King Gillette Ranch debuts new visitor center

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The newly reopened, eco-friendly National Park Service visitor center at King Gillette Ranch. The center, which sits at the center of the 588-acre ranch at the corner of Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road, incorporates parts of a century old horse stable and is LEED certified. Jimy Tallal / TMT

After a 30-year saga of attempts to acquire the property off Mulholland Highway once owned by Bob Hope, a $9.5 million visitor center opens with fanfare.

By Jimy Tallal / Special to The Malibu Times

It was a big show last Saturday as nearly 500 people and dozens of local dignitaries gathered to celebrate the opening of a new visitor center at King Gillette Ranch. Located at the center of the 588-acre ranch at the corner of Mulholland Highway and Las Virgines Road, the new $9.5 million, eco-friendly center will house four different government agencies.

Incorporating the remnants of nearly 100-year-old horse stables, the gleaming new building has been designated as Platinum LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) certified, making it the first “net zero” visitors’ center for the National Parks Service.

It’s been a long and winding road for the Parks Service from acquisition of the property to opening of the new center.

The prized piece of scenic property is notable for sitting at the confluence of five major tributaries, squarely in the heart of the Malibu Creek Watershed. It also boasts famous rock formations and 360-degree views atop a steep knoll of the surrounding area.

Inhabited by the Chumash as long as 9,000 years ago, the property’s modern-day ownership began when a homesteader settled there in 1898. In 1926, the land was purchased by the disposable razor magnate King C. Gillette (yes, that’s his real name). Gillette, a curious character who wrote several books on Utopian Socialism, commissioned the famed architect Wallace Neff to design several significant structures that still stand today.

After Gillette passed away during the Great Depression, MGM movie director Clarence Brown purchased the land, reportedly holding swanky parties at the site and installing a private airstrip so the celebrities of the day could get there more easily, according to community newspaper The Acorn.

In 1952, the land was acquired by comedian Bob Hope and his wife Dolores. The Hopes did not hold onto it for long, donating the property to the Claretian Order of the Catholic Church. The church operated a seminary on the site for the next quarter-century.

The state first tried to buy the property in 1978, but was outbid by a religious group called The Church Universal and Triumphant. The property was sold again in 1986, and this time the state lost out to Japan-based Soka University.

But by the early ‘90s, the land became the center of a nasty land-use battle when Soka tried to expand the facilities to accommodate an undergraduate campus with 5,000 students. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) began eminent domain legal proceedings, culminating in a 1994 settlement in which Soka agreed to hold it to only 650 students.

Nearly a decade later, Soka sold the property for $35 million in 2005 to a combination of several agencies and pulled up stakes for Orange County.

The NPS and its Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), California State Parks (CPS), Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) and Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) will all share the center.

The park opened in 2007, but without a visitor center. Now, the “Anthony C. Beilenson Interagency Visitor Center,” named after the local Congressman who introduced legislation to create the SMMNRA in 1978, is housed in a former 1920’s horse stable on the Gillette estate, remodeled with $9.5 million in construction funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

One wing of the center is devoted to high-tech interactive exhibits on the flora, fauna and history of the mountains. The other wing has staffed information counters, a gift shop and a room-size scale model of the Santa Monica Mountains with locations that light up as individuals use the touchscreen trip planner system.

Public parklands in the Santa Monica Mountains are a patchwork of local, state and nationally owned parcels, and the four agencies in charge have a history of working together on projects.

“The new center makes it a seamless experience for the visitor,” says Kate Kuykendall, NPS public affairs officer. “This is a complex network of parks that can be confusing.”

While still retaining its 1920s look, the visitor center was transformed into a state-of-the-art “green” building with lighting from tubular skylights and LEDs. Solar panels on the roof heat water; the clay tile roof meets LEED’s “cool roof” standards, and a geothermal cooling system, thick adoblar walls and insulated windows help maintain constant temperature. Over 90 percent of the construction waste was recycled. All new wood was forest-certified, and recycled/salvaged building materials were used.

Solar panels in the carport-style roofs over the parking lot generate all of the facility’s electricity, while the shade reduces the heat island effect. And, because the center is located in a floodplain, dry ponds, excess water drains and special pollutant-resistant grasses were placed to filter out pollutants, recharge the water table and reduce the impact of runoff.

Elsewhere on King Gillette Ranch, visitors can hike the 1-mile round-trip to Inspiration Point with 360-degree views of the surrounding valley; see the lawns, pond, bridge and houses of the original Gillette estate or walk through a newly planted botanical garden of drought-tolerant native plants.