It began with Harry Haldeman, a big, jovial Chicagoan with a passion for Cuban cigars, hard liquor and good times.
In 1913, the grandfather of Watergate figure H.R. (Bob) Haldeman became the driving force behind an influential band of revelers known as the Uplifters Club. Its members bought part of a canyon in Pacific Palisades, christened it Uplifters Ranch and built secluded getaways around an elaborate clubhouse.
Nearly half a century after the exclusive men's club was dissolved, its legacy is a dreamscape, an odd assortment of three dozen fanciful cottages and lodges tucked in a remote canyon near Will Rogers State Historic Park.
Like sentinels of an earlier age, they are both whimsical and mysterious. A few have huge ballrooms. Some are log cabins hauled in from the set of an early silent film. Others sport fanciful card parlors and Prohibition-era "basement bars."
Serene, almost magical, the ranch is said to be the last place in town where one can find a creek that hasn't been filled, lined with concrete or funneled into drainage pipes. Rarer still is a small grove of 70-year-old redwoods.
"There's no other place quite like it," says Robert Winter, an architectural historian who views the ranch as an oasis in a metropolis quick to demolish its past.
In a corner of Rustic Canyon below where Sunset Boulevard slices past the former estate of Will Rogers, the ranch is a lush, almost rural, residential sanctuary washed by spring fogs and cool ocean breezes.
Its centerpiece, the former clubhouse, with its shaded, plaza-like grounds, has been a park since 1953 when a wealthy socialite bought it from a Greek shipping tycoon and donated it to the city. The tycoon, who had bought the clubhouse from the Uplifters, had tried to operate a private racquet club there after World War II.
The war, growing debts and shifting social attitudes led to the club's demise in 1947, closing the book on a playground of the privileged, where the right crowd could play polo with Walt Disney and Daryl F. Zanuck or swap yarns with Harold Lloyd and Busby Berkeley.
Today, the ranch remains a haven for writers, actors and others.
Aldous Huxley lived and wrote there for a time. Earl Warren spent his summers there. At different times, Meryl Streep and Wilt Chamberlain rented the same shingled cottage.
Then there are the Uplifter descendants, whose dwindling presence has helped to preserve the peculiar spirit of the place--offbeat, intellectual, a bit arty.
They are living links to a generation of flamboyant movers and shakers who, on the political side, were usually conservative to the core.
"I remember the reaction of one of the (Uplifters') wives in '32 when FDR defeated Hoover," recalls 82-year-old Susan French, the daughter of an Uplifter. "She just sighed and said, 'Well, maybe someone will shoot him.' "
An offshoot of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, formed in 1880 by businessmen and professionals, the Uplifters owed their existence to the gregarious Haldeman.
The head of a plumbing supply company, he came to Los Angeles via San Francisco, where some of his friends belonged to the all-male Bohemian Club, with its Russian River retreat known for sometimes funky behavior.
The two dozen or so kindred spirits Haldeman recruited from the athletic club were drawn from the ranks of the rich, the powerful and the notable: Marco Hellman, who owned a string of banks; Sim W. Crabill, an executive of the Times Mirror Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times; Ralph Hamlin, a bicycle manufacturer, who was reputed to have owned the first motorcycle west of the Rockies; Ernest R. Ball, who joined the group later, author of the tune "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"--although he had never seen Ireland.
For a name, they turned to L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, who is said to have pounded back a few before coming up with "The Lofty and Exalted Order of Uplifters."
Its creed: "To uplift art and promote good fellowship."
But without Prohibition, the ranch might never have existed.
For several years, the Uplifters had held an annual bash, called Hijinx, at such spots as Lake Arrowhead and Del Mar. Away from wives and children, they drank, cavorted, staged ribald plays and engaged in outdoor sports.
After the federal ban on booze took effect in 1919, however, they established a retreat in Rustic Canyon, below where future member Will Rogers would soon buy a sprawling estate. The group bought 120 acres and built a Spanish Colonial-style clubhouse with tennis courts, a swimming pool, trapshooting range, amphitheater and dormitories.
In 1922, members began to build weekend and summer getaway cottages and lodges on land leased from the club. A club edict specified that they remain rustic and be painted either brown, green or gray.
Many of the homes reflect the Uplifters' determination not to let Prohibition spoil their fun.
One, on Latimer Road, has a German beer hall downstairs, complete with kegs built into the wall.