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Landmarks Recall Santa Monica's Gold Coast
By Athena Lucero
The opulence of a venerable hotel steps from the sand, a modern-day bathhouse and sunset views of Santa Monica Pier (more than a century old) were all the intrigue I needed to peel back the layers of landmarks dotting this world-famous beach, that is, the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway north from the pier to Santa Monica Canyon — the Gold Coast, as it was known at the turn of the century.
In fact, Santa Monica beach has been a tourist hot spot since the mid-1800s, when it was already becoming a leisure destination for wealthy Easterners who headed west to escape icy winters for sunny shores.
And had it not been for successful efforts to prevent Santa Monica from becoming the major port for Los Angeles (that title went to San Pedro in 1897), Muscle Beach might not be, well, Muscle Beach. The silhouette of the Ferris wheel on the pier might not adorn Santa Monica beach's skyline at dusk.
Like beacons, grand hotel resorts constructed along the coastline welcomed visitors. Santa Monica's first hotel, the Arcadia, was built in 1885, and by the mid-1920s, the Club Casa del Mar, the Breakers and the Edgewater were beachfront neighbors on the Promenade.
Club Casa del Mar, the "Grande Dame of the shore" was the place to see and been seen, and it is the only hotel of the era to stand the test of time. It survived the Great Depression, served as a World War II military hotel, housed the drug rehabilitation group Synanon and was home to the Pritikin Longevity Center.
Where Pico Boulevard meets the sand, Casa del Mar today glitters once more. In 1999 it was purchased by E.T. Whitehall Seascape Partners, who spent more than $50 million restoring the Grande Dame back to her original glory. A walk to the beach behind the hotel treated me to the architectural splendor of the stately eight-story Italian Renaissance Revival that seemed as though it was plucked right off the Mediterranean coast.
The Gold Coast earned its name because real estate along Santa Monica's coastline attracted the rich and famous. Residents included movie producer Irving Thalberg and his wife, actress Norma Shearer; Greta Garbo; Cary Grant; Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; and oil magnate J. Paul Getty.
The allure of the Gold Coast also caught the attention of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, one of America's most powerful men. In 1926 he began construction on what would become Pacific Coast Highway's hottest address.
Hearst commissioned Julia Morgan (the architect of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif.) to help build a sprawling estate on the beach for silent-film actress Marion Davies, his mistress. The 4.9-acre property included a 110-room mansion, two guest houses, two swimming pools and a tennis court. Davies (also a producer, screenwriter and philanthropist) hosted lavish parties for the Hollywood elite, business moguls and international dignitaries.
By 1947 the Davies estate was sold to a private party and eventually to the state of California. The state leased the land to the private Sand and Sea Beach Club Hotel until damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake forced the demolition of most of the buildings.
Enter philanthropist Wallis Annenberg, president of the Annenberg Foundation (and a member of the Sand and Sea Beach Club). She envisioned the property's great potential to serve the community and in 2005 saved a guest house and one of the pools (where Charlie Chaplain swam) from the wrecking ball.
"What could be more spectacular," said Annenberg in the Santa Monica Mirror, "...than that space on Pacific Coast Highway?" It was her vision to see it become a beach park.
That dream became a reality $35 million later in 2009 (the Annenberg Foundation provided $27.5 million). Owned by the state and operated by the City of Santa Monica, the Annenberg Community Beach House might well be the only public beach club (no membership required) in the country, according to its manager, Nan Friedman.
Waiting in the queue to pay my admission into the Beach House ($10 adults, $5 children, $4 seniors, $24 family pass) reminded me of public lidos around Europe where entire families enjoy hours of fun under the sun.
The spirit of the Davies estate was not forgotten, either, when the Frederick Fisher architectural partners designed the Beach House property. A row of 15 concrete pillars hovers over the historic pool to represent the Grecian columns, the location and scale of the original mansion. The colonnade invites visitors to imagine being a guest of Davies as they look out to the sea from the mansion's terrace.
While lodging is not offered at the Georgian Revival Guest House, free docent-led tours delight visitors with a nostalgic peek into Davies' life. Sound and video installations highlight her acting days and her renown as the Gold Coast's premier hostess.
Amusement parks sprang from the Gold Coast era. Built in 1909, the Santa Monica Pier was the first "pleasure pier" built on the West Coast. Its 80-foot roller coaster and famous carousel were constant draws. The last amusement park on the pier was during the 1930s. But in 1996 nostalgia returned with the opening of Pacific Park, the West's only amusement park on a pier. There is no admission charge, and its 12 rides include the roller coaster that wraps around the park. The park also went green in 2008 with the world's only solar-powered Ferris wheel.
The Looff Hippodrome, which houses the carousel, is the pier's most conspicuous building with its cone-shaped roof. The Los Angeles historical landmark is named after Charles Looff, amusement park impresario and master carver of carousels. He also built Coney Island's first carousel in New York.
When Muscle Beach first opened in 1934 at the base of Santa Monica Pier, it was much more than an entertainment spectacle. It was the brainchild of the Works Projects Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt and the beginning of the modern fitness boom. Gymnastics and acrobatic exhibitions, often performed by movie stunt artists and actors, were its earliest events. Muscle Beach eventually moved to nearby Venice Beach and is now a bodybuilding landmark and a must-see for visitors to Southern California.
Today the most treasured icon of the city, the neon sign at the entrance to the pier, reads "Santa Monica Yacht Harbor — Sport Fishing, Boating, Cafes." The city hasn't had a harbor since the 1930s, but the pier's business association installed the sign in 1940 — a tribute to its vibrant history.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about Santa Monica Beach's Gold Coast history, visit Santa Monica Public Library, 310-458-8600 or www.smpl.org; Santa Monica Conservancy, www.smconservancy.org.
Hotel Casa del Mar, 1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica, Calif.; 310-581-5533, www.hotelcasadelmar.com
Annenberg Community Beach House: 415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, Calif.; 310-458-4904, www.annenbrgbeachhouse.com. Each January the Beach House celebrates "Happy Birthday, Marion," a free event open to the public.
Santa Monica Pier: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, Calif.; 310-458-8901, www.santamonicapier.org
Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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