The Stone House, Part 9: ‘A President of Heart and History’

Pablo CapraBy Pablo Capra      July 8, 2022

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The Stone House, Part 9: ‘A President of Heart and History’
“When I was 12 years old, I saw a remote house in the hills in Coldwater Canyon and thought, ‘That’s the ideal life!’” Ed O’Neill remembers. He was raised in Los Angeles by a single mother and her parents, who had lived through the Depression and revered the self-sufficient rustic lifestyle of the Californios, the Mexican ranchers of the 19th century.
Left: The stone house, November 2021 Above: Folklorico dancers Leilani Cifuentes and Sariah Redondo performed at the 90th birthday party of Rose Wiley, who lays a hand on host Ed O’Neill’s shoulder, on October 24, 2021. Right, top: Shane O’Neill and nanny, Griselda Orozco, on the first day of school, 2020. Right: An abandoned tractor on the ranch (2022), a reminder of days gone by.
At USC, he studied Civil Engineering and, in 1985, he started the Ed O’Neill Construction Company, building and developing private properties. Along the way, he learned to speak Spanish like a Californio, “which is almost a requirement on construction sites in Southern California,” he says. Finally, in 2000, he discovered his dream house in the hills of Topanga.

“I was looking for a property with land, and the only ones available then were the former Elysium “clothing optional” resort and the stone house ranch. I was drawn to the stone house after learning its history from the owners, Ingrid Lindquist and Dede Potvin.”

He moved in with girlfriend Felice Willat and her teenage daughters, Amber and Harper. Felice had cofounded the Day Runner company that sells daily planners. She had a flair for travel photography, and showed her work at the Topanga Canyon Gallery. The 1960s owner of the stone house, Marvin Zeidler (b.1928), happened to be Felice’s family friend, so she surprised him by bringing him over for dinner. Marvin was delighted when he recognized the place.

Another coincidence was that Ed had gone to high school with Dawn and Libby, the granddaughters of the 1940s owner, Anthony Heinsbergen (1894-1981). After the article “An Artist in the Family” revealed her family’s Topanga history (TCC, 03-18-2022), Dawn reconnected with Ed and visited the stone house for the first time.

With a historian’s care, an artist’s style, a builder’s expertise, and excellent help, Ed set about restoring the stone house. He hid steel beams in the walls to reinforce the damage from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. He remodeled the sagging barn into one of the most beautiful structures on the property. He installed a water tank, a pump, and hydrants to fight wildfires. He worked with USC professor Bob Perry, a native plant expert, to replace the eucalyptus, pine, and cypress trees with oaks, sycamores, shrubs, and grasses. And he turned the horse-riding arena back into a vineyard with the help of vintner Gary Burke.

“I like the vineyard because it’s authentic to what the first owner, Frederico Joseph Mazet, had in the 19th century, and because it uses little water. I sometimes make wine for myself and friends, but most years the grapes hang on the vine until the deer eat them.”

He’s equally interested in preserving the Native American history, and collects local artifacts. Meanwhile, he has increased the size of his property from 14 to 18 acres by buying neighboring parcels, and enhanced the ranch’s character by adding tons of new stones.

“In 2015, I learned Ventura County was dredging the creek and had a mountain of rocks that looked like they came from my house. I brought in 15 truckloads to restore the buildings and driveway, and built a wall, a fountain, and a patio.”

In 2009, the Topanga Historical Society asked Ed to host their annual picnic and give a talk about the stone house (See YouTube). Soon after, he joined the Board; and in 2020, he became the President. He’s also the President of City Hearts, a Topanga charity founded by Bob and Sherry Jason that brings art classes to inner-city schools. And he’s the former President of the AIDS charity, Let There Be Hope, based in Beverly Hills.

In 2014, Felice moved to Santa Barbara. At the time, Ed was working for Elton John and David Furnish, and learned from their team how to use a surrogate to start a family by himself. He now has two sons: Shane, 7, and Dillon, 5, both bilingual Spanish speakers like their dad. “When I first brought them to school, the teacher misunderstood and asked if they spoke English,” he proudly reports. He enjoys taking them on trips to small towns to share his love of early California.

The friends, partners, and workers on the ranch he considers his extended family.

“The history of the ranch isn’t just reflected by whose name is on the deed. It weaves together many lives,” he says. “Some people stay for days, others for years. There’s always lots of work to be done. Caretaker Juan Carlos Sanchez moved here from El Salvador and has become an invaluable part of the family. So has Griselda Orozco, who came from Guatemala with her husband, daughter, and two grandchildren to help me raise my boys. Our kids’ birthdays usually involve piñatas and at least 40 children.”

In November 2020, Ed, his sons, and their nanny Griselda were among the first people in Topanga to catch COVID-19. Ed suffered the most, with a fever that wouldn’t break until he went to the emergency room and got antibiotics. Two people close to him later died from the virus: his stepfather and a coworker who did flooring for his company, including the floors of the stone house.

This ends our story of a stone house and its owners. We’ve surprised ourselves with all that we’ve learned, and encourage you to discover what makes your Topanga unique. History is whatever you care about. History is everywhere if you look closely enough. As William Blake said, you can “see a World in a Grain of Sand.” The Archive at the THS is a great place to start.
Like Bill Buerge’s Mountain Mermaid and Janek Dombrowa’s Rosewood, Ed’s ranch serves as an alternative community house for Topanga. Ed has hosted birthdays like Rose Wiley’s 90th in 2021, weddings like his sister Allison’s in 2006, a baptism for his coworker Ignacio Menchaca’s grandchild, charity auctions, memorials, and many holiday gatherings. Occasionally, the barn even becomes a makeshift church for a congregation from Central America.

Ed never charges for the events on the ranch. His generosity and historical perspective are expressed when he explains, “Gold was created when some star exploded billions of years ago. You hold it for a fraction of a second.”

Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.
Pablo Capra
      July 8, 2022

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July 8, 2022

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