Wednesday, May 2, 2018

MansonBlog Tour 2018: The Spiral Staircase Revisited (Again)

On the last day of the tour we drove out to lower Topanga Canyon where part of the goal was to find the ‘Spiral Staircase’. The Spiral Staircase, as most know, is where Manson and the Family stayed for a time in 1968 and where Diane Lake joined the Family. 

Descriptions of the Spiral Staircase can be found in Dianne Lake’s book and Ed Sanders’ The Family. 


“The name came from the fact that the wooden house had a spiral staircase on the outside, which was the only way to access its upper floor. There was no first floor to speak of because years of neglect had left it filled with sand. It was nestled into an area people dubbed the snake pit, probably because it was in a floodplain and had a lot of perfect hiding places for snakes. Up the road a bit was the Rancho Hotel, which had small bungalows where people would stay to have easy access to the beach.”

“The staircase entrance led right into one of two living rooms. The bathroom and small galley kitchen were just the right size. Surprisingly, all the plumbing worked and the fixtures were brought to a shine. The view from the kitchen window reminded me of a jungle, the trees and vines so overgrown that they created a natural barrier to the rest of the world. Even though the Pacific Coast Highway was a short walk away, this house was far back enough from the road to feel isolated.”

Lake, Dianne. Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties (Kindle Locations 1751-1754). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


“When Manson and the group first arrived, they lived at a secluded house at the mouth of Topanga Canyon near the Pacific Coast Highway. The house was called the Spiral Staircase, after a spiral staircase at its entrance, and it had slid off its foundation and rested askew. Apparently its first floor had a creek flowing through it. The place was located behind the Raft Restaurant on Topanga Canyon Lane, and according to Manson there were windows that opened out onto the hill in back and some doors opening on a twenty-five-foot drop straight down into the creek.” 

Ed Sanders, The Family, pp 23, 2002 Edition.

There are many legends regarding the Spiral Staircase. What is known is that it was located in an area in lower Topanga collectively known as The Rodeo Grounds. More specifically, the building stood in a part of the Rodeo Grounds known as The Snake Pit. The Snake Pit got its name from the number of rattlesnakes there and the unsavory types who gravitated to the cottages in the late 60's and after. Local legends claim that devil worshippers, motorcycle gangs and drug dealers once hid in the Snake Pit. 

The Spiral Staircase stood somewhere behind what is today called the Topanga Ranch Motel. 

Local legends also claim the Rodeo Grounds got its name from the fact that Tom Mix (a 1920’s cowboy actor) held actual rodeos there for the cowboys who worked the ranches in the region. In 2005 the state of California conducted a historical/archeological review of the area. Part of the objective was to identify any historically relevant buildings in the area before the state bulldozed the cottages down for a state park. That study was unable to confirm the Tom Mix connection.

The Motel in 1939
Another rumor claims that William Randolph Hearst (or more likely one of his companies) owned the property in the 1920’s and built an auto court there where his Hollywood buddies could come and spend the weekend. Names like Peter Lorre and Errol Flynn come up in that discussion. Hearst did not build the auto court (Topanga Ranch Motel) but may have built the cottages along Topanga Lane (in the Snake Pit) that included the Spiral Staircase. One rumor claims the Spiral Staircase was actually a dining hall, dance pavilion and ‘speak easy’. Fact or fiction? Again, the state study could not corroborate those claims. 

Peter Lorre’s first movie according to IMB was in 1930. Errol Flynn’ first was 1933 so it is unlikely they hung out there in the 1920’s with Hearst. 

Sometime around 1930 Hearst’s corporation sold the area to the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC) who proceeded to rent the cottages for the next 80 years on a month to month basis to various squatters and other bohemians. By the 1960's there were no formal written leases for the cottages. If you moved in to a place you just started paying the rent to the LAAC. The LAAC was an absentee landlord and left the place pretty much alone. In 2001 the LAAC sold the land to the state which in 2006 leveled the cottages in the Snake Pit and Rodeo Grounds converting the area into a state park. 

Where was the Spiral Staircase?

According to this Manson arrest report from 1968 (thanks, Deb), the address of the Spiral Staircase may have been 3924 Topanga Lane (or Topanga Canyon Lane). That address no longer exists. [Aside: note the booking date on the report, 2-15-67, clearly that is a typo.]

The map at the top is from 1925. The one below that is from the web site, below. The 1925 map shows the then existing buildings. I marked the Snake Pit (lower circle) and the Rodeo Grounds. 

Here are a couple aerial photographs. The first is from 1927. The Snake Pit is behind the motel (the organized buildings in the bottom, center).  Many of the cottages where there in 1927 which is at least some evidence that William Randolph Hearst did build the original cottages in the Snake Pit. The Rodeo Grounds is the the rectangular area in the upper right. The creek is the snake-like line.

Three photos from 1940, 1964 and 1971. 



I believe the most probable location for the Spiral Staircase is at the “X”. It is at the end of a dirt road (Topanga Canyon Lane) and rather secluded. It stands on the edge of the creek and is no longer there in the 1971 photograph. Depending on who tells the story, The Spiral Staircase was either torn down after the January 1969 flood or was washed away during that flood.

The January 1969 Flood
[Aside: new ‘shacks’ or cabins were built by the residents after the various floods and fires that swept the area over the years.] 

More aerial photos can be found here:

It has been a personal goal of mine to find an actual image of the Spiral Staircase. I have not been successful to date. One reason may be because only Manson and the Family actually called it ‘The Spiral Staircase’. No local sources use that name, except in connection with a bookstore further up the valley. It could be that the 'Spiral Staircase' is like 'The Yellow Submarine' a Family name for the house. 

Various sources claim the Spiral Staircase was owned either by a woman named “Ginger” or by a fellow named “Bay Johnson” in 1967-1968. I have not been able to confirm either owner and given the LAAC owned the land from about 1930 until 2001 it is more likely they were renters if they were connected to the property at all. 

Some have claimed that this photo of the band, Love shows the Spiral Staircase. It is not the Spiral Staircase. 

“The building featured on the cover of the "Love Story" double CD, with the spiral staircase was yet another different location (not "The Cedars" or the Trip house). Kenny Forssi, in a '90's interview said it was a geodesic dome type construction situated on the opposite side of the canyon from the Hollywood sign. It was some kind of temporary exhibit that was lit up at night, but nobody ever lived there. Love simply used it and the central spiral staircase for some early promotional photo shots.”

This isn't the Spiral Staircase either. That is not sand. It is shag carpeting. 

It is 18726 W. Topanga Beach Road:

Nor is this bookstore further up the canyon the actual Spiral Staircase. The manager claims that about once a year someone stops there asking about the Manson house. Although the bookstore was likely named after the Spiral Staircase, the manager insists, if he is asked, that the name has nothing to do with Manson. In fact, he gets rather defensive when the subject comes up (we asked him). 

Pax Vobiscum