In the 21st century, the ranches of the Santa Monica Mountains have become popular destinations for everything from hiking … to taking photos … and even getting married.
For example, there’s the “Gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains,” King Gillette Ranch, the national recreation area’s main visitor’s center. Among the other popular attractions are the old “movie town,” Paramount Ranch, and the former Boy Scout camp, Circle X Ranch.
But there’s one ranch tucked away in this vast mountain range on federal land that legions of people found particularly enchanting throughout the first half of the 20th century: Peter Strauss Ranch, a.k.a. Lake Enchanto.
Its terrazzo-tiled patio was once the site of both musical concerts and dancing. Its pool once held as many as 3,000 swimmers. But pay a visit to this former hub of entertainment and amusements now, and you may be shocked at how shady, quiet and serene it is.
Of course, that’s a big part of its charm — the feeling that you’re alone with the ghosts in their until-the-end-of-time dwelling.
But this summer marks the return of musicians, dancers and bathing beauties to Peter Strauss Ranch as part of the National Park Service’s Arts in the Parks program — one that features free art installations and performances to draw visitors back to this historic site.
The ranch’s namesake is TV actor Peter Strauss, who became the last private owner and resident of the property in 1977, the year after he starred in the TV movie Rich Man, Poor Man (filmed at nearby Malibou Lake). In 1983, he sold it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and in 1987, the National Park Service acquired it for inclusion in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
But the history of these 65 acres actually goes back as far as the turn of the last century. That’s when automotive engineer and race car builder Harry Miller bought the ranch as a weekend retreat from his L.A. home and automobile factory. Miller built several of the structures that you can still see today on the property, including the tower by the front gate, the main ranch house, the aviary and a pool that was the largest of its kind in the West.
His patented carburetor and car designs had made him both a millionaire and a hero among Indy 500 racers; but, in the wake of the Depression, Miller went bankrupt in 1933 and lost his ranch.
Throughout the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, the property changed hands — and names — again and again. It was known as “Shoson” (a combination of the surnames of its then owners, attorney Warren Shobert and cinematographer Arthur Edeson), “St. Bernadine's Fairy Tale Land” and "Famous Places — Cornell World" — gradually becoming a would-be Disneyland even before Walt had his infamous light bulb moment at the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round.
Eventually, the ranch became known as “Lake Enchanto,” a family-friendly amusement park that reportedly drew hundreds of visitors and performers like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. But, unable to compete with other, larger amusements and resorts in the area, the business went belly-up and property languished. Its owner, lawyer Charles Hinman, ended up in jail, and squatters (including members of the Manson family) took over.
So, we have Hollywood actor and producer Peter Strauss to thank for wrestling the property away from transients and other ne’er-do-wells, restoring the structures to their original condition and adding a cactus garden to the driveway.
Here’s the lowdown on how to enjoy the art in Peter Strauss Ranch this summer, whether you’d like to create something yourself or just watch and meet the creators.
Tiny Porch Concerts (May 14 through September 9)
For the second year in a row, the non-profit organization Tiny Porch Concerts has partnered with the National Park Service to program music at Peter Strauss Ranch in its outdoor amphitheater, under giant, ancient oak trees. The season opened on May 14 with the Grammy-nominated ensemble Rose’s Pawn Shop, and there are additional monthly shows for the remainder of the season, including: Kuinka on June 11, Moonsville Collective on July 9, Sam Outlaw on August 20, and The Way Down Wanderers on September 9. Each show will be preceded by a “jam” session, which means you can bring your acoustic musical instruments in addition to your picnic gear. Reservations are recommended, and donations are welcome. For a sneak preview of what you’ll hear at the outdoor concerts in this unique venue, tune into the Spotify playlist provided by the NPS.
Arts in Parks Exhibit (May 14 through September 9)
From paintings on the perimeter fence to a 115-foot mural at the abandoned swimming pool and porcelain sculptures in the abandoned aviary, this former ranch has a number of public art installations on view for the duration of the summer. Seamlessly integrated with the landscape — and neither impacting nor damaging the natural or cultural resources of the site — the art provides a good reason to visit Peter Strauss Ranch for the first time or to return to it to see it transformed tastefully, subtly and thoughtfully. This year’s theme is “Members Only” — a hat tip to the site’s history as an exclusive country club — but the curatorial approach is about as inclusive as can be. A prerequisite for being selected in this year’s program was providing the opportunity for the public to add to the installations — or learn something directly from the artists.
Kim West and Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre: Lake Enchanto (June 3, 7:30-9 p.m.)
Adding Peter Strauss Ranch to its roster of off-the-beaten path venues for its site-specific performances (which have included a vacant theatre in Chinatown, abandoned hospitals, the L.A. Produce Market and the Emser Tile building) Heidi Duckler’s company of swimsuit-clad dancers will, for one night only, descend upon the ranch’s gigantic, empty swimming pool (reimagined as the “lake”) and interact with its fragmented mural, designed and installed by L.A. painter Kim West. Composer and installation artist Davy Sumner will provide new, experimental music to accompany the performance. This will be a rare chance to see the small, circular stage in the middle of the pool actually in use. Free, but donations are welcome and a number of perks are available.
Ben Allanoff: The Peace Factory (June 17, 10:30-11:30 a.m.)
Environmental artist Ben Allanoff returns to Peter Strauss Ranch for the second year, this time with an architectural installation built of logs sourced locally from the Santa Monica Mountains. Allanoff contributed his “Cloud Chamber” to the abandoned aviary at Peter Strauss Ranch last year and has installed his work at various sites around Southern California including The Joshua Tree Art Gallery, the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden and the Zen Center of Los Angeles. While you can experience his new interactive work on your own throughout the entire season — meditatively walking through the log labyrinth, leaving some token upon its center (the “altar”), or even sitting upon one of the tree stumps in an amphitheater-like setting — you can also join Allanoff on June 17 in a communal attempt to “manufacture” peace in this factory, set to music provided Danielle and Kamal Brown. The event is free, but emailed RSVPs with the number in your party included in the subject line are appreciated.
Natalie Smith: Artist Talk, Tour and Plein Air Event (July 9, 3-4 p.m.)
The Alchemist Ballet (July 9, 4-5 p.m.)
While the past solo exhibitions of L.A.-based painter, illustrator, and textile and assemblage artist Natalie Smith include galleries in Los Angeles, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, what brought her to this outdoor, wooded venue wasn’t so much her artistic credentials. Rather, it was years of living and hiking through the American West. The signs that she has installed along the trail, she says, are “a way to connect and share not only with nature, but one another.” Smith will appear at the ranch for an artist talk on July 9 and guide a walk along the trail, which runs through both oak woodland and chaparral. For those aspiring artists who are inspired by the hidden landscape at the ranch, plein air drawing materials will be provided. Afterwards, stick around for a performance of “The Alchemist Ballet” — which was created, choreographed and directed by Chasity Ramsey. Originally from Alabama but now living in L.A., Ramsey loosely based the “ballet” on a passage from the 1988 novel The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho: “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels in the world, while keeping the drops of oil on the spoon.” Kei Pham will provide live music and interact with the dancers. Free. No RSVP required.
Olga Lah and Kiyomi Fukui: Experience Bloom (August 20, 4-5 p.m.)
One of the more distinctive features of Peter Strauss Ranch is its terraced hillside, located just behind the main ranch house. After a relatively wet season, the “stepped” landscape is particularly overgrown and consequently dried up for the summer. So, in place of wildflowers — like those that dotted many of our SoCal hillsides during our recent spring “superblooms” — site-specific installation artist (and native Angeleno, now residing in Long Beach) Olga Lah has added some ephemeral color in the form of 6,000 bright pink “whiskers” (the kind that surveyors use to mark reference points and other fields on construction sites and in landscaping). Her installation guarantees that the hillside will remain in a state of perpetual bloom throughout the summer. As well, Lah will collaborate with Long Beach-based performance artist Kiyomi Fukui on August 20 to bring the site to life and allow visitors to experience it and participate in it. For more on Lah, visit our Artbound feature on her theological artwork from 2014.
Peter Strauss Ranch is located at 30000 Mulholland Highway, Agoura Hills, CA 91301. Parking and admission are free. Not ADA-accessible. Dogs on leash and equestrians are welcome. No fires / smoking.