Michael Edlen: When Roosevelt Highway Became PCH

By Michael Edlen
Special to the Palisades News

Many people today are not aware that Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) almost never came to exist, thanks to decades-long litigation from May Rindge. She was the owner of the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit from the 1890s into the 1920s.

Her ranch encompassed 17,000 acres, and she was determined to keep homesteaders off the property. So she forced the Southern Pacific Railroad to divert its Santa Barbara line around Malibu and through the San Fernando Valley, and she had armed guards protecting the entrances after the county proposed extending the coastal road through Malibu in 1907.

In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the county’s right to appropriate some of the land for the highway, and the dispute was finally ended in 1925 when the county was granted a right-of-way in return for $107,289.

Pacific Coast Highway opened in 1929 as part of the Roosevelt Highway, a 1,400-mile road that followed the western edge of the country. The narrow, two-lane highway was the first direct link between Ventura and Santa Monica, and cut 30 minutes off the driving time by not having to go through the Valley.

Within a short time, that section of the highway was outdated, and the state began widening it in the early 1930s. It was a complicated process that involved installing groins to extend the width of the beach and making deep cuts into the base of unstable bluffs.

The state continued widening PCH in the 1940s to accommodate new lanes, as slides began to repeatedly bury sections of the road. The slides undermined homes and properties on hillsides above.

The most dramatic and earliest property to be affected by the slides was the beautiful Bernheimer Gardens estate, located on the bluff just east of where the west end of Marquez Avenue meets Sunset.

In 1944, the state acknowledged that work on PCH had caused the slippage and agreed to spend $50,000 for restoration. However, before this could be done, a major landslide covered the highway and a month later an even larger slide completely buried the roadway.

Another major slide area was along Castellammare. The spectacular Villa Leon on Porto Marina lost its oceanfront Chinese gardens in the mid-1940s, and in later years various slides removed large parts of the expansive terraces. People can still see the added drains and plastic covering that was stretched over the denuded slope.

Through the 1950s, rocks and debris would close sections of the highway along the Palisades and close-in areas of Malibu.

As homes were developed in the 1950s and ‘60s, lots were being sold in the areas that had been largely abandoned 20 years earlier because they were more scenic than stable. Builders did not yet know the magnitude of potential risks of hillside construction and often built on relatively un- stable land. Of course, the slide-prone areas along the bluffs were eventually destined to experience periodic slope failures.

Perhaps the most notable of these failures was the massive “killer slide” in 1958, in which a state Department of Highways supervisor was buried under 100 feet of dirt below the end of Via de la Paz. He had just completed the cleanup of a slide from a few days earlier when the slope failed along nearly a block-wide stretch below Via de las Olas. The highway had to be routed around the slide and reinforced with steel groins.

As hope springs eternal, people continue to buy vacant lots along the fragile slopes of the Palisades with the vision of an affordable site with great ocean views. Some of those sites are land-locked, having been cut off from road access by slides long ago. Many of them are considered “sub-standard” in size, which could significantly limit the size of new homes.

And of course, all of them along the coastal corridor are subject to supervision and approval by of the California Coastal Commission, in addition to the City of Los Angeles or whichever building department has jurisdiction in the particular location.

Michael Edlen, a Palisades resident for 40 years, has been a leading realtor for the last 30 years. Some of the content of this article was derived from the now-classic “Pacific Palisades—Where the Mountains Meet the Sea” by Betty Lou and Randy Young. Call (310) 230-7373 or email michael@MichaelEdlen.com.

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