Monday, August 20, 2012

Santa Monica interlude

Palisades Park path
Even if it weren't part of the Greater Los Angeles area, the placid coastal city of Santa Monica would still be a tourist attraction. Walkable streets, lots of hotels, restaurants and shopping attract as much as the wide sandy beach and the carnival rides on the Pier. On a regular basis, the city seems full of tour buses and tourists, many of them international travelers. It's not unusual to hear groups speaking Japanese, or French, or German.

Throughout its history, Santa Monica has been an attraction for people from other parts of LA. Standing on the bluffs at Palisades with the ocean breeze on your skin, it's easily ten degrees cooler than in downtown, Midcity, or East LA. From the days of the Pacific Electric Cars to today, Angelenos have flocked to the beach when the weather heats up.

We did the same. The thermometer in Topanga read 95. In Santa Monica it was 81. We came in to have lunch and then took a stroll through Palisades Park.

The outdoor tables at Blueplate Oysterette
The glossy boutiques of Santa Monica Place and the crowds on the Promenade weren't for us today - we went to our old standby, Blue Plate Oysterette.

This friendly place on Ocean Avenue serves fresh seafood, including oysters on the half shell.

We walked along the concrete railing at the edge of the bluffs, looking out over the wide sandy beach. To the north were the mountains.

To the south, the gaudy Pier, its ferris wheel spinning, the parking lot filled with cars that glittered in the hot sun like the carapaces of beetles.

The park stretches 1.6 miles from the McClure Tunnel and the Pier north to San Vicente Boulevard. It's a narrow strip of park, between the Ocean Avenue and the crumbling bluffs that hang over the beach and Pacific Coast Highway - called Palisades Beach Road here in town. Joggers use the broad palm-lined pathways north of Wilshire for exercise, while at the south end buskers, mimes, dancers and snake-tamers perform for sightseers, hoping for tips. The park's benches and lawns also serve as a beautiful lounge for vagrants, earning Santa Monica the name coined by comedian Harry Shearer, "The Home of the Homeless."

The park was founded in 1892, and there are plenty of vintage postcards and photos showing turn-of-the-century beach goers strolling among the palms. The park features a collection of exotic trees, donated throughout its history, including a variety of Australian species as well as an assortment of palms.

Its dotted here and there with charming but oddly disconnected objects and artifacts. An elaborate Craftsman-style pergola here; a couple of Civil War cannons there; an Art Deco statue of Saint Monica, that marks the terminus of Wilshire Boulevard; a rose garden, and other bits and pieces of memorabilia.

At various places, stairs and pathways climb down the bluffs in concrete switchbacks, with pedestrian bridges that arch over the highway and bring you down to the beach itself. Elsewhere, when you look over the edge, you can see where former pathways and stairs have crumbled away, giving in to the inexorable erosion of the bluffs.

The park is also home to a Recreation Center for senior citizens, that shares an old-enough-to-be-cool Mid Century modern building with an even older tourist attraction, the Camera Obscura.

A Santa Monica fixture since the 1890s, it was moved to the bluffs a few years later. The older building, hidden behind the nifty fifty's signage, has a rotating lens that projects images onto a round white table in the darkened inner room. It's an optical device that's been around since Aristotle. It's free to go in, but the hours of operation are limited, and it was closed while we were there.

Across from the park, Ocean Avenue is a mixture of old and new. Tall office buildings and hotels predominate. Yet here and there are graceful reminders of Santa Monica's past.

The Gussie Moran house at 1323 Ocean Avenue
The Gussie Moran House is one of a handful of Victorian relics remaining on this very urban Avenue. Ms. Moran was a celebrated tennis player.

Further south, the elegant Art Deco Georgian Hotel rises up - its turquoise paint and bright neon sign bold stand-outs among the white, 1980s architecture that surround it.

Accounts vary about the year The Georgian was built. Some say 1933, some say 1931. It was called the Lady Windemere then, and it was right next door to the older Windemere Hotel. At about this time, Santa Monica was transforming itself from a wholesome, Victorian beach resort to a more glamorous, yet also racier place. Movie stars flocked here, yes, but so did the cheap carnival grifters working the pleasure piers, and the gambling ships that anchored just beyond the three-mile limit.

With this increase in business, more hotels and stores sprang up, and buildings like the Windemere, the Bay Cities Guaranty Trust Building, and the Sears building on Colorado boasted the new streamline Moderne style.

Ocean Avenue in front of the Georgian Hotel verandah
There are stories that the Lady Windemere's basement hosted a speakeasy - although that seems doubtful to me. Prohibition ended in December of 1933. It seems more likely to me that the speakeasy thrived at the next door Windemere Hotel, which dated from 1904 and was owned by the same female entrepreneur. Nonetheless, the Georgian - the name was changed in the 1950s - still touts its speakeasy history and the legend that it is haunted.

Its wide verandah, covered with a striking black-and-gold awning, is a few steps up from the sidewalk, and makes a great viewing stand for people-watching. Here, the westering sun infused a cocktail being enjoyed by a visitor from Melbourne, Australia, who kindly let me take her photo. She and her companion were relaxing after a day of sight-seeing.

As we sat enjoying the cool ocean breeze, we watched a diverse parade of people, including a trio of skateboarders, a gaggle of wee dogs being walked, an elderly lady being escorted by a fine young man (a grandson?), a parking valet carrying a flat of vitamin water for the rest of his crew, and a group of Japanese tourists.  Across the street, the tour company Rastabus had two of its party-buses parked. Some one must have been having fun!

Santa Monica's busy shops, theatres, and fine restaurants are a strong attraction, but sometimes it's the quieter pleasures that mean the most. Especially on a hot summer day.


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

It all looks so lovely and pleasant on a hot day here.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Wow that looks great.

Here, we have had a dramatic cool down, but it's been accompanied by lots of rain and thunder.

Wait, thunder is good!

Anonymous said...

Such a lovely piece on our old Santa Monica! Love Blue Plate Oysterette too and am not looking forward to the incline being closed for a few years to come!

smalltownme said...

I need to stop driving past Santa Monica and stop there for a while instead.

Glennis said...

And Heidi, you should come visit me.