This article, “Sandstone: Close-up of a Unique Life-style” was published in the Los Angeles Times Thursday, April 6, 1972. By Skip Ferderber. Times Staff Writer. 

It has been retyped in the interest of clarity.

TOPANGA – Although it was not probably intended, a recent State Court ruling has opened the way for a unique community and life-style to continue its highly controversial experimentation with relationships between men and women. 

On the surface, the decision of the State Court of Appeals seemed mild enough. The judges struck down a County Ordinance requiring the licensing and regulation of “growth centers (nudist camps), calling the ordinance “vague and overbroad” and in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees the right to assembly.

Specifically, the measure endangered two Topanga Canyon centers: Elysium Fields and Sandstone Foundation.

Both had been threatened with closure for operating without a county license.

The ordinance defined “growth centers" as any place where three or more persons, not all members of the same family, congregate for the purpose of exposing their bodies in the nude in the presence of others.

What neither the ordinance nor the court decision made explicit was the concern by county officials with the openly sexual nature of the activities in at least one of these centers which, while kept discretely away from mass exposure, still flaunts conventional morality.

Certainly, the operators of Sandstone see the decision as a de facto victory for their admittedly unusual way of life which encourages relations beginning on a sexual level with two and sometimes three or more persons. 

But Sandstone, or more formally the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research, Inc. is not a “sex club” or a wife-swapping fraternity, at least not in the usual sense.

While there is a definite sexual basis for their interpersonal relationships, and while they may cross the formal lines of marriage, its proprietors see their intermingled lives as research into a more realistic approach to human relationships.  

Sandstone combines an alternative lifestyle, a community, a private club and retreat, and a sociological research community, say its owners. Its headquarters is at 21400 Saddle Peak Road, a cluster of neatly kept buildings on a plush 15-acre hilltop site in the Malibu hills with a magnificent unobstructed view of the ocean. 

At first glance, it resembles any number of well-kept homes in the hills: a $500,000 estate complete with a two-story ranch style house, guest cottages, covered swimming pool, a large green lawn, one quarter mile back from the road and accessible only by driving down a pitted dirt road.

The resemblance ends, however, when a visitor spots a well-tanned man and woman cleaning out the circulating fountain in front of the main house.  Both are nude.

Relaxing inside, in a spacious wood-lined living room with thick beige carpets, are some of the Sandstone’s 14 permanent residents, some clothed, some not.

The building reflects the foundation’s free and easy life-style.  As the administrative and play center for the club, which lists some 500 members, the building is carpeted throughout, with furniture on the ground floor, and with mats or waterbeds on the lower floors.  All the doors are open.  Men and women are sitting and talking, some touching in a frank sensual way, yet there is no sense of licentiousness.  On the contrary, the atmosphere is relaxed and tension free.

Sandstone’s founder, 39 year-old John Williamson, is soft-spoken, a slightly balding rough-hewn man with a reserved, almost courtly manner.  He discusses Sandstone’s lifestyle and objectives which, he said, includes research into living in pluralistic (two, three or more people) relationships.  “We believe in the sexual self as being at the core of organized social behavior,” he said. “When sexuality is distorted, it leads to a distortion of the basic self.”

By Sandstone’s mores, an individual may do what he desires providing the others, singly or together, are willing to go along.  As a result, in one room of their retreat, people may be talking, playing chess or engaging in sexual intercourse without any discrimination as to what is “proper.”

Sandstone’s financial life-blood comes from its club members who pay $240 a year membership, allowing them to use the facilities whenever they desire.


Wednesdays and Saturdays, are party nights.  Couples only come to the retreat in the daytime to sun, nude if desired, swim in its covered pool, read, play chess, relax. At night, the downstairs is softly lighted. Softly swinging rock music plays. Couples are sitting and talking or sexually engaged, not necessarily with the partner they came with.

Some couples remained clothed. Most do not. It is neither obligatory to remove one’s clothing or engage in any of the activities. On a full night, there are as many as 80 adult visitors to the retreat, of all races, ages and backgrounds, both married and unmarried.

Old timers Relaxed: While newcomers may be awed by the open sexuality, most old timers are more relaxed by the atmosphere and say they thrive in an environment which allows them to experience without guilt or social stigma. 

Sexuality, Williamson believes, can be a barrier to improving relationships, but at the same time is irrelevant to their ultimate success or failure. For example, a man or woman may have emotional feelings for a co-worker, but because of social, moral and legal boundaries, each is unable to form closer relationships with the other.  Once the sexual barrier is gone, in Sandstone’s view, a more fulfilling relationship is possible.

“We believe in the acceptance of the physical as well the mental side of man’s nature,”said Martin Zitter, 29, director and public relations man for Sandstone. 

This freedom has a profound effect on marriages. But Sandstone, devotees believe that a relationship can thrive by sharing individuals who bring, pleasure of both a social and physical nature. “If the key to a relationship is based on a neurotic impulse,” Williamson commented, “if they’ve captured each other, then they live in fear. In a healthy relationship, this will not happen. They understand the true nature of their contract.

With the traditional barrier of sexual fidelity no longer a factor, Sandstone residents claim their brand of relationships can create more meaningful human contacts.

The possibility of rejection becomes a more potent threat at the same time.  But they believe a relationship which includes others while maintaining one primary relationship causes an incredibly strong bond to emerge. Thus, the individual’s responsibility for creating a better relationship becomes far greater at Sandstone than in most other situations, they believe. It is up to each person to decide whether he desires to remain with one partner, as in marriage, or to have short term relationships.  While the first reaction of a newcomer to the community is usually one of heightened sexual appetite, it tends to diminish and the individual becomes much more selective. 

Less ‘Sexual’: “In addition,” said filmmaker Jonathan Dana, 26, who lives at Sandstone with his wife Bunny, 25, ”this place is much less ‘sexual’ than any city I’ve ever lived in. There’s no teasing, no exploitation and no frustration.” While to some palates this might seem paradise, all is not easy in Utopia. One couple, residents for eight months is leaving. The feeling of the community is that the husband, a mechanic, “related better to machines than to people.” The wife of one of the executives, in addition, after living in the community for a short time, became involved with another man and left the community.

Ultimately, the members agree, the same emotions which exist in relations outside Sandstone exist inside Sandstone. “In practice,” said Williamson, “we have all the differences that other people have, but as a community we are honest about it.”

Those relationships tend to overlap and to become highly complicated. There are currently, among the permanent residents, two multiple relationships, one of a man and two women, the other of two men and one woman. In one case, one of the women is married. Her husband, who also lives in Sandstone, approves of his wife’s participation in the “ménage a-trois.”

The state court’s action ends a two-year fight for the community, which claims it has spent $10,000 on legal fees fighting the county ordinance. While community members say they have no opposition from sheriffs’ officers or from neighbors (the nearest is two miles away), protests from the Topanga Chamber of Commerce and some local residents were lodged with the county Public Welfare Commission which denied them the county license in 1970 on the grounds it was a “detriment to the public welfare.” According to residents, none of their opponents ever visited Sandstone.

Based on Ideas: The community’s beginnings are based on the philosophical idols of Williamson and his outspoken wife, Barbara. Alabama-born John Williamson, an engineer by training, is a former project manager with Lockheed Aircraft who worked on design and management of  missile support systems, including development of the Polaris missile. In the early 1960s, he opened his own electronics company then sold it to buy Sandstone in 1967.  Barbara Williamson, 32, is a former insurance saleswoman.

Williamson’s belief is in “non-structured experiential processes which contribute significantly to the release and actualization of positive human potential.” Simply put, do your own thing to the fullest and enjoy the process.  In addition to being an experiential community, some of the residents also say they consult with various organizations on developing a community process within businesses, religious organizations and at least one private psychological clinic. 

According to Williamson, their outside work helps organizations look upon their employees and management as a community, and Sandstone people are available to help them develop a community sense in their business-but without the sexual overtones. How much applicability Sandstone has to the outside world is debatable, but Williamson believes the community’s message is important, serving to point up the true if unconventional nature of people. He also believes it is not for everybody. 

“But,” he said, “we should be able to accept alternatives within our social structures. Society is too complex to support only one lifestyle. Our life, the lives of all of us, are changing.” Sandstone, he added, is not looking for people to live on the property. “We’re looking for people to become individuals through Sandstone,” he added. “You really don’t have to live here to get what you need.”