The glorious old Marion Davies estate on PCH, which is owned by the state and managed by the City of Santa Monica, was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and shut down by the City.
Four years and $180,000 later, a City Task Force proposed a wholly inappropriate and manic redevelopment plan, which looked like nothing so much as a stretch of Palisades Park set down, unaccountably, on the beach, and mixed graceful historic structures with squat new buildings of no style at all. It was approved by the City Council, probably because three Council members served on the task force, but was immediately shelved.
Three years after that, City staff once again turned its attention to the property, ordered some “selective demolition,” estimated the cost of the old estate’s “rehabilitation and adaptive reuse” at around $19 million, and recommended that the City seek a private operator to finance the redevelopment, as, in seven years, it had been unable to find the requisite funding.
The Davies estate not only has extraordinary architectural and historic significance, it is gorgeously located on the fabled Santa Monica beach, and it has been shut down and off limits for more than a decade. The mere sight of it, wrapped in chain link, moldering in the sun, suffering from benign neglect, disturbs residents. But they were more disturbed at the thought of some commercial enterprise rising on the bones of the great old estate.
Then, in the best Hollywood tradition, philanthropist Wallis Annenberg stepped in to save the day, and the estate. She and the Annenberg Foundation staff met a number of times with Barbara Stinchfield, the City’s Community Development director and her staff, as well as state Parks officials, to discuss ways and means of preserving the historic estate, restoring it and making it, finally, a vital and useful public resource.
By all accounts, the meetings went well, and led to the Foundation making a $21 million grant.
The five-acre property was built for actress Marion Davies by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1928. Designed by Julia Morgan, America’s first notable woman architect, the original five-building compound had nearly 120 rooms. Only a seven-bedroom guesthouse and an Italian marble swimming pool remain, along with a banquet building, locker rooms, cabanas and parking sheds that were built in 1945 by the hotel operator who had purchased the property.
Even on the storied Gold Coast of the 1920s and 1930s, the Davies estate was a stand-out, bigger and grander than any of the other houses, and, like Hearst’s San Simeon, a magnet for the era’s leading lights. And as the most spectacular remnant of that spectacular time on that stretch of sand, its faithful preservation and restoration are crucial.
At the time the grant was announced, we were both impressed and encouraged by what Stinchfield, Annenberg and a Foundation spokesman told the Mirror.
Although it’s investing $21 million, Leonard Aube, managing director of the foundation’s Los Angeles office told the Mirror that it had “no preconceived vision” of how the project will be built. “We are deeply committed to the historic structures and their renovation, but we don’t want to create the impression in the community – on any level – that there already is a master plan developed for that site. The city’s initial process was helpful in illuminating certain priorities and interests, but the physical manifestation of that is not determined. It’s too early.”
Stinchfield said, “It will be a community resource that allows different things to happen at different times of the year . . . a very welcoming community and family-oriented recreational place that allows people to put their own mark on it while they’re there.”
The challenge, she said, was “how [to] use all those structures in the summer when you want it to be for beachgoers. That has to be worked out. We don’t want anything overly designed or programmed. It should be a place where people can soak up the magic of the beach…The Foundation would love it to be a place where families and visitors could come and learn about the history of the site.”
Annenberg concurred. “This was where Old Hollywood came before Malibu was ever thought of….When I see a building and somebody tells me they’re going to tear it down, and it has the potential to be reused, I get involved. What could be more spectacular than that space on the Pacific Coast Highway? What a great space for a beach park…I want to involve the citizens of Santa Monica. This is going to be an inclusive project. Also, it’s very important to have disabled access, which is something you don’t see at the beach.”
Stinchfield also said that residents would be invited to take part in a “consecutive multiple-day experience where the design team sets up a studio locally and the community comes in and participates in creation of schematic design…We’re not trying to create something fancy. We’re trying to create something wonderful.”
She added that if the project stays on schedule, and pending the outcome of the environmental review, construction should begin in November, 2006 and take approximately two years to complete.
So far, so good. Clearly, Stinchfield, Aube and Annenberg are clearly committed to being true to the spirit and fact of 415.
But the City’s “Requests for Bids [from Design/Build teams] for the Rehabilitation and Adaptive Reuse of the Historic Property at 415 Pacific Coast Highway,” says, on page 1, “the site was the subject of a highly successful community planning process that resulted in a Re-Use Plan that was approved by the City Council in 1998. The Plan serves as the conceptual framework for the proposed revitalization of the site and its renewal as a vibrant community-oriented public gathering place.”
In fact, the 1998 plan did not derive from a “highly successful community process,” and was a bad plan before the renderings were dry. When we expressed alarm at the idea of using the bad old plan as the “conceptual framework” for the new plan, we were assured by a member of the City planning staff that it was merely a starting point.
We were further alarmed by a statement on an announcement of a public meeting to determine the scope of an Environmental Impact Review for the project. It described the project as “sand and outdoor recreational areas, anchored by the rehabilitated guest house and swimming pool, and a banquet facility.” Surely, it’s much more than that. Or should be.
For instance, perhaps the original main house should be replicated in glass, and used as a banquet hall. It would be literally invisible during the day, but would become a dazzling box of light at night.
Or perhaps, as architects Venturi and Brown did with Ben Franklin’s house in Philadelphia, the skeletons of all of the original buildings should be set in the sand, to create a kind of sketch of the Davies estate, and preserve the historic site without interfering with any activities.
Stinchfield, Annenberg and the Foundation are obviously committed to faithful but creative and imaginative restoration and preservation, along with public participation, while the process seems designed to satisfy only itself.
It’s the beach, for God’s sake. And it’s so beautiful, it breaks your heart. And it never repeats. Let’s improvise this time, and break the rules, or change them. Hearst and Davies did.