January 20, 2022

Historical Society Commemorates The Mountain Mermaid at 80, July 21


This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the 1930s Sylvia Park Country Club, later to become Rancho Topango, The Canyon Club, The Mermaid Tavern and, for the last two decades, The Mountain Mermaid. The Topanga Historical Society will celebrate the milestone birthday at The Mermaid for their annual July gathering, where owner Bill Buerge will describe the history and how he restored the building and grounds from a deteriorating ruin to its present glory.

The Mermaid story began in the late 1920s when Charles and Irving Goldman, brothers and real estate brokers, began the Sylvia Park subdivision on land that was originally part of the Cheney homestead and hired architect Charles Edward Finkenbinder to build a clubhouse, called the Sylvia Park Country Club.

But the Great Depression (1929 to the early 1940s) put an end to these elaborate plans and after trying various ways to hang onto the property, including an unsuccessful scheme to drill for oil in a field behind the clubhouse, the Goldman brothers either lost or transferred control of their company in the early forties. For the next four decades, the property changed hands a number of times and took on a wide variety of venues.


Historical Society Commemorates The Mountain Mermaid at 80, July 21

In 1989, current owner Bill Buerge purchased The Mountain Mermaid property and has devoted himself to a ten-year restoration process including a new foundation, structural retrofits, mostly new windows and doors, repaired plaster, and hand-made roof tiles left over from the restoration of mission San Jose. The surrounding acre is extensively landscaped. Buerge hired a historical architect, Peter Snell, and others to advise on the project, and in 1993 the building was designated as a California Point of Historical Interest.

From 1945 to 1948, it was a boarding school called Rancho Topanga and a summer camp for Jewish teenagers. When the school was shut down, it briefly became a clandestine casino operated by gangster Mickey Cohen. In 1951, it reopened as the Rancho Topanga Country Club with activities that included Saturday night dances with a full orchestra. From 1955 to 1972, it became The Canyon Club, a gay bar operated by a former Hollywood vice cop named Phil Ewing.

In 1972, Ann and Mickey Nadel bought the property, named it The Mermaid Tavern after a seventeenth-century London tavern and literary club, and operated it as a venue for chamber music. In December 1976, the Nadels stopped the concerts but continued to live there for another 20 years in what Buerge describes as “bohemian elegance, allowing the elements and the animals to have their way with the place.”

In 1989 Buerge purchased the property, gave up his career as an illustrator and devoted his life to a ten-year restoration process.

As Buerge unearthed the bones of the lovely building from the rubble, he became fascinated with its history. He hired local historian David Cameron to research the property and gathered an impressive collection of historic documents and photographs of the building, copies of which are stored in the Society’s archives. Because of his efforts, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the State of California awarded the building a Declaration of Historical Significance in 1992.

The Mountain Mermaid is one of Topanga’s claims to fame and is the site of innumerable community fundraisers, meetings and memorials that Buerge has offered over the years free of charge. Gail McDonald-Tune, also a Society board member, assists Buerge with Mermaid events and uses her considerable talents in organizing hospitality for the Society’s well-attended social events.

The Topanga Historical Society invites everyone to the event to meet with friends, stroll through the property’s extensive gardens, enjoy the Society’s famous potluck feast, then settle in the Mermaid’s Great Room to hear the historic tale of this magnificent building. Bring a main dish, side dish, salad or dessert to contribute to the feast. Coffee and tea will be provided. Admission is $5 for non-members ($15 membership, includes admission); free for THS members.

Save the date: Wednesday, July 21, at The Mountain Mermaid, 20421 Callon Drive, Topanga. Dinner is at 7 p.m., the program begins at 8 p.m. Do not park on the street. Drive through the front gates, and the valet will direct you. For more information, call (310) 455-1969.