Snapchat moves into Venice’s landmark Serafine Building, one innovator taking over for another

By Martin L. Jacobs

Surfers talk about getting “first to the curl,” which earns them the right to ride a wave. Business often operates on the same principle.

Sound pioneer Frank Serafine was first to the curl in 1987 when, chasing a dream to build his own sound mega-facility, he purchased a large lot at Westminster and Riviera avenues in Venice. Twenty-eight years later, Serafine has released his dream back into the wild; he sold the building, and Snapchat has moved in.

The change of hands exemplifies the continuing sea change in the Westside media business paradigm.

In 1986, the affluent future of the Abbot Kinney Boulevard was far from evident. The tony strip where patrons now exchange money for pricey clothes and fine cuisine was then a preferred place for the Culver City Boyz and Venice 13 gangs to exchange gunfire. One memorable Thanksgiving, a shootout victim died on the sidewalk in front of Serafine’s building.

In 1986 there were also very few film and TV sound facilities on the Westside. “All of the film and television sound facilities were in Hollywood,” Serafine recalls, “and even home studios were quite rare. That all came much later.”

Serafine enjoyed the art colony feel of Venice and hoped his clients would feel the same way. His “build it and they will come” mindset was powered by a string of successes, including his seminal work on Disney’s “Tron” and Paramount’s “Star Trek I.” These were the early days of what we now call sound design; a blue-sky reimagining of ways to use sound that embraced electronic and later digital music tools and techniques, and applied them to film sound. Serafine’s background in music and fluency with synthesizers and technology put him in the right place at the right time.

In late 1988 he broke ground on the large live/work space. During the first week of construction the teeth of a backhoe punched a hole in an underground fuel tank. Local history buffs knew the lot to be the location of one of the first gas stations in Los Angeles, a Texaco, in the 1930s, but no one remembered the subterranean tank. It was just one of many rip currents Serafine would have to navigate before the building was completed.

Architect Madjid Farzanifar designed the iconic structure. The top floor was Serafine’s residence, with a rooftop garden inspired by his travels to Italy and Monaco. On the first and second floor were editing rooms, mixing rooms and office space. Carl Yanchar designed the main mixing theater.

In the ensuing decades, Serafine’s studio thrived, conjuring sound artistry for countless films, game titles and music projects.

“I was at the point where I wanted to evolve creatively, and I wanted to be close to the city but live in the country,” Serafine says, describing his reason for leaving Venice.

Consequently, he has just broken ground on his dream’s sequel: Honey Hills Music and Sound, a sprawling ranch on almost 100 acres on the fringes of Valencia. He sees it as an escape from the distractions of all things urban.

As his move to Venice in 1986 was part inspiration and part calculated risk, so it will be with Honey Hills. There are few comparisons to the concept, save the famed Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. Serafine’s move also aligns with an undeniable life-cycle pattern: young people crave the chaotic energy of the city, while the seasoned yearn for quiet, open spaces. Serafine sees Honey Hills as a tech hub surrounded by organic farms and rolling hills.

Meanwhile, Snapchat has settled into the fortress Serafine built and have made it their own, but no signage speaks to it. Honoring their logo, the company is famously ghostlike in its media presence as it continues its quiet expansion across the Westside.

Unlike most of the companies that are terraforming Silicon Beach, however, Snapchat has local street cred, having been spawned by three Stanford overachievers in a Venice bungalow circa 2011.

Snapchat’s exponential growth has ruffled some, but it’s hard to argue with the tide. And the hiring binges and business space acquisitions are welcomed rarities in our tenuous economy.

The Los Angeles Times this month reported that Snap Inc. (Snapchat’s official corporate name as of early 2015) has signed a lease for 300,000 square feet of office space in Ocean Park, which in addition to their Santa Monica Airport and Venice locations comes to something like 490,000 square feet sprawled across the Westside.

That’s more than 11 acres, if you do the math, and probably a lot of Uber rides. The company stands to be the most successful Los Angeles tech start-up in history. And, whatever Snap Inc. is today, it will very likely be a richer version of the same very soon; according to reports from Reuters, the company confidentially filed the paperwork for an IPO that some estimate could generate as much as
$20 billion.

Martin L. Jacobs is on Twitter @ML_Jacobs_Venice. Contact him at martin@scriturra.com.

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