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Strolling Through Downtown's Past

By Jorge Casuso

April 13 -- Stand on the corner of Third Street and Santa Monica Boulevard and, with a little help from the Santa Monica Conservancy, turn back the clock. It’s 1929 and the jazz age is in full swing.

The Starbucks where you might have just grabbed a cup of coffee is a brand new shoe store, its ornamental façade exuding the optimistic energy sweeping the country. Next door, where diners are being seated at Trastevere, the Bank of Italy is helping its first customers just months before the stock market crash.

Around the corner on the boulevard, the clock on the new 12-story Bay Cities Guaranty Building, which is currently under renovation, is marking time, oblivious that the bank that built the city’s first true skyscraper would go belly up just months after it opened.

Third Street looking north from Broadway. The Keller building is to the left. The building to the right currently houses the Broadway Deli. (Photos courtesy of the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum.)

“A lot of the city’s history is embodied here,” said Carol Lemlein, a conservancy member who helped organize an ongoing tour of the Downtown. “People don’t know it. They grumble about chain stores and don’t know this is a place where a significant amount of our history is captured.”

Today, record crowds stroll the wildly successful Third Street Promenade, soaking in the street performances, grabbing a bite to eat, shopping for the latest fashions or catching the new hit movie – all the while oblivious to the wealth of history and architecture they are passing by.

As Downtown visitors rush to their next stop, the conservancy would like them to stop and take time to look at the ornamental leaves and flowers, scrolls and arcs that grace the Starbucks building. Or imagine for a moment the stars of the silver screen lounging on the top floor of the Hotel Carmel as gambling boats drift in the distance.

The El Miro Theater on Third Street opened in 1938. Only the facade was left standing after the building was razed in the late 80s and replaced with the Cineplex Broadway 4 Theatre.

The Downtown tour, which will kick off for the public this month, has been a labor of love for conservancy members Lemlein and Ruthann Leherer, who is a member of the City’s Landmarks Commission.

For months, along with a small army of volunteers, Lemlein and Leherer combed the City records for historic buildings that could be showcased in the conservancy’s first ongoing tour.

“We wanted to focus on landmarks and interesting, but less appreciated buildings,” said Lemlein, an architecture buff who volunteered with the conservancy after retiring from her high tech job during the dot.com bust.

Conservancy volunteers consulted the City’s inventory of older buildings and studied the historic preservation section of the City Plan. They took a tour led by conservancy member Nina Fresco, who chairs the Landmarks Commission and had put together a booklet of historic buildings.

After narrowing the field of candidates, the conservancy members visited the County Assessors Office, where they poured through handwritten property records in the basement of its administration building in Downtown LA.

“Some of the records are deteriorating beyond recognition,” said Lemlein. “Sometimes you can’t find them.”

The Majestic, now the Mayfair Theater, was battered by the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Its proposed redevelopment will preserve the facade.

The volunteers also pored over permit records at Santa Monica City Hall and old phone books at the Main Library. And they solicited help from the Santa Monica
Historical Society, which designated a volunteer to help with the historical research and provided access to its vast photo collection.

To round out the research, volunteers viewed microfiche copies at the library of old issues of the Evening Outlook, the city’s defunct daily paper, and visited the LA Library to check old microfiche copies of the Los Angeles Times. “Some of it is in horrible condition,” Lemlein said.

“We didn’t lack for material,” she added, “and we had several people from the conservancy collecting info that we compiled into a handbook.”

To print the handbook and market the tour, the conservancy, with “a lot of advice” from its older LA counterpart, lobbied the City for money. After six months of work, the group secured $10,500 to cover the graphic design and printing costs.

The conservancy is now working with the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau and “sales people at local hotels” to market the tours, Lemlein said.

“We’re developing a brochure to offer hotels and announcing it in a wide variety of media,” she said. “Our plan is to really launch the marketing program in the middle of April.”

The tour is not only a stroll through the past for first-time visitors, it offers residents who have walked the Downtown streets countless times a lens with which to view the present.

Those who complain about chain stores taking over the popular shopping strip may be interested to learn that three national retailers built stores on the same block of the Promenade over the course of a quarter century.

Northeast corner of Third Street and Santa Monica Boulevard. Building to the right currently houses The Gap. The Kress building next door is home to the Bayside District Corporation offices.

In 1924, the Kress Company built a store in the Classical revival style that is currently home to Barney’s Beanery and the Bayside District offices. Across the street, W.T. Grant opened shop in 1936, constructing a building in the late Art Deco phase known as Classical Moderne. While Woolworth built the last variety store on the Promenade in 1949.

The rows of apartment buildings that continue to go up on 5th, 6th and 7th streets Downtown are not the first efforts to bring residents to the city’s central core. The Mar Vista Apartments at the corner of Arizona and Second was originally an apartment hotel.

In fact, the open courtyard and wide window expanses that provide plenty of light and air are the sort of design City officials are currently pushing.

Mixed-use buildings with affordable housing, something City Hall is strongly encouraging, are also a blast from the past. The Lido Hotel Apartments on the corner of Broadway and 4th Street marked the eastward expansion of the Downtown when the Art Deco brick building replaced wood frame houses in 1931.

The building features Egyptian-inspired accents that were all the craze after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Down the block, on the southeast corner of 4th and Broadway, another building boasts close ties to an American cultural icon – Popeye – who was created inside the Builders Exchange.

The 1927 building was one of the structures that benefited from the 1994 Northridge earthquake that shook the seaside city. The temblor spurred the restoration of the Spanish Baroque influenced structure, which features ornaments woven into the design and highly intricate wrought iron grills.

Bayside and City officials have been encouraging building owners renovating their Downtown properties to remove additions that hid some of the original features, Lemlein said.

“Thanks in part to the leadership of the Bayside,” she said, “a lot of the historic facades covered in the 1960s to make it more modern have been uncovered.”

While the earthquake helped shake off some modern additions, it also marked the end of at least one historic structure – the Henshey’s department store built at the corner of 4th and Santa Monica Boulevard in 1925. A new building on the site currently houses the sporting goods retailer REI.

Other buildings have long been lost. All that remains of the old City Hall built in 1903 at the northwest corner of 4th and Santa Monica Boulevard is its colorful past immortalized in Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell My Lovely” as the site of the police commissioner’s office.

The site – recently developed with apartments above ground-floor retail – was once home to the Santa Monica jail, known as the “black hole of Calcutta,” which was the subject of a grand jury investigation.

The Rapp Saloon (small building to the left) still stands on Second Street. The Vitagraph, one of the first companies to produce motion pictures, opened a studio in Santa Monica in 1913.

While much of Downtown’s physical history has been lost, the Rapp Saloon, built when the City was founded in 1875, still stands on Second Street, a small brick box dwarfed by a cluster of buildings that house the local youth hostel.

It was here that studio workers and actors came to drink Los Angeles brewed beer when Santa Monica was home to silent movie studios. And with Santa Monica once again a hub for the entertainment industry, the remnants of its colorful past can still come alive with a little imagination and some help from the conservancy.

For more information on the Santa Monica Conservancy visit www.smconservancy.org or call 310.496.3146.


“A lot of the city’s history is embodied here.” Carol Lemlein



"“We wanted to focus on landmarks and interesting, but less appreciated buildings.” Carol Lemlein


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