No one knows for sure if Popeye the Sailor Man was “born” in the Bay Builders Exchange building at 4th and Broadway in downtown Santa Monica. But the Landmarks Commission has designated the office building as a City landmark under five of its six criteria.
Also known simply as the Builders Exchange, the masonry building was constructed in 1927 and is considered a fine example of the Spanish Colonial Revival/Churrigueresque style, characterized by a cast iron storefront and grille work, a cast stone frieze, an ornamental cast stone arch above the main entrance, and metal casement windows topped with transoms.
The Commission had no problem defining the building’s features according to landmark criteria. Four criteria had been recommended by City staff and consultant’s reports; the Commission added a fifth criterion (“aesthetic or artistic interest or value”) because they agreed that the design of the façade and the general construction were notable.
But they did some head-scratching about the information, mentioned in the reports, and in oral tradition, that cartoonist Elzie Segar had worked in an office in the Bay Builders Exchange and had possibly created his one-eyed sailor and other characters in that office.
Historic records show that Segar lived in Santa Monica and did much of his work at his residences on 15th and 17th Streets. The information that he worked at Bay Builders Exchange came from a book about Segar by his assistant, Bud Sagendorf. In an addendum to the staff report, a letter to the Santa Monica Historical Society by Jim Lunsford revealed that, according to Sagendorf and other oral sources, Popeye was “born” in a typhoon off Santa Monica Pier, while his buddy Wimpy was “born” at an Ocean Park hamburger stand. Popeye was also said to have been based on a real-life sailor who worked on the Pier.
While none of the Commissioners felt that the oral tradition shored up the reason for designation under Criterion Three (“association with historic personages”), they decided to add language to Criterion One (elements of cultural history of the city) to note that Elzie Segar was among tenants reputed to have worked in the building.
In other developments, the Commission for a second time requested more information about the background of the former Paper Mate Pen complex at 1681 26th Street. While the staff report recommended refusing designation to the industrial building, the Commission wanted to know more about architectural comparables, about the building’s connection with King Gillette (who owned Paper Mate and who also developed an area in north Santa Monica), and about the history of Paper Mate.
The Commission was due to discuss the fate of the Greyhound Bus sign at 1433 5th Street, which a community member had recommended for designation. But a staff report revealed that the sign had been removed by a tenant and its whereabouts are currently unknown. According to Commission Secretary Roxanne Tanemori, the owner has requested that the sign be returned, but has not filed charges of theft.