We sat on uncomfortable seats in Santa Monica’s beloved Civic Auditorium on Saturday. A full house was there for the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra’s “A Farewell Tribute to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.”
The all-Tchaikovsky program included a gorgeous performance by Antonio Lysy of “Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra.” The “1812 Overture,” written by Tchaikovsky in 1880 to commemorate “the defense of the motherland,” concluded the program and the significance of the piece was not lost on the audience. When Conductor Guido Lamell closed the evening with a promise to be back at the Civic there was great applause.
Built in 1958 and given Landmark Designation in 2002, the Civic was known worldwide as the home of the Academy Awards. 1968 was the last year the Academy Awards were held at the Civic. The awards ceremony was held late that year because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Civic has been the venue for artists and performers who are part of the cultural history of the Country: Andre Previn, Dave Brubeck, Pete Seeger, Ella Fitzgerald, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Ray Charles, Arlo Guthrie, the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, Allen Ginsberg, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Sarah Vaughan, and Bruce Springsteen.
Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, the Historic Resources Technical Report cites it as “an excellent example of International Style design as applied to an auditorium. It was also considered an engineering marvel noted for its use of hydraulics for raising and lowering the floor for multiple uses.”
“Functionally obsolete” was the description of the current state of the Civic by John Altschuler, a former Santa Monica City Manager and the Chair of an Urban Land Institute (ULI) panel discussion on the building’s future. The ULI does think the Civic can be saved and has ideas for how to understand the urban design problem and how to finance the revitalization.
The panel was one of many outreach events held since the October 7, 2012 Council meeting where staff was directed to, in Jessica Cusick’s words, “beat the bushes to get public and expert opinion on a vision for the future of the Civic. The Council had two goals: to retain the cultural use of the Civic and to identify funding in light of the loss of Redevelopment Funds.”
Cusick is the Cultural Affairs Manager for the City. She has been pursuing both goals and reports that there is “significant interest in revitalizing the Civic as a cultural venue by private sector businesses. Given the interest from both the public and the private sector in preserving the Civic as the cultural heart of our city I am optimistic that we will be able to put together a way to fund the future of the Civic.”
The Civic is on the agenda for the June 11, 2013 Council meeting. Council Member Winterer expects that will be the “beginning of discussions of public/private partnerships.”
A week before the Council meeting there will be a community meeting to discuss ideas for the Civic. The meeting will be held at Virginia Avenue Park, June 4, 2012, at 7:30 pm.
The public interest has been long and well expressed. The City has committed to protecting and revitalizing the Civic at least since the time of the original Civic Center Specific Plan. The Santa Monica Conservancy, the Landmarks Commission and other organizations have expressed support and an interest in working on good solutions.
“Save the Santa Monica Civic” is an organization founded in November 2012 by Landmarks Commissioner Nina Fresco and a coalition group of well known Santa Monicans, is committed to “restoring and enhancing the Civic’s place as a vibrant cultural and community hub, as well as saving its landmark architecture and continuing its celebrated heritage. We will seek to develop recommendations for a management approach that will be profitable and enable long-term efficient operation. The coalition will help garner public support for any viable approach.”
When the Civic Auditorium was just an idea in the 1950’s, the Council established a Public Board to advise the Council on the development of the Civic Auditorium. Given the broad public support for the Civic and the high level of interest, doesn’t it make sense to create an advisory board for today’s needs, composed of both public and private sector members and staffed by the City Manager and Cultural Affairs Manager, for the planning part of the revitalization of the Civic?
According to Sepp Donahower that Advisory Board could be the precursor to a Management Board on the model of the Pier Board. Donahower was a pioneer concert producer who brought the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin to Los Angeles. He believes it can be made to be financially self -sustaining.
“The Civic will only work,” he said, “if it’s part of something bigger – a cultural commons. Give people a reason to go there, make it a fun thing. We could have a great public plaza and garden with wonderful places to drink and eat and listen to good music. Build an exhibition space that could also be used as a venue for films or a place to have weddings. Maybe follow ULI’s suggestion and add a boutique hotel. When you put sympathetic elements together it will create the environment for success, it will serve the entire Civic Center and energize the neighboring hotels and Main Street. It will be a connecter.”
Saving the Civic also supports the City’s goals for environmental sustainability. Certainly, as was written on a Santa Monica Conservancy sign at the Main Street parade, “The greenest building is the one that already exists.”
Let’s revitalize and keep the Civic. Let’s also look at the idea of creating a Cultural District incorporating the Civic, using the adjacent parking lot as a site for a new building, compatible in scale and character but having its own identity, and create an art park that surrounds both buildings.
Saving the Civic is the right thing to do for so many reasons. It’s time now for all ideas to be on the table to help us get from where we are now to once again having the Civic Auditorium be the cultural ambassador of the City.
We honor our history, we protect our cultural future, we enhance our international reputation, we support our commitment to sustainability, and we support our business community. It is an exciting challenge and one I think we’re up to.
What Say You?