Santa Monica History Museum & Annenberg Community Beach House
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I spent a perfect day in Santa Monica and visited the Santa Monica History Museum, pier and Annenberg Community Beach House. Located in west Los Angeles, Santa Monica is on the coast with Venice Beach to the south. This beachfront city has a pier and endless eating and shopping opportunities, but I love to learn the history of any place I visit.
Early Inhabitants of Santa Monica
Native American Indians lived in the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounding area for over 10,000 years. They were the ancestors of the Gabrielino-Tongva. They had a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which included fishing.
In 1769-1770, the Spanish sent Gaspar de Portolá, a Catalan military officer, to lead a voyage of exploration to Alta California, modern day California.
Junipero Serra was the zealous Franciscan friar who accompanied Portolá and founded nine of the twenty-one California missions. These missions, and the Spanish military, devastated the California indigenous people through disease and forced labor. They destroyed the Native American cultures by forcing European agriculture and Catholicism upon them.
Origin Story of the Name “Santa Monica”
In 1769, the Portoá expedition camped near the Kuruvunga Springs, the site of a Tongva village and burial ground. Father Crespi said the Springs reminded him of the tears shed by Santa Monica over her son’s godlessness. He called the area Las Lagrimas de Santa Monica (The Tears of Santa Monica.)
Santa Monica was a widowed mother in the 4th Century and her only wish was for her children to follow Christ. One of her sons was difficult and uninterested in Chistianity. Santa Monica cried tears of grief over his impiety. Her priest told her, “[it] is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” Eventually, her prayers were answered and he became St. Augustine. Santa Monica is the Patron Saint of Motherhood.
The Kuruvunga Springs still exist and are located on the campus of University High School. Managed by the Santa Monica Conservancy, the Kuruvunga Springs are open to visitors on Saturdays. A historic Mexican Cypress grows near one of the Springs. In 1769, when the Portola expedition camped near the springs, they planted a Mexican Cypress, known as the Abue Wete Tree.
Santa Monica After the Mexican-American War
The Mexican-American War led to California becoming a state in 1850. Owners of the Ranchos in the Santa Monica area sold their lands to Americans, including Col. Robert Symington Baker and Senator John Percival Jones.
They built a 1,740 foot wharf, along with a railroad connecting it to Los Angeles. Jones and Baker held an auction on July 15, 1875 for the proposed city of Santa Monica.
“At one o’clock we will sell at public outcry to the highest bidder, the Pacific Ocean, draped with a western sky of scarlet and gold; we will sell a bay filled with white winged ships; we will sell a southern horizon, rimmed with a choice collection of purple mountains…we will sell a frostless, bracing, warm yet unlanguid air, braided in and in with sunshine and odored with the breath of flowers.”-Thomas Fitch, auctioning Santa Monica lots, 1875 (Santa Monica History Museum display)
The first lots sold between $75 and $500 and within nine months Santa Monica had 1,000 people and 160 houses. Jones had envisioned Santa Monica as a thriving port city, but he lost a battle with Huntington, of Southern Pacific Railroad, for railroad dominance. Then Jones failed to gain government funding for a deep-water port.
Ultimately, it was beach tourism that would save the city and turn Santa Monica into a thriving resort town.
Santa Monica Beaches
Santa Monica has 3.5 miles of soft sandy beaches lined with bike paths and walkways. Many restaurants, shops and attractions are within walking distance. Since its founding, resort hotels have brought visitors to this classic California beach town.
Santa Monica was the setting of BayWatch, the hit T.V. show about Los Angeles lifeguards. The bay they watched was Santa Monica Bay. Starring David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, the show was primarily filmed at Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica.
Santa Monica History Museum
The Santa Monica History Museum documents the city’s rich beach culture. Displays include early swim suits and historic photos. It also has the original barbells and equipment used on Muscle Beach.
Muscle Beach was Originally in Santa Monica
Many people have heard of Muscle Beach in Venice Beach, California. However the original Muscle Beach was located in Santa Monica.
It started in the 1930s, when the City of Santa Monica built a playground on the beach for children during the Depression. However, gymnasts and elite athletes soon took over the area. They practiced their tumbling on the Santa Monica sand.
Locals came to watch the tumbling and the area attracted tourists. In response, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) built a 24 x 80 foot wooden platform and installed gymnastic equipment including parallel bars and high rings.
They also created an area for weight lifting with barbells and benches called “the pit.” Read more in my article: The Original Muscle Beach and Pudgy Stockton.
Santa Monica was the End of Route 66
The Interstate System in the U.S. didn’t develop until President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. Before then, Route 66 was the ultimate road trip from Chicago to L.A. Santa Monica Bay, and the Santa Monica Pier, (built in 1909), were the end of the road.
Route 66 and military service brought hundreds of thousands of people to Los Angeles. Will Rogers, famous cowboy actor and writer who lived in Santa Monica, called the town “America’s Main Street.”
Celebrities and Santa Monica
Shirley Temple Black
Shirley Temple Black, the famous childhood star of the 1930s, grew up in Santa Monica. Her career began at the age of three. She was Hollywood’s number one box office draw four years in a row, from 1935-1938.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt commended Temple for raising the country’s spirits during the Great Depression with cheerful films and songs such as “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”
Skateboard “Dogtown” was in Santa Monica and Venice Beach
In 1972, Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions opened a surf shop in an area of Santa Monica and Venice Beach called “DogTown.” Using urethane skateboard wheels, the Zephyr skate team, “Z-boys” incorporated surfing moves and tricks into their skating. They practiced in swimming pools which were empty due to the drought. They were the first to develop aerial tricks and revolutionized skateboarding.
Art Deco Telephone Company Building
Santa Monica and Los Angeles are full of beautiful Art Deco buildings. Right next door to the Santa Monica History Museum is the Telephone Company, built in 1937. It was renovated for adaptive reuse, but the original Art Deco doors were not saved. In 2018, the City of Santa Monica gave the building landmark status.
The Telephone Company building is an example of the PWA Moderne style used by the Public Works Administration during the Depression.
Annenberg Community Beach House at Santa Monica State Beach
Hearst had his architect, Julia Morgan, build Marion Davies a beach house in Santa Monica in the 1920s. The Davies estate had a mansion of over 100 rooms and an ornate marble swimming pool.
The pair held grand parties, including one where a wall of a room was removed so that a carousel could be moved into the house. Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Greta Garbo, and Clark Gable partied at the beach house.
The original mansion was demolished in 1956. All that remains of the original Beach House is one guest cottage. Docents offer free tours and have a few photos. The home is not furnished, but the original Tiffany chandeliers remain, as well as unique tile in the upstairs bathrooms.
Annenberg Community Beach House is now a public space with a pool, splash pad and sitting areas. It is located on a beautiful, uncrowded section of Santa Monica State beach. The area hosts both public and private events.
Santa Monica is a beautiful beach city and should be part of any Los Angeles trip. It would be easy to combine it with a trip to Venice beach, to the south, or Malibu, to the north.
Santa Monica retains a laid back vibe and is a relaxing place to go to the beach, pier and local attractions.