LAistory: The Santa Monica Pier

SantaMonicaPier_BW.jpg
Photo by Here in Van Nuys via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr

On September 9th, the Santa Monica Pier celebrated its Centennial. Fireworks lit up the sky and thousands of people gathered to honor a landmark that seems to be synonymous not only with Santa Monica, but with Los Angeles, and our love affair with having fun at the edge of the Pacific Ocean

But like the Pacific's waters, the history of the Pier reveals some choppiness and rough times. Failed business ventures, eroding infrastructure, preservation campaigns, massive destruction at the hands of mother nature, and frequent bouts of identity crisis color the history of the 100-year-old "pleasure pier" at the base of Colorado Avenue.

The pier was born out of practical purposes, really. With the booming by-the-sea population of the early 20th century in idyllic Santa Monica (where many a Civil War veteran went to live out his old age in the balmy sea air) the city was faced with a problem: Where do we put the sewage? The most logical option was to send it out to sea. But if you're a city known for the beauty of your shores, well...not so fast, right?

sitting_on_SMPier.jpg
Sitting on the Pier...that was built to send sewage out to sea! (Photo by Robbie via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

The solution was to build a Municipal Pier modeled after counterparts on the East Coast that were made of concrete, and cast the refuse far enough out into the ocean that it would wash away and not on shore. 11 plans were submitted for consideration, and the City Council picked that of Edwin H. Warner, a local architect. Construction began in spring of 1908, and just some minor finishing touches remained when the City held the Pier's official opening day on September 9th, 1909--deliberately chosen to be the same day as California celebrated its statehood.

WA66SantaMonicaPier1910.jpg
Vintage Pier postcard circa 1910
Santa Monica held a grand celebration, and immediately the Pier--whose purpose was to send trash and sewage out to sea, mind you--became associated with recreation. People began to congregate for fishing, and when large Naval vessels came to the area they would dock in Santa Monica and the public would board them for tours. In 1919, when the USS Texas and the USS Prairie were anchored there, a section of the concrete pier groaned and split off, prompting a shut down and overhaul of the structure.

In the meantime, the Pier had gained a reputation as an amusement destination thanks to Charles I.D. Loof, the nationally-known creator of amusement parks. Loof was looking for something out west that could be like Coney Island, and when the Pier was able to boast a Pacific Electric train line (the Air Line) terminal at its foot, the Pier's destiny was made. Since people could easily make the trip from downtown Los Angeles at Hill and Main via the Air Line (a century later it almost hurts to write that phrase!) it seemed ideal for building a recreation destination. A roller coaster, the Hippodrome (Greek for horse racecourse) carousel, games, theatre, fun house, concessions, a picnic area and more were part of the vision, and Loof's Pleasure Pier opened up in the summer of 1916.

Loof's amusement park was a hit at first, but after Loof died in 1918, so did the gusto of the Pleasure Pier. The property was sold in 1923 and redeveloped in an expansion that included replacing the roller coaster and building the La Monica Ballroom, which opened in 1924. Another change of hands a few years later meant the Pier had a brief life as an Arabian-themed amusement park called "The City of Bagdad." None of these small endeavors took off, but by the 1930s the Pier had another project going on that was draw and distraction enough: It became a Yacht Harbor.

A breakwater and moorings were constructed to accommodate yachts (and for a short time direct transit to Catalina took place to and from the Pier). This was a huge hit with boaters, but as the 30s came to a close there was a lot going on that altered the course of the Pier's history. Hey, even the initial purpose of the Pier was a washout at this point--Santa Monica stopped sending its sewage out to sea in 1928 when they joined up with other areas in sending their, uh, stuff, to the Hyperion plant in El Segundo.

First, the grade project on the road meant that the Pier was cut off from traffic, and business suffered, prompting the Pier to opt to have a neon sign erected to re-confirm its location and access to motor traffic. (This will also explain why the sign says "Yacht Harbor" and yet most people these days will attest to never having seen a single yacht there; built in 1940, it reflects precisely what the Pier was known for at the time, and as a preserved and recognized landmark, has--and will--not change.) There was also the gambling era, with boats in the waters of Santa Monica (as covered in our LAistory: The Battle of Santa Monica Bay), continued re-tooling of the amusement section, and by the early 1940s, the US was involved in WWII, which meant the Pier was often used for docking for military boats and personnel.

funATSMPIER.jpg
The present-day Pier. (Photo by California CPA via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
Following the war, the Pier went on, but sort of quietly. The years of boating usage wore away at the structure and breakwater, and it held on (though at one point the City of Los Angeles attempted to pressure the City of Santa Monica to tear out the breakwater completely) but fewer and fewer boats came to dock because the water was so choppy and more calm, populated, and pleasant yacht harbors had sprung up elsewhere. Things sort of hummed along until 1973, when the Pier's lease was up, and suddenly talk of destroying what people had enjoyed and taken for granted for so many decades had enthusiasts up in arms. They fought a valiant campaign to not only save the Pier, but to take it out of the hands of politicians (the City Council of SM had indeed voted to demolish the Pier in '73) by having a motion introduced and approved that stipulated the Pier be there forever. So despite being a financial drain with aging components and an identity crisis every few years, Santa Monica committed to its Pier for life.

So the Pier was saved and spirits renewed. Things were going well for a while, but then someone more powerful than a politician intervened: Mother Nature. Massive storms in January and March of 1983 took out chunks of the Pier completely. The Pier had no choice but to shut down--it was devastated by the storms. And so they rebuilt, reopening in 1986 with new features and a temporary carnival so well-enjoyed that it stayed on for a decade. Fourth of July fireworks went off from 86-90 until the combo of expense and cloudy skies led the Council to decide they just weren't worth it anymore. In 1996 Pacific Park opened up--a real, permanent amusement park on the Pier, boasting a magnificent Ferris Wheel that became immediately iconic. Unfortunately a life on the water is hard on such a structure, so Pacific Park auctioned the Pacific Wheel off in 2008 on eBay, replacing it with a doppelganger with one key adjustment: It's solar powered. The opening celebration merited the Pier's first fireworks show in 18 years.

Fireworks_SM_Pier.jpg
Photo by karlo via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr

The fireworks went off again a year later, and, if you've kept up, we're talking about this week. That's 100 years of construction, preservation, amusement, fishing, eating, strolling, yachting, docking, fighting, filming, storming, rebuilding, re-envisioning, relaxing, and loving the Santa Monica Pier.

Many thanks to the wonderful work of James Harris, whose book Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier served as the principal source of information for this story (our writeup of this and other great local history books here).

LAistory is our series that takes us on a journey to what came before to help us understand where we are today.

Check out our other entries in the series:

Val Verde; Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe; An eclectic house in Beverly Hills; Echo Park's Bonnie Brae House; Marineland of the Pacific; Grand Central Air Terminal; LA's Own Wrigley Field; How LA got its name; The wreck of the Dominator; The 1925 "Hollywood Subway."; The Pink Lady of Malibu; Lions Drag Strip; Disneyland...when it was cheap to get in; The ugliest building in the city; Union Station; Union Station's Fred Harvey Room; A Smelly Mystery at another train station; The Egyptian Theatre; Pilgrimage Bridge; The "It" Girl, Clara Bow; Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin; Get Involved!; Houdini's House; Spanish Kitchen; The Platinum Blonde; Chutes Park; Fatty Arbuckle; The Brown Derby; Griffith Park; The Outpost Sign; Cross Roads of the World; Sowden House; Monkey Island ; Carthay Circle Theater; The Post-War House & the Home of Tomorrow; Dan the Miner; Tropical Ice Gardens; William Desmond Taylor; Alligator Farm; Schwab's Pharmacy; Tail O' the Pup; Good Reads; Fatty Arbuckle's Plantation Cafe; The Garden of Allah, Mapping LAistory, The Pan Pacific Auditorium; Pickfair; Tower of Wooden Pallets; Hollyhock House; Randy's Donuts; the Ennis House; Helms Bakery Coaches, The Ambassador Hotel; The Cocoanut Grove; Busch Gardens in Van Nuys; The Battle of Santa Monica Bay; Clifton's Cafeterias.