Three years ago, when its owner was about to demolish the last shotgun house in Santa Monica, residents stepped in, saved the house and paid the costs of moving it to Santa Monica Airport where it was to be stored until a permanent site could be found.
Recently, the City announced that the house would have to be moved off the airport site in early November, as construction of the new airport park was about to get underway.
As an appropriate site for the house in Ocean Park had not been found, the Santa Monica Conservancy told the City that it would pay the costs of moving the house to the City-owned Fisher Lumber yard, until a permanent site was found.
The house has great historic and architectural significance, as Sherrill Kushner of the Conservancy noted in a letter to the editor in last week’s Mirror. She wrote, “Cities, like their residents, have varied personalities, fingerprints and signatures that are revealed through their distinctive architecture and landscape…Santa Monica’s 1898 shotgun house…is the last intact one of its kind. It serves as a social and cultural chronicle of an early time in our city’s history when laborers lived in them and worked to help build a foundation so that our city could grow and prosper.”
Given that, and the Conservancy’s pledge to pay not only moving, but rehab costs, it seemed a simple, straight forward request, and good plan.
But Mayor Pam O’Connor objected vehemently during both Council discussions of the proposed move, saying that eventually “it would evolve it has to be [on] a City site, then it will evolve that the City is the one responsible to rehabilitate it, then it will evolve that ongoing operation and maintenance going into the future is the responsibility of the City. The City is not in the business of being the recipient of historic buildings. We shouldn’t set up the expectation because it will be there despite what we say that it’s our responsibility if we take title of it or if it’s on our property.”
Is the mayor under the misapprehension that the Council and/or City Hall own the public property they manage?
“The City is not in the business of being the recipient of historic buildings?”
In fact, the City has always been in the business of identifying, salvaging, preserving and, when necessary, providing sites for historic buildings. One of our primary responsibilities as a community is to preserve, chronicle and celebrate Santa Monica’s history, because we cannot know where or what we are if we do not know where and what we have been.
To that end, the City has designated landmarks, moved historic structures, such as the 1894 Roy Jones house that was moved in 1976 from 1007 Ocean Avenue to Main Street and now houses the California Heritage Museum, allocated many thousands of dollars to the Santa Monica Historical Society to preserve and catalogue its materials, earmarked $1 million to create a space in the new library for the Historical Society, restored buildings on the Santa Monica Pier, most notably the Carousel and its merry-go-round, and is currently rehabbing and restoring the old Marion Davies estate at 415 Pacific Coast Highway
Despite its small size and modest demeanor, the Shotgun House is enormously significant.
Today, Santa Monica is generally seen as an affluent city, whose northern reaches contain the most costly houses in Southern California, but many residents vie for affordable apartments. The small, cheap shotgun house was the 19th century version of affordable housing, the prototype, offering poor people a welcome escape from the tenements that proliferated in big American cities in the wake of the industrial revolution.
All of that life and history is in the bones of the Shotgun House. Once it has been placed in an appropriate Ocean Park location and restored to its original state, it will tell us much about an important chapter in Santa Monica and L.A. history and show us how working people lived in Santa Monica in the late 19th century.
The name, shotgun house, derives from the floor plan: living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen – all in a row, each room opening into the next room, so that if one stood on the front porch and fired a gun through the front door, the bullet would travel straight through the house and out the back door. The urban version of the shotgun house still exists and is called a “railroad flat.”
These simple little houses made it possible forworking people to live here by the ocean, and, as Kushner noted, to play active roles in the making of Santa Monica.
Other, grander houses of the era – whether Craftsman or Spanish Colonial revival – have been restored and preserved by a several generations of owners, but long ago, the Shotgun houses were demolished to make way for more elaborate houses. The last standing Shotgun house doesn’t simply need a site, it deserves a place of prominence in our townscape.Ironies abound in City Hall, and it is at leastironic that Mayor O’Connor, a historic preservation consultant, has opposed the preservation of three landmarks in recent months. Happily for us and history, her fellow Council members disagreed, and voted 6 to 1 last week, to approve moving the Shotgun house, affirming the community’s commitment to its past, and future.