I’ve been to Downtown Santa Monica, CA many times but never discovered the hidden historical gems of this lovely beachfront community. All changed when we took the very enjoyable and informative Walking Tour presented by the Santa Monica Conservancy. Our enlightening two-hour stroll visits some of the city’s signature architecture while we learn about the culture and history that gives Santa Monica its unique identity. It’s a fun journey, covering more than 130 years, when downtown streets went by other names such as Oregon and Utah, and the city was struggling to find its way. The city’s past can be discovered by simply walking around and taking notice of the history embedded in buildings still standing, and by remembering those structures that are no longer here. Our docent, (a volunteer and local resident) was engaging, friendly and well informed. She shared stories that brought history to life by attaching real people to the events and buildings, with some timely interjections from another docent who joined us on the tour. What an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday morning in sunny California!
Our tour started, appropriately enough, at the city’s oldest building and first masonry structure, The 1875Second Street Rapp Saloon. Before downtown had the many brewhouses of today, the Rapp was the place to go for fresh tap beer, later serving as the first City Hall. Having passed through many adaptive reuses (wrapping historic structures with new construction for a different purpose), today it is incorporated into the American Youth Hostel facility. Old faded multiple painted signs (called “Ghost Signs”) on the north wall memorialize some of its previous occupants, and arches viewed from Second Street give it a Victorian Italianate semblance. The varied incarnations of the Rapp Saloon illustrate the ever-changing nature of the city’s history and fortunes since it was incorporated in 1886.
We continued south on Second Street to the Hotel Carmel (1928). Its four-story Beaux Arts design composition was based upon the European Renaissance palaces, which in turn were modeled after the classical column with a base, shaft and capital. For 1928, this conservative architectural style, as the more modern Art Deco style, was fashionable. The original windows have been replaced, but the interior lobby retains some of its earliest, richly ornamental Spanish Revival architectural themes.
During the 1930’s, Hotel Carmel was a favorite retreat for Hollywood film stars. Before Hollywood, Santa Monica (very briefly) was the center for movie making, with open air, three-walled studios facing the ocean. But they soon discovered the marine fog wasted half the filming day, so they packed up and moved to the not-too-far east…Hollywood.
Located at the corner of Broadway, the Whitworth Block structure stood out from its adjacent single-story shops in 1891. This two-story masonry block was originally an impressive Romanesque Revival building, with ground floor retail and the Palmer Lodgings above it. After much remodeling over the years, the 1891 cast iron columns still remain on some of the storefronts. The floral capitals on the columns, glossy white brick piers and tile entryway originate from a later remodel. Our guide often reminded us throughout the tour, “When you don’t look up, you will miss so much of the detail and beauty that is still here”.
Strolling up Broadway to Third Street, a distinguished example of Romanesque Revival architecture, with its rusticated stone, corner tower and arched windows, the 1893 Keller Block’s was a major milestone in downtown’s development, helping to establish Third Street as the heart of the commercial center. In 1987, its restoration project kicked off the Third Street Promenade revitalization.
We continued our journey down Third Street to the Broadway Cinema. The exuberant Art Deco design made it appear as if it was intended to ease the Depression’s doldrums. Originally opening as the El Miro Theatre in 1933, the façade was preserved and incorporated into the Promenade’s first large scale project with multi-screen theater, restaurant offices, residential units and underground parking.
Back at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway, look up and you’ll be rewarded with the ornate flourishes of Fourth Street’s Spanish Baroque Builders Exchange, with its intact decorative interiors. Two years after its 1927 completion, the cartoon character Popeye was created in one of its offices.
The tour traverses along Fourth Street towards Santa Monica Boulevard, where our docent pointed out the 1929 JB Building. The entertaining façade of this building is a true original, and seems constructed from different pattern books with Art Deco design of the period at the roofline, two windows framed with Classical Revival ornamentation, and symmetrical hearts forming a square along unique piers that are dense enough to appear Churrigueresque (a Spanish Baroque architectural ornamentation developed in the 17th century).
Close by, the 1925 Central Tower Building was one of the city’s principal Art Deco highrises. The storefronts are mostly remodeled, but few retain the original multi-colored tile bulkhead with yellow and green chevrons on a black background. Inside the lobby, the original lively Art Deco features continue with geometric coffered ceiling and cream and black marble floor. In the far corner, a vintage bronze mailbox is still in use. Since 1931, the popular Harvelle’s Blues and Nightclub has occupied one of its storefronts and is the oldest live music venue in the city.
Heading west down Santa Monica Boulevard, we arrive at the terra cotta clad 1929 Junipher Building. Its Classical Revival design was the height of style for that period, and its steel frame was a major new project replacing smaller wood. The fourth story addition and easternmost bays were added in 1925. Small metal hooks at the corners remain from the wiring system of the electric trolley that operated on Santa Monica Blvd.
We cross Third Street to the Bay Cities Guaranty Building. Located within the Bayside Commercial District adjacent to the Third Street Promenade, this was Santa Monica’s first true skyscraper. The Art Deco ornamentation of the building is defined by alternating wide and narrow full-façade-height pylons, receded chevron patterns, and zigzag motif, which are continued on the stepped clock tower. Prior to landmarking, the building went through more than $6 million in rehabilitation. Like many properties in downtown Santa Monica, the building suffered notable damage in the Northridge earthquake. It underwent a $1.6 million seismic retrofit, and the 1929 clocks adorning the signature clock tower were repaired and now linked to a satellite system that keeps the time accurate.
Our tour continued along the Third Street Promenade towards Santa Monica Boulevard, where you can see an almost seamless blend of old and new. The 1911 Majestic Theater, later the Mayfair, was the city’s first theater built to showcase the budding film industry. By 1929, it was remodeled and given a new extravagant Churigueresque façade, possibly motivated by the advent of “talkies”. Sculptural floral ornamentation, vertical shafts and decorative wrought iron balconettes add richness. Following the Northridge earthquake, it was closed for years. The façade is currently being renovated and incorporated into a condominium project (visible from the side), approved by the city in 2006.
You can see two distinct layers of history on the 1929 Bank of Italy (later becoming Bank of America). The 1964 remodel and modernization were typical of the renovations concurrent with the creation of the original Third Street Mall. In a 1994 restaurant remodel, decorative Art Deco panels were reveled. The sunburst design with scrolls and chevrons are characteristic Art Deco motifs.
An exemplification of Art Deco façade, the 1929Third Street Promenade’s exuberant details were revealed following the removal of a metal facing that was overlaid in the 1960’s. The rich ornamentation creates a dynamic rhythm that recalls the optimism and energy of the Jazz Age.
The Classical Revival 1924 Kress Building has an architecturally distinctive façade with attention to quality and detail. The ground floor had retail and offices above. Arched upper windows, accented by decorative molding, are the building’s most distinctive feature. Structural brick walls and ceiling rafters were exposed following renovation of the interiors.
The clothing store ‘Zara’ at 1338 Third Street Promenade is housed in the historic W.T. Grant Building. This 1936 structure is a fine example of the late phase Art Deco (known as Classical Modern) and Streamline Moderne styles. The building’s transition to an upscale fashion shop now mirrors the city’s own evolution of growth.
In the Post World War II period, Early Modern (a more abstract modernism) became a predominant part of the architecture. The 1949 Woolworth Building is a typical example, with its geometric composition and emphasis on expression through the qualities of the building materials. The store closed in 1997 following closure of the entire Woolworth chain. The only traces recalling Woolworth is the Streamline Moderne sign redone in black and silver.
We saw some nice eclectic features along the tour, including a large-scale public-art installation called “Cradle”, featuring hundreds of stainless-steel spheres suspended from one of the garage’s exterior walls. An interesting variety of hats and colorful knitted scarves were displayed along some storefronts on the Third Street Promenade. Unique lampposts added character to the open-air atmosphere.
Along Arizona Avenue, the Saturday Downtown Farmers market, also known as the Organic Market was setting up to open for its eager shoppers. A flamboyant Irish tea leaf reader agreed to have her picture taken.
Before heading back, our guide took us to the Ocean Avenue Hotel Shangri-La. Built in 1939; this Streamline Moderne high-end luxury hotel recently received a $30million renovation. During World War II, it was opened to the military for R & R.
Have we peaked your interest? Take a couple of hours and check it out! You can get more information by calling 310-496-3146 or visiting Santa Monica Conservancy.