow Soka to build a smaller 650-student campus. The Sierra Club and the environmental group Save Open Space, which was at the forefront in the fight over Ahmanson Ranch, sued over the approval and won.

This set the stage for last year’s intervention by Yaroslavsky. “I approached [Soka] in the spring of last year to see if they were interested in selling, because they were at a crossroads,” said Yaroslavsky. “They were looking at various options of what they could do with the property. I asked them if they’d be interested in selling and, to my surprise, they said they’d be interested in talking about it.”

“Acquisition of the King Gillette Ranch has been a top priority of all the area park agencies for many, many years,” said Assemblymember Fran Pavley, whose district includes Gillette Ranch. “Once Soka came to the table as a willing seller, we simply couldn’t let the opportunity slip away. Thanks to a broad coalition of funding partners, including the National Park Service, State Parks, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board, the Coastal Conservancy, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, L.A. County, local cities, plus generous private contributions, the dream is about to be realized.”

The Gillette Ranch may soon follow hard on the heels of the Ahmanson acquisition, but the deal is far from done. “People throughout California are competing for the limited bond monies, and are raising funds to help with acquisitions in their communities,” said Stephen A. Harris of the Committee to Save Soka – The King Gillette Ranch.

“We simply have to do our part. It is so important to show a lot of community support to the state agencies to make Soka happen. Every contribution, every letter of support really makes a big difference.”

To make a contribution or get involved contact: The Committee to Save Soka – The King Gillette Ranch, c/o The Mountains Restoration Trust, 3815 Old Topanga Canyon Road, Calabasas, CA 91302; (818) 591-1701 x.104 (www.mountainstrust.org).