Rich With History

At the center of what was once Santa Monica’s fabled Gold Coast, the Annenberg Community Beach House traces its roots to the 1920s when newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst built an opulent seaside estate for famous Hollywood starlet Marion Davies.

The 5-acre oceanfront site featured a mansion of 100-plus rooms and an ornate marble swimming pool. After serving its purpose as a party venue and social gathering place for Hollywood’s elite, Davies sold the property in 1947, and it was converted into OceanHouse, a luxury hotel, and the Sand & Sea Club.

In 1956, the main mansion was demolished, and in 1959 the property was sold to the state. In the 1994 Northridge earthquake, all of the site’s structures suffered extensive damage.

Seeing the potential public value of the beachfront site, the city in the early 2000s set forth a plan to redevelop the facility as a community resource.

The city embarked on an extensive public-input process to recreate the beach house’s role as not only a public gathering space, but a state-of-the-art municipal facility, featuring the latest technology and policies for optimal sustainability.

Community input came from a broad range of stakeholder meetings, governing agencies and direction provided by the Santa Monica Community & Cultural Services Department.

With an overlay of sustainability, the design intent for the beach house -- located at 415 Pacific Coast Highway at Beach House Way -- centered on the landmark’s natural setting, its social history and the architectural remnants of its Hollywood heyday as expressed by the Davies Guest House.

Specific design goals included:

1. Preserve the history of the site

2. Create a community-oriented destination

3. Provide public recreational activities

4. Increase public access to the beach

5. Create a range of year-round uses for diverse groups

6. Link to the regional open-space network

However, funding such an ambitious public project was challenging at best, and the plans sat in abeyance for several years while the city tried to secure financing. Ultimately, a generous $27.5-million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, at the recommendation of Wallis Annenberg, breathed new life into the property, with additional funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the federal Preserve America program.

With the financing in hand, the California State Parks that owned the property, and the city as the operator, joined together to move the project forward into what would become the only public beach club in the United States.

The Beach House has proven to be financially beneficial to the city. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, the city estimates total revenues of $1.3 million from public use, concessions, parking, special events, catering and filming.

In terms of staffing, the city employs the equivalent of 13 full-time positions at the facility. This includes lifeguards, beach recreation leaders, guest-services assistants, facility attendants, custodians, event coordinators and a few full-time management and administrative positions.

A Challenging Transformation

Turning a long dormant and damaged site into a beachfront recreation and historic mecca was a significant challenge for the design team. Unique in many ways, the site did provide a rare combination of a dramatic natural setting, significant cultural and architectural assets, and a signature public realm of regional importance.

In keeping with the city’s commitment to be greener, design of the beachside facility also required many sustainable measures to reduce its environmental impact.

Inside and out, the new Community Beach House exemplifies the city’s policy to protect, preserve, and restore the natural environment. Contaminants found in the soil, as well as in the historic guest house and swimming pool, were removed, leaving a clean slate for the project’s toxic-free development.

Other hazardous materials included lead-based paint, asbestos insulation and wooden piles containing toxic preservatives. Even with these materials, about 98 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills.

There was a myriad of difficulties associated with renovating an historic property: structural stability, toxicity and unforeseen conditions, such as asbestos, mold and water intrusion. For these reasons, proper due diligence, coupled with comprehensive design analysis, was vital to ensure that the site was suitable for the new uses.

Besides remediation and historic preservation, other challenges included selecting softscapes and hardscapes that would survive the harsh beach elements, gaining the community’s consensus on the plans, meeting the strict city lighting requirements (such as no-bleed lighting), and working with the California Coastal Commission on utility upgrades.

Tying The Eclectic Site Together

The site plan’s primary organizing device is a concrete wall that serves as a backbone to the eclectic elements of the project, and as a sound buffer to the adjacent Pacific Coast Highway. The wall is subtly stained with green stripes to suggest beach awnings. Vines, hedges and evergreen trees have been planted along solid building walls for softening, and as a deterrent to potential vandalism.

The historic wood-clad bulkhead on the wood fences has also been restored. The new buildings and landscape elements of the project are designed to create a public gateway to the beach, an icon for the site’s history and a framework for many of the community uses, and to underscore the site’s status as a notable landmark for the city, the region and California.

Echoing the past, the 1921 mean high-tide line, which has moved seaward dramatically, has become a beach walk to bring visitors onto and across the site. The path follows this old surf line along the 750-foot breadth of the site.

The walk itself is constructed with panels of recycled plastic lumber, and follows the historic tide line, acting as a promenade and connecting the parking lots to the building entrances. Visual connections have been restored between the guest house and the pool, and beyond the site to the mountains, the bluffs, the Santa Monica Pier and the ocean. Expanded decks alongside a café provide gathering areas for both formal and informal events.

Midway along the boardwalk -- at the center line where the Davies mansion once stood -- a second boardwalk facilitates accessibility across the deep beach to the water’s edge.

Continuing north, the boardwalk passes beach-volleyball courts that maintain the game’s presence on the site where the game was invented.

On the inland side of the boardwalk, north of the pool, is a series of ground-level terraces framed with landscaping. Areas include a children’s play spot with a water feature, and other spaces shaded by palm and melaleuca trees.

Planting in the beach areas has been limited to palms and native beach grasses that thrive without additional water. Tall palms planted at the Pacific Coast Highway entrances tie the site to the city park above the beach house, and provide optimal visibility of the facility from the roadway.

The pool deck -- surrounding the historic Julia Morgan-designed pool -- includes the original marble pool coping and restored concrete paving with marble insets.

Flower gardens on the lower levels surround an assembly by the project artist, Seattle-based Roy McMakin. Art and interpretive features have also been integrated into the public areas to enrich the visitor experience of the historic site, the beach and the glamour of the bygone era. Plant materials recall the lush flowering plants from the historic Gold Coast period. First-level plantings are low to the ground to maintain the historic character of the space as an open, paved patio.

Combining Style With Sustainability

The Beach House has received a LEED Gold Rating from the U.S. Green Building Council -- no easy feat, especially since the site underwent significant remediation.

The very fabric of the house is sustainable, with post-consumer materials used in concrete, plastics, insulation and cabinetry. The building’s insulation incorporates post-consumer blue jeans instead of fiberglass.

Decking is made of recycled plastic, and building panels are made of recycled concrete. Low Volatile Organic Compounds-emitting materials, paints, adhesives and sealants are used throughout the facilities to improve air quality.

High-performance windows with solar-reflective glazing reduce energy consumption, and the splash pad uses a closed, treated water system. Additional water-saving devices include low-flow shower heads, waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets.

The building itself operates on wind-generated power, and water for the pool and splash pad is heated by roof-mounted solar collectors.

White roofing (i.e., cool roof) materials reduce heat gain from the roofs, and light-colored parking-lot surfaces reduce stored heat in the pavement, diminishing the heat-island effect that generates greenhouse gas.

An underground water-retention system that serves the site captures and recycles 90 percent of urban runoff before it reaches the ocean. Native and drought-tolerant plants and trees are irrigated through a drip system that reduces water usage by 50 percent.

Outdoor lighting throughout the facility and parking lots minimizes light pollution. In addition, strategically placed trees provide a shaded respite in the parking lots, which include 106 bicycle racks and 14 preferred-parking spaces for alternative-fuel vehicles.

The stately guest house, designed by architect Julia Morgan, who also designed the Davies mansion as well as Hearst Castle, fell into disrepair along with the rest of the estate.

The estate home was demolished in 1956, but the guest house has been beautifully renovated as part of the historic redevelopment and today serves as the visitors’ center. Throughout both floors of the guest house, and in the entryway, visitors encounter numerous historical photographs that focus on the life of Hearst and Davies. In the entry lobby, an interactive guest book allows visitors to explore the property from the 1930s through today. A scrapbook section includes images and artifacts from the time Davies owned the estate to the time when the property became an exclusive membership club to the public landmark it is today.

Fast becoming the most popular summer spot in Santa Monica, the Annenberg Community Beach House provides everyone with the chance to relax and vacation on a beach that was once the domain of only the very rich.

It also preserves the history of old Hollywood for future generations, and reminds us of the importance and value of a well-designed public property that offers respite and fun to a diverse group of people and interests.

It’s an opportunity for everyone to have the quintessential Southern California experience -- a great day at a great beach.

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, is the president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, a full-service, international landscape architecture practice in Los Angeles, Calif. The firm is known for its design of a wide spectrum of public and private projects that include urban revitalization, large urban parks and complex commercial projects. Please visit