October 20, 2020 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Christie Court: History Is In The Detail: A Special Report

On Tuesday, July 26, the Santa Monica City Council heard an appeal of the Landmark Commission’s designation of Christie Court at 125 Pacific Street as a landmark. The appellant was the property owner. (see story, this page)

Among the people speaking in favor of the landmark designation was a group of Christie Court residents. As their story of the courtyard and some of its residents is informative, interesting and relevant, we are running it here in its entirety. 

– Editor

 

INTRODUCTION

Michelle Katz

Good evening, Mayor O’Connor and members of the City Council. My name is Michelle Katz and I live at 125 Pacific Street, also known as Christie Court. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.

After 30 years of City landmarking, many of the most notable homes, designed by the famed and lived in by the rich, have already been landmarked. The John Byers houses. The Julia Morgan. The Irving Gill.

But now, with skyrocketing land values, more and more “modest” dwellings are coming under scrutiny as part of the City’s pre-demolition review process. We have to ask ourselves, are they worth preserving, too? The people of this City say they are.

When we talk about City landmarks, we’re not talking about The Washington Monument. We’re not talking about Monticello or even Fallingwater. We’re talking about the cultural heritage of this city, and worthy as that is, it’s on a somewhat more modest scale.

Whether something is historic is not simply an either/or issue. There are degrees of historic value. And what we consider important is ultimately subjective. The question here is: Do you consider the lives of the working people who built this City to be important? Do you consider their “modest” dwellings to be important? Or do you think that history and culture are only for the rich and famous?

There are many people here tonight who have come to support Christie Court and the Landmarks Commission — if you could please raise your hands.

In deference to the City Council, most of them will not be speaking tonight. However, like us, they firmly believe the Landmarks Commission has proven its standards to be consistent with the values of the people. We ask only that yours be, too.

 

HISTORIC CONTEXT

Robert Minzner

Mayor O’Connor recently observed that a building “must communicate something of its time, its period” to be considered a landmark. We will show you that Christie Court does just that.

Mayor Pro Tem Katz has noted that a landmark must be “unique, rare, and something that we really, really want to appreciate.” We will show you that Christie Court is such a place.

And Councilman Holbrook says he prefers to rely on the experts. When it comes to preservation in Santa Monica, the Landmarks Commissioners are the foremost experts.

The Landmarks Commission found Christie Court to be a landmark under three criteria.

First, it “exemplifies, symbolizes, or manifests elements of cultural, social, economic, political, or architectural history of the City.”

Christie Court was developed by John Henry Rindlaub, a prominent North Dakota physician. Rindlaub himself retired here before building his courtyard that would become home to so many other newcomers from the midwest.

As Ocean Park grew in the 1920s, more and more retirees, studio workers, and young people required economical housing. To meet their needs, Christie Court was designed not by a famed architect, but by local general contractors Dick & Taylor. City records show that they served as the architect and builder for at least ten buildings that were built here in the 1920s.

As was typical for apartment courts of the period, Christie Court was constructed economically using wood frame and stucco. With its compact units and unusually high density, Christie Court was some of the first housing built in Santa Monica that was affordable to working families and individuals—like the Mungle family seen here.

Christie Court is the poster child for the birth of Santa Monica’s affordable housing movement.

Located only a block from the beach, Christie Court catered to both permanent residents and seasonal vacationers attracted to the ocean and nearby Crystal Pier. Just like today, its courtyard helped foster an instant sense of community among newcomers. And Christie Court was the first apartment building in Santa Monica to be outfitted with a radio in each unit — surely a far-thinking amenity for its day.

Providing convenient access to shopping, recreation, and employment, Christie Court was built adjacent to the Pacific Electric Railway. At the time, Nielson Way had no cars and was called Trolley Way. Old-time residents still recall being able to hear the warning bells that would ring as the street cars crossed Pacific Street.

 

SOCIAL HISTORY

Dishanya Weerasinha

History doesn’t happen just in grand buildings occupied by famous celebrities. It also happens in homes lived in by families like yours and mine. And the Landmarks Commission recognized that when it designated Christie Court a landmark.

We know something about who lived here from City Directories and other resources, but, more importantly, much of what we know about Christie Court’s history has been kept alive by its own residents.

In 1925, Christie Court is brand-new.  Its first tenants include Frank Eager, a building superintendent for Dick & Taylor, plumber Tom Johnson, and George King, a pharmacist at Seaside Pharmacy. In other words, they’re the sort of people who built this city and kept it running.

The Reinwalds live here, too. He’s a jazz trumpet player—the first in a long line of artists to call Christie Court home.

In the 1930s, Sharon Mungle and Leola Marshall are best friends. Sharon’s family lives at Christie Court. Leola’s family lives at 2022-1/2 Main Street, on the former Boulangerie site.

In 1936, the incomplete City Directory lists only 10 tenants. But in a photo taken that year, the No Vacancy sign can just be seen.

By 1940, the US is at war. At least 20 units are now occupied, six by Douglas Aircraft workers.

During the war years, Sharon and Leola are in their teens. Leola’s boyfriend, Jerry Darrell, lives at the Rendezvous Ballroom on the end of Crystal Pier.

Owen Hall has lived in apartment #1 for many years. He’s a driver for Bay Cities Transit.

In the 1960s, Roy and Bonnie Elwell are living in Charlie Chaplin’s beach house. In his letter to the Landmarks Commission last year, Roy writes: “I know well the dwellings at 125 Pacific Street with its classic design and charming center courtyard. I’ve spent many pleasant hours at gatherings with the musicians, artists, and other residents.”

In the 1980s, the east side yard (a former Pacific Electric railway easement) is converted to a parking lot, and resident Guy Ring telephones City Hall to save the Royal Palm tree that still stands here today.

For musician Liz Easton, who also lived at Christie Court in the 1980s, there wasn’t room for anything in her living room but the grand piano. Still, when speaking of Christie Court today she says, “For me in my late 20s it was wonderful. It was a haven. Some of the best times of my life were there.”

Since then, Christie Court has been home to a number of outstanding contributors to the arts, whose letters of support are included in the materials before you.

Christie Court is a valuable example of how courtyards foster a sense of community among residents. The sense of continuous personal history that we have described can only happen in such a setting.

 

SECTION SUMMARY

Matteson Barcklay

The PCR Historic Resources Assessment Report states, “Early apartment courts in Santa Monica are a significant feature of the City’s architectural and residential history.”

Apart from the “Shotgun House,” every residential landmark in Santa Monica has been built by a famous architect, or lived in by a famous person. Christie Court is a reminder of a significant way of life along the beach—of a special place that has been home for more than eighty years to a diverse population of workers and artists whose enduring heritage remain alive today.

While the expert consultants — from Whittier to Irvine — may not agree with what Santa Monica residents consider significant, to say that the homes of the white- and blue-collar workers—the soldiers, clerks, teachers, studio workers, artists, and aircraft workers—are not worthy of recognition, is a slap in the face to the people who built this city.

The June, 2004, staff report states: “Historically and economically, the early apartment court was an important episode in real estate development and the tourist industry, two of the major underpinnings of Santa Monica’s growth.”

Christie Court is an important example of a California courtyard built during Ocean Park’s peak growth years. It is emblematic of an early affordable housing type that provided a comfortable and secure community for the region’s newcomers. Historically, it had strong ties to the trolley line, the beach, and the piers, which were all key to Ocean Park’s development in the 1920s.

Christie Court strongly exemplifies, symbolizes, and manifests important elements of Santa Monica’s social, economic, and architectural history.

 

A VERY GOOD EXAMPLE

John Nafsinger

The second criterion applied by the Landmarks Commission states that a building must “embody distinguishing architectural characteristics valuable to the study of a period or style, or be a unique or rare example of an architectural design, detail, or historical type valuable to such a study.”

Please note that the landmarking code does not require that a designated property be the best example of a particular type. Nevertheless, we will show that Christie Court is not only a good example, but a rare example, and — in certain key respects — a unique example of the style to which it belongs.

The landmarking code also does not require that a building be pristine and perfectly unaltered. If you said it did, it would set a precedent, leading developers to carry out a city-wide rash of window replacements. The fact is, whether a building has been altered is not a simplistic, either/or question. Almost every landmarked building has been altered in some way. Rather, it is a question of degree—and a value judgment:  How significant are the changes that have taken place in the overall historic context of the form and function of the building? In the case of Christie Court, they aren’t that significant.

Christie Court is a good example of the California courtyards built in the early twentieth century, as seen here. Although certain experts have derided it for its simplicity and lack of features, Christie Court is simple by design. It exemplifies a number of character-defining features, including the flat planes popularized by Irving Gill, a symmetrical facade, red clay tile roofline accents, Mission-style parapets, and stucco walls. Although the original windows have been replaced and much of the stucco resurfaced, in form and function the courtyard retains a high level of integrity.

In his 1983 book Looking at Santa Monica, James Lunsford calls Christie Court “a good example of the California Court style of dwellings.” This is the same James Lunsford who served as a Planning Director for the city of Santa Monica. When he wrote these words, Christie Court had the same windows and stucco it has today.

Our next speaker will address Staff’s claim that there are “many superior examples” of courtyards like Christie Court — a claim that was based exclusively on the City’s Historic Resources Inventory, which Staff themselves characterize as a “broad brush stroke” survey.

In contrast, we performed an extensive and detailed survey of all the Ocean Park courts, whose findings were presented in this 44-page report.

 

ONE-OF-A-KIND

 Carlo Brooks

The City’s 2004 Inventory Update refers to “the rarity of this building type” when talking about all 15 remaining bungalow courts in Ocean Park (and this includes Christie Court). In the beachfront community where it stands, Christie Court is an even rarer example. No other apartment court was ever built so close to the beach. As such, it played a unique role in the historic development of Ocean Park.

Although there are 15 examples of Ocean Park courts in the City’s Inventory, there are not 15 courts like Christie Court. Our survey shows that the region includes four very distinct types of courts: five classic apartment courtyards (including Christie Court), three detached bungalow courts, and two or three housing clusters—all very different typologies. Of the 15 properties cited by Staff, six of them are merely accessways that barely qualify as courts, if at all. While Staff deride Christie Court as “narrow,” they assert that all of these are worthy of individual designation. The City’s Inventory also identifies this walkway as one of Ocean Park’s “ten best” courts. If Christie Court is narrow, then these are positively anorexic.

Incredibly, the “ten best” do not include Pacific Court, Charles Court, Christie Court, or even Horatio West Court, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two of these — Pacific Court and Horatio West — were not even listed as contributors to an Ocean Park courts district.

Contrary to Staff, there are not “many other superior examples” when it comes to Christie Court. In fact, there are only four other courtyards that are even similar to it, located in this area. Because only five such courts exist, the building type must be considered rare. But even among these five, Christie Court is unique. All the other courts provide only concrete-paved areas that don’t work well as gathering places. Only Christie Court has a fully landscaped, usable courtyard.

Christie Court is also unique in having an especially high number of units, which helps explain why it functions so well as a community. The community-building aspect of courtyards is often cited in studies on the subject, and nowhere in Ocean Park is this better illustrated than Christie Court.

Thus Christie Court is “valuable to a study,” a finding under the second landmarking criterion. It is also a rare building type, as stated by the City itself, with a unique interior courtyard.

Please remember that unique and rare are important qualifying factors. “Unique” does not mean “lacking context.” If anything, Ocean Park is rich in historic and architectural context.

 

SINGULAR CHARACTERISTIC; SUMMARY

Kurt Heim

The third criterion applied by the Landmarks Commission states that the building in question must have “a unique location, or a singular physical characteristic, or be an established and familiar visual feature of its neighborhood, community, or City.”

During the third hearing on Christie Court, Commissioner Berley noted, “The initial reaction to the building from the street might be misleading. One should be careful not to judge a book by its cover.” So true. Physically, the primary elevation of a courtyard is considered to be what faces inward toward the court—not the utility side that faces, in this case, the railroad tracks, or what is now Nielson Way.

When you open the book’s cover, you find that in all of Ocean Park, Christie Court is the only fully landscaped, garden-style apartment court ever built. In other words, it has a truly singular physical characteristic—its landscaped interior courtyard.

To clarify, when we speak of a courtyard, we’re not just talking about a building. A courtyard is much more than that—it is the totality of the enclosed space, the gardens, and the buildings themselves. And the City landmarking code does provide for designating more than just buildings.

Early photos of Christie Court show that the courtyard was originally open to the street.

Over time, a taller wooden fence was added, which became covered with bougainvillea. To fully understand Christie Court’s “singular physical characteristic,” you have to turn back the clock to 1924, as the artist has done for us here in this drawing.

 

SUMMARY

To summarize, Christie Court meets the findings of the Landmarks Commission under all three cited criteria. You can choose to uphold the landmarking under one, two, or all three of them. We ask you to carefully consider each one individually.

But before doing that, we’d like you to hear just one more thing—how Christie Court has touched the lives of so many people. What they have to say should make you stop and reconsider your assumptions of what is socially, historically, and artistically important.

 

CONCLUSION

Rachael White

It is sometimes said that the best architecture deeply affects the lives of those who occupy it. As the Landmarks Commission discovered, Christie Court is such a place.

Christie Court’s uniqueness is evident in the determination of tenants from as far back as 1936 to preserve it. Sharon Mungle, who grew up in Christie Court, writes from her present-day home in Richland, Washington: “I just hope that what the Commission thinks ‘reflects the soul of the community’ is what you and I consider ‘soulful’.”

Christie Court’s uniqueness is also evident in the residents who moved away for a while—out of state, even overseas—only to return to Christie Court when they came back.

Christie Court’s uniqueness is also evident in the overwhelming public support it has generated: In this petition now signed by over 200 people. And in the many letters of support written by past residents and others….like Laurel Roennau, who writes: “The social interaction generated by the courtyard has played a major role in keeping Ocean Park a vibrant and active community for so many years. No, the buildings are not in their original, prime condition. But how many of us are at 80 years old? Please give this property the historic recognition it deserves.”

…like Alexis Quinlan, distinguished Joyce scholar, who lived at Christie Court before moving to New York. She says: “I was well aware of the apartments’ age, and I loved their history. The complex has a lovely feeling of stability.”

…and finally, like Jeff Wynne, noted screenwriter who moved into Christie Court when his home, the Sea Castle Apartments, was red-tagged after the 1994 Northridge quake. After returning to the Sea Castle, Jeff writes: “The transitory nature of tenants [at the Sea Castle] is a stark contrast to the close-knit environment at 125 Pacific Street. [For Sea Castle tenants] there is little appreciation or connection to Santa Monica’s past. I would hate to see more of our cultural heritage disappear for generic real estate development.”

Like Alexis and Jeff, there are dozens of past residents who remain friends. The people who live and work in the neighborhood—the ones who pass by Christie Court daily — see its beauty and value. They want this building to stay. That’s because “dollar demolition” destroys something more than the building itself. It destroys a piece of our fragile heritage, our living history.

It is true that landmark status should not be used just to stop development. But nor should developers be allowed to intimidate the City with lawsuits and dictate public policy. That road can lead only to a desolate future for a City that once prided itself on its charm, diversity, and distinctive character.

Please support the Landmarks Commission and the People of this City — because once our past is gone, it never comes back.

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