Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Photo Essay: Before Malibu Was Malibu

Malibu is now known for its scenic beaches, active surf, and imposing mountains whose rocky soil gives rise to enough grapes for an entire wine industry to spring forth. Vista-seeking celebrities and socialites have flocked there since parcels were first leased to the public in the late 1920s (and still populate what's now the gated community of Malibu Colony).

But before that, Malibu secured its place in Southern California history in surprising and fascinating ways: the former native Chumash settlement became a sprawling rancho operated by May K. Rindge and her husband Frederick, who purchased it as the final owners of one of the last Spanish land grants. Frederick preserved the integrity of his land by warding off the encroachment of the Southern Pacific Railroad with the construction of his own tiny, private railway. After his death, the Widow Rindge couldn't prevent the future Pacific Coast Highway from being built right down the middle of her prized rancho, which she was now running.

And so the pristine beachfront property, once known to the Chumash as Humaliwo ("where the surf sounds loudly"), evolved into present-day Malibu.

The Adamson House, situated at what was the center of the rancho, was originally built not only as a vacation home for May's daughter Rhoda Rindge Adamson and her husband Merritt Huntley Adamson, but also primarily as a showcase for the tiles from the factory May founded, Malibu Potteries. Although it only operated for six years during the heyday of California's decorative tile manufacturing before burning down in 1932, Malibu Potteries established Malibu Tile in the world of ceramics, a legacy that is being honored by several modern tile manufacturers (e.g. Malibu Tile Works, Catalina Classic Tile Co., Malibu Ceramic Works, Native Tile & Ceramics).

But there is nothing like the original. And so, on the beach by the Malibu Lagoon at the mouth of Malibu Creek, the Adamson House stands as a reminder of what Malibu once was.

Designed with a number of Moorish influences in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the house features decorative elements derived from Islamic art.

The original paving stones are still set in the courtyard...

...and both the interior and exterior of the house resemble a combination of a castle and a ship.

There's even a turret.

But while even the windows are ornate in their design...

...including some stained glass...

...the real attraction of the Adamson House is the tile.

At the front entrance, a cacophony of broken tile pieces confuse evil sprits at the doorstep (which apparently can only travel along straight lines).

There are tiles everywhere - both inside and out - and in every style offered by Malibu Potteries at the time, including the distinctive cuerda seca style of keeping the colors from running by outlining them in black (a technique also seen in art of the Islamic world) and the cuenca method of depressing the pattern into the clay so the colors would sink in and not run into each other (also seen in Spanish tile).

Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the house...

...but there are plenty of tiles to be seen outside: on every patio...

...lining every fountain...

...and even at the poolhouse and pool (to which you need a docent to give you access).

The pool - with its stunning ocean view - was constructed by combining decorative and utilitarian tiles...

...those immediately surrounding the pool's edge having a non-slip surface.

The original wooden diving board still hovers over the honeycomb tile pattern at the bottom of the 10-foot deep end... does the original ladder, which descends all ten feet down to the bottom.

It's really a shame, because the only light of day that the pool house ever really sees anymore is through a couple of original windows...

...and it's been a long time since any clothes hung off the rods in the outdoor laundry room.

In fact, although the Adamson House has been carefully preserved (including its furnishings, which were painstakingly catalogued and locked away during the years after Rhoda's death when the State of California leased the property to Pepperdine University), it really has not undergone any restoration. Amazingly, it doesn't seem to need it: the only tiles that really show any wear and tear  (despite many of them exposed to constant sunlight and moist air conditions) are those on the kitchen floor, presumably because of heavy foot traffic.

Among the historic relics outside the house along the rest of the property include an original railroad tie which was found nearby...

...the original greenhouse of Rhoda, who was an avid gardener...

...and a relic of original flooring from the burned-down Malibu Potteries factory, which washed ashore out of the Pacific Ocean.

The Adamson House's presence on Malibu Beach is now somewhat eclipsed by the surfers on Surfrider Beach, sportfishermen on Malibu Pier, affluents at upscale restaurants and shopping, and lots of cars passing by on the highway. But if you look beyond the trees, behind the stone wall that marks the estate, you'll find one of the many treasures of LA's historical past.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Mosaic Tile House, Venice
Photo Essay: Tile House, Hollywood Hills

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