Sunday, March 15, 2009
Searching for ABW - Santa Monica
[The Man I Love] and I have been following the footsteps of his grandfather, ABW, who lived in Los Angeles. In 1928, ABW moved to Santa Monica. In an essay he wrote near the end of his life, he says that he went into business operating an Intertype machine - which was an improved version of the linotype machine invented in 1881 that revolutionized the newspaper printing business.
The Pacific Electric Car made it easy for Los Angeles residents to visit the beach. Santa Monica and its neighbor to the south, Venice, built amusement piers that attracted thousands of people. Santa Monica had two bustling business districts - one in Ocean Park, and the other centered on Third Street south of Wilshire Boulevard.
West from Third Street was Palisades Park, which stretched along the bluffs above the beach, providing a beautiful place to take in the view. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Ocean Avenue in front of Palisades Park was lined with large Victorian and Queen Anne homes. By the 1920s, hotels and commercial development had begun to change the quiet residential streets. Like nearby Los Angeles, Santa Monica boomed during the '20s, more than doubling its population from 15,000 to 32,000.
The city-owned Santa Monica Pier and the privately owned Looff Pier housed restaurants, carousels, roller coasters and other places of entertainment. In 1924, the La Monica Ballroom opened on the pier. The main room, decorated in a French Renaissance theme, could accommodate 5000 dancers at one time. In 1926, a fierce winter storm damaged the pier and the pilings beneath the ballroom. It was such a popular attraction that $75,000 were put into repairs immediately, to get it up and running again.
Stars of film, radio and theatre came to Santa Monica - Will Rogers built a polo field on his ranch in Santa Monica Canyon. Down on the beach below the bluffs, William Randolph Hearst built a palatial beach house for his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Other stars built beach houses nearby and the stretch of beach was known as the Gold Coast.
What was ABW's life like, in Santa Monica? He was 55 years old, and had been single since 1921. His address was 1333 Second Street, between Arizona and Santa Monica Boulevard.
The neighborhood was developing, so it's hard to know what ABW's home was like. 1333 could have been a small bungalow, like the wood-frame cottages shown in contemporary photos at Second and Colorado.
Or he could have rented an apartment, in a building like the one above that still stands at 1305 Second.
Ornate wooden Victorian and Queen Anne homes along Ocean Avenue faced the park, some broken into rooming houses by 1926. One by one they would give way to hotels, like the Art Deco Georgian - but some remain. If you stand on the sidewalk on Second today, you can see the back of the 1890 Gussie Moran House, beyond a parking lot.
Mixed architecturally though it was, ABW's neighborhood would have been a busy and exciting one. It was just a block from Palisades Park in one direction,
and busy Third Street in the other.
On Santa Monica Boulevard was the Majestic Theatre. This pretty little theatre, was built in the popular Spanish Colonial revival style, with applied decoration called Churrigueresque, marked by elaborate molded baroque detailing. On 3rd Street, the Criterion Theatre was built in 1925.
At Wilshire and Ocean, the Hotel Miramar offered dancing and music a little more refined than you could find down at the LaMonica Ballroom, and seafood buffets on Fridays.
There were restaurants nearby, both fancy and plain. The Poinsetta Inn at Second and Arizona, served Christmas dinner for only $1.25. You could even get good Mexican food - on the West Side! - at the Mayan Spanish Inn, at 313 Arizona, their 1928 menu included enchiladas and tamales.
Even though Santa Monica was more staid and conservative than its southern neighbor, Venice, a man with a taste for adventure could find it, if he looked. There were speakeasies in the basements of Ocean Avenue hotels - even movie stars came there. In 1928 a smart guy opened moored a ship off Santa Monica Bay, just beyond the 3-mile jurisdiction of the police, and ran a gambling casino from it.
We walked ABW's streets, and then decided to go grab something to eat. We found a restaurant in a local landmark, the Bay Cities Guaranty Bank Tower - a fine Art Deco structure, the tallest in Santa Monica for over 40 years. Today it is considered one of Santa Monica's most notable landmarks.
The ground floor, once the bank itself, was now a chic restaurant, modeled after a classic French turn-of the century bistro.
For me, mindful of our research into L.A. of the 1920's, it reminded me instead of an old postcard I'd seen once. The bentwood chairs, the tin ceilings, the warm colors. This was Nat Goodwin's Cafe, a popular restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier in 1919.
[The Man I Love] and I sat at the zinc-topped bar and sipped a half-carafe of French white wine. We had some oysters on the half-shell. I wondered if they were as good as the ones ABW could have gotten at the Hotel Miramar, back then.
When we left, we passed the old Majestic Theatre - now closed, having been damaged in the 1993 Northridge quake.
We walked down 3rd Street, now the Promenade - just as busy or busier than in ABW's day.
This building now stands at 1333 Second Avenue, where ABW had lived. The slick '80s feel of this building made me wonder how many structures have stood on this property.
ABW arrived in Santa Monica at the beginning of the 1920's boom, and left before it had reached its peak. His time here falls into a funny window, a blank spot between the early days of the Victorian homes, and before the most notable landmarks - like the Bay Cities Guaranty Building - were built.
Here's the Santa Monica Pier today. The pier was first built in the 1890s, then burned, was rebuilt and burned again. It succumbed to harsh winter storms, bankruptcy, changing popular tastes, and economic depression. Bits of it, like the carousel building, date from the beginning of the 20th century. Bits of it, like the LED solar-powered Ferris Wheel, are brand new.
Like most of our Southern California communities, Santa Monica has allowed its past to disappear....but sometimes you can still find a glimpse.