Long before celebrities settled Malibu’s sunny shores, newlyweds Frederick Hastings Rindge and May Knight Rindge, attracted to the plentiful coastline, canyons and mountains in what was then an untamed frontier, purchased 13,000 acres of a former Spanish land grant. The year was 1892 and the couple envisioned the sprawling rancho as an idyllic spot in the country to raise a family.
The Rindges, who brought up three children—Frederick Jr., Samuel and Rhoda—on this genteel country ranch near the sea, vowed to preserve the area’s natural beauty despite Southern California’s development boom.
The Rindge family, whose holdings eventually increased to 17,000 acres including 20 miles of Malibu coastline, made a lasting impact on the area. Among their contributions is the enchanting home on Malibu Lagoon known as the Adamson House.
Casa on the coast
Family matriarch May Rindge was widowed in 1905 when Frederick passed away at age 48, but she quickly took command of the family’s business affairs.
She gave 13 acres of prime oceanfront land on Vaquero Hill, (where a cowboy shack once stood), to her daughter, Rhoda, and Rhoda’s husband, Merritt Adamson. The young couple built a Spanish Colonial Revival home there in 1929 for use as a second home but by 1936 they were living there full time.
The rambling two-story, five-bedroom home, situated between Surfrider Beach and the Malibu Lagoon, embodies the California dream with its emphasis on indoor/outdoor living, and stands today as a local treasure.
Left, ironwork on a bedroom window. Top left, a bench on the upper patio is heated from the fireplace below it. Stylish curved hooks reaching up from the low pony wall held a safety net to prevent the children from falling over the side. Above, the dining room ceiling is the work of a duo of Danish artisans who spent a year hand-painting intricate designs throughout the home. Far left, even the upstairs kitchen where the nurse would make breakfast for the children is bedecked in Malibu Potteries tile. Top right, a lovely fountain is the only thing between the Adamson backyard and the beach.
Rhoda and Merritt, along with their children Rhoda-May, Sylvia and Merritt Jr., made the most of their coastal ranch property, raising horses and keeping a menagerie of animals including dogs, goats, sheep, cows, chickens, horses and bees.
Deborah Miller, granddaughter of Rhoda-May, remembers hearing tales from her mother, Jane Dallas Miller, about one very special pet, a sheep named Bohunkus, which the Adamson children would walk on the beach.
Despite the fun and games, Deborah says the Adamson household ran on a formal schedule. Beds were to be made first thing, and everyone was down for breakfast by 8 a.m. Lunch was precisely at noon and the chime in the dining room rang at 6 p.m. with everyone cleaned up and dressed for dinner.
And the dining room, with its exotic Moorish door and exquisite craftsmanship, was deserving of such formality. Despite the moniker of “beach house,” the residence was a carefully planned masterpiece.
Made with heavy 14-inch stucco walls, the home was designed by accomplished architect Stiles O. Clements, who enlisted designers, artists and craftsman to garnish the rustic rancho with rich details. Clements oversaw the design of custom furniture, graceful ironwork, hand-painted murals and frescoes, and the bounty of brilliantly colored ceramic tile.
The home is filled with tile created by the Rindge family’s company, Malibu Potteries, which produced globally inspired designs made of rich clay discovered on the property by May Rindge.
Malibu Potteries, although a short-lived venture in the 1920s, produced stunningly unique decorative tile used in many Los Angeles homes and buildings in that era, including L.A. City Hall and the Mayan Theatre downtown.
But nowhere is it more abundantly utilized than in the Adamson House, where the brilliantly hued tile in a multitude of patterns seems to cover almost every surface. Utilitarian features like the kitchen clock and the outdoor dog bath are covered in tile, earning the home the nickname the Taj Mahal of Tile. Even the lovely little upstairs kitchenette, built so the children’s nurse could make breakfast for them, is lined in tile.
A book of sailing ships was the inspiration for son Merritt Jr.’s room and bathroom which have tile depicting historic ships in nautical shades of blue alongside doors painted with the same ships.
In the nurse’s room, peacocks appear in the bathroom tile and on the curtains, which frame a view of a back patio that echoes the peacock theme.
The girls’ bathroom, with its vivid orange floral tile, mirrors the brilliant flowering coral tree just outside the window.
The house, now a National Historic Site and California Historical Landmark owned by California State Parks with the assistance of the Malibu Adamson House Foundation, is also chock-full of the Adamson family’s possessions. The furniture, dishes and mementos are all original to the Adamson family. There’s even a closet filled with Rhoda’s dresses. Unlike many other historic homes where antiques from the era are brought in, every stitch of content is original to the Adamson family.
Some tile may fool the eye. The “rug” in the central hallway is all Malibu Potteries tile. Right, a detail of the fringe. Above right, a tiled peacock scene, which can be viewed from the nurse’s room, carries out a motif echoed in her bedroom curtains, bathroom tile and again in the main courtyard fountain.
The State Parks department catalogs and maintains all items original to the house. The building, subject to the wrath of ocean air, is constantly assessed and rehabilitated using the expertise of a conservator to protect this cultural gem.
The Adamson House is only one of the lasting contributions to the region by the Rindge and Adamson families. The legacy of Frederick and May Rindge lives on in the community today.
May Rindge was a shrewd entrepreneur, founding Malibu Potteries, located east of the Malibu Pier (the pier itself was built by the Rindges so supplies could be brought in). She was also determined to save her beloved rancho as a private estate, and had her work cut out for her.
Before Frederick died, the couple began building their own railroad to thwart Southern Pacific’s plans to bring a railroad up the coast.
Her next war was against government plans to build a highway up the coast that would slice right through the Rindge land.
The feisty widow ultimately lost her lengthy battle and court case, and Pacific Coast Highway was built. Rockslides on the famed road have since been known by locals as “Rindge’s Revenge.”
May eventually sold off parcels of the family land, starting with oceanfront lots she offered to movie stars in the 1920s. Those beach cottages of the famous became the Malibu Colony.
The family also donated other pieces of land, including a 138-acre parcel now the site of Pepperdine University.
Rhoda and Merritt Adamson invested their efforts in cattle ranching, forming Adohr Farms, a successful dairy farming operation named after Rhoda, spelled backward.
Their house remains a testament to the gracious days of California ranching and seaside recreation and, most of all, as a beloved family home.
Great-granddaughter Deborah Miller remembers family Fourth of July parties at the house, where multiple generations of the Rindge and Adamson families would spend the day swimming in the pool and the ocean and then play softball and lawn games under the giant sycamore tree (now an exquisite site for weddings).
“The barbecue menu was always the same: steaks, homemade cheese enchiladas and salads. Dessert was always different flavors of homemade fruit pies with, of course, Adohr ice cream,” Deborah remembers. “After dinner the family would all gather on the back lawn and wait in anticipation of the greatest fireworks show on the beach,” always set off by Merritt.
Visitors today can only imagine such idyllic scenes, but they’re easy to picture once you set foot in the magnificent seaside gem known as the Adamson House.
Visit the Adamson House
One-hour docent-led tours take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, but the beautifully landscaped grounds can be explored from 8 a.m. to sunset any day. Tickets are $7. Parking is available at the adjacent Surfrider Beach lot.
23200 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu