So Candice, the woman who does Mrs. Kongo’s toes, told her about these secret stairway walks all over Los Angeles. Naturally, Mrs. Kongo shared this enticing news and Kongo took off to start exploring a whole new thing. Actually, he’d kinda sorta heard about these secret stair walks when researching places to do photo shoots in LA but this really got him going. First he did some research and it turns out that there are actually books written about these hidden stairways but it’s still a pretty under the radar thing.
One of the coolest walks is supposed to be very near the Getty Villa so Kongo talked to some of his fellow docents there to see what they knew. The all looked at him with blank stares as if he was speaking Latin but since the Getty Villa is a copy of a famous Roman villa destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 perhaps they should know Latin or at least know something about the walks. I mean some of these ladies have been docents for decades! They should know about the secretum deambulatio. Sheesh.
In any event, Kongo found it. The secret stairs in Pacific Palisades are actually 518 steps, all built in 1927 that tie several streets together on the steep hillsides above the ocean in Pacific Palisades. Pacific Palisades borders Malibu on one side and Santa Monica on the other.
Kongo’s trek started out on the Pacific Coast Highway. He snagged a parking spot just before the pedestrian overpass and across the highway from what used to be Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. Ms. Todd was a silent screen star who appeared in more than 100 Hollywood films. She had a pretty fancy villa nearby but she died under suspicious circumstances as in she was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of the ex-wife of Thelma’s current lover. All this after a dinner in Hollywood and being taken home by her chauffeur. Pure Hollywood. Anyway, the old Roadside Cafe is being renovated.
After crossing the highway you’re immediately faced with your first stairway — 69 steps that takes you into the Castellammare neighborhood. On either side of the stairway are glimpses into the lovely, secluded gardens of the homes on the hillside.
At the top of the stairs Kongo came across some interesting sights. Like the rainbow painted retaining wall and an old time switch box.
Wow. What were these time switch boxes used for anyway? The monkey fussed around with the outside of the box for a bit but decided he didn’t want to get zapped and end up in another time and place. Shocking! After a bit of research after he got home, Kongo found out these were used by the old Bureau of Power and Light to regulate the street lamps.
Walking about the neighborhood here is fascinating. All the homes are custom. Some over-the-top spectacular and others that were more modest but even a 2 BR/2BA condo and 1500 square feet with a nice view of the ocean will run in the millions. And the lot sizes are small. Really small for the most part so you don’t waste space for driveways. Street parking for the Rolls and Ferrari.
Kongo had downloaded a three-page PDF file that described the walk in detail but even then he had to backtrack a lot to find all the stairs. Many were tucked away between houses and residents sometimes parked trash bins in front of the entrance. Were they trying to hide it? Hmmm.
Traipsing up the hillside gave a pretty interesting look at how people try to tame the incredibly steep grades. Kongo has a pretty steep hill in his back yard which goes into an open space where coyotes and bobcats roam but it was nothing compared to the hillsides in Pacific Palisades or what the residents do to try to contain the slides. In the end, Kongo is pretty sure the hill is always going to win but it’s a great jobs program for the LA construction industry.
From the front, many of the homes look pretty small. Then you go around a corner in the road, look back, and realize that the front of the house was just a way to get inside. The bulk of the house cascades down the mountain thanks to daring engineering feats.
The front of the house above is rather modest but from below you can see all that glass — all looking out over the Pacific Ocean and the decks and oh yeah, that black strip in the center above the flax is the tile facing of an infinity pool with water cascading down. Sweet. And there is a glassed in tennis court.
And from the front (above) you’ve got no idea there was all that in back. But hey, notice that there’s no garage. Just a nice carport.
A landmark on PCH near the Getty Villa is Villa Leone. From the highway it’s so cool looking that some people think it’s actually the Getty Villa. (The GV entrance sign is just below Villa Leone so it IS confusing…)
This mansion in the Italian style was built in 1928 by a wool czar named Leon Kauffman. It’s 12,000 square feet with marble floors, plenty of balconies, nine bedrooms, and 11 baths. The seven-car garage even has its own car wash. Note the ram motifs under the balcony, a tribute to the source of the fortune that built the house. This is now a very private residence owned by a woman urologist who works in LA.
Walking uphill from the Kauffman villa you can catch glimpses of the Roman Style Getty Villa in the canyon below.
There are plenty of wow homes to lust after while you’re catching your breath on the steep hills. And some that just leave you scratching your head.
There’s this one with the painted mural of a girl surfing at Waikiki. Now you have to think about this for a bit. Here you are in Malibu, arguably as famous as the beach in Hawaii, and even though surfing was invented in the Aloha State, wasn’t it Hollywood that made it a lifestyle? Mrs. Kongo opined that maybe Gidget lived here. (As in Gidget Goes Hawaiian — you would need to be of a certain age to get that.)
This subdued ranch with a great view clearly wants you to know what this is. Home. I get it. Or maybe the last name of the people who live here is Home. “Hey, Honey…I’m HOME!” That little pink dot on the H in Home is actually an Easter egg. Kongo was making this trek the Saturday before Easter Sunday.
The views were unending and always spectacular, even on the low marine layer day that Kongo hiked the stairs.
Kongo is psyching himself up for a backyard remodel so he was keen to see all the creative ideas here. He loves the fence below and even though his HOA rules wouldn’t let him put something like this in the front of the house, maybe he could hide some of the backyard hillside that is too rocky for anything to grow.
And this gem with the wisteria arbor could be worked into some corner of the project. Maybe.
On one street a garden popped out of a vacant hillside slope too steep for building a house. It was pretty cool and came complete with grazing cows.
There’s a lot of construction going on. Amazingly, there are still a few vacant lots that look buildable in the area but getting the construction equipment up the winding roads (not to mention hauling a piano up one of the staircases) and reinforcing the foundations to meet modern California earthquake and mud slide codes has got to triple or quadruple building costs. This massive villa (shown below) has been under construction for a couple of years. Kongo gazes up at it every week as he drives down PCH to his docent shift at the Getty Villa. The front of it is across the street from the HOME home shown earlier.
When you’re at the top of the hill you have the advantage of looking down at all your neighbors and Kongo spied a lot of big telescopes sitting in front of large view windows looking down the slope toward the ocean and suspects they weren’t all being used to spot whales and dolphins.
With not very much lot space, the owners of this house built a patio deck on the roof. Pretty cool and you can snub your noses at all those looking down on your from higher up the hill.
This looming structure had massive retaining walls that terraced up the hillside. It’s known as Castillo Del Mar. It’s all one house with gardens. AND … wait for it … this is the home where Thelma Todd died in the garage (those blue doors at street level). The DEAD END sign adjacent to the garage doors really hammer the point in a macabre way. (Thelma owned the white, Spanish-style structure on PCH at the start of the walk back in the 1930s)
Now this place recently sold for $4.9M (Kongo looked it up on Zillow) which seems like a steal but the monkey suspects that despite it’s fine features it’s got to be a fixer upper and there was plenty of evidence of ongoing renovation. Besides there might be the ghost of Thelma Todd lurking about and that DEAD END sign in front of your house would REALLY HAVE TO GO.
If you needed some extra cash in the neighborhood you could always go hunting for Jandagh, the African Gray Parrot that escaped from home detention somewhere near the Hawaiian surfing mural home. Actually, Kongo has a pretty good idea where this wayward bird is. There’s a pretty noisy flock of wild parrots that fly around the Getty Villa on nice days and Jandagh is most likely running wild with this gang of parrots and having a great time.
This is a quiet area. Kongo encountered a few friendly dog walkers, a nanny out with her charge in a stroller, and several gardeners working on grooming the hillside. Plenty of “Buenas Diases” in the neighborhood. There was even this friendly guy waxing his convertible Bentley and getting ready for a run up and down PCH to see and be seen. Like, why not?
So this hike of the Secret Stairs is a great way to spend a few hours. Kongo trekked 2.5 miles mostly going straight up or down with a few sideways traverses on steeply sloped city streets. He took his time, took some photos, and was still able to close all the rings on his Apple Watch.
If this type of adventure appeals to you, you’re going to need some help. Finding all the staircases is a bit of a challenge and some of the staircases actually go nowhere. They just lead up the side of the hill and stop. And the streets are pretty twisty with a lot of dead ends. If you don’t have some help, you’re not going to find your way out of the neighborhood and will likely end up sleeping under a bush with a lost parrot. Kongo found this excellent description of the walk but even then he had to back track several times to find a stairway that was too well hidden. Check it out here. So, if you live in LA or are planning to visit sometime in the future, you need to add this to your gotta see list.
As Kongo would say to those decent docents who work with him at the Getty Villa but knew nothing about these walks: Veni, vidi, vici.
Travel safe. Have fun. (Tutu peregrinations. Habe lusus)
5 thoughts on “Secret Stairs In Pacific Palisades”
Wonderful post! I really like how you incorporate so much local history and color into your pieces. And the humor, of course.
Thanks so much, Eileen!
What a great post! Fascinating. I always love seeing the creative things other people do and their landscapes. But all those upward steps – whew!
I thought of your area’s plants today when I read a really interesting article about “Lost LA” by KCET. It is about bougainvillea and its history in southern California (including San Diego): https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/how-bougainvillea-came-to-brighten-californias-springtime-and-summer
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