Santa Monica History Museum founder Louise Gabriel is remembered for bringing the city’s past safely into the present

By Michael Aushenker

Louise Gabriel, who founded the Santa Monica History Museum with her late husband Bob Gabriel and spent more than three decades shepherding the organization toward self-sustainability, has died.

Gabriel’s passing on Jan. 10 “was sudden and unexpected,” said daughter Susan Gabriel Potter, who declined to discuss her mother’s age or health conditions.

Santa Monica leaders past and present praised Gabriel’s seemingly tireless efforts to not only document but share knowledge of the city’s past.

“When I think of Santa Monica’s history in terms of preserving it and making it accessible to people, I think of Louise Gabriel making that possible,” said Pam O’Connor, a member of the Santa Monica City Council since 1994.

“Louise was a force for Santa Monica history,” former Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould said.

Gabriel was a native of Detroit who “came from very humble beginnings,” Potter said. “She worked in a market and she saved every dime.”

In 1946, Gabriel and her mother were on vacation when she met her husband, a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander who had fought in the Pacific theater during World War II, on Broadway and Third Street.

“The first day I saw Santa Monica, I knew I wanted to spend my life here,” Gabriel told The Argonaut in 2013. “This was like heaven. Like God’s country.”

In 1975, the Gabriels made a $30,000 investment to establish what was then called the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum. Initially located in a former industrial building on Colorado Avenue, the museum relocated in October 2010 to 1350 7th St., adjacent to the Santa Monica Public Library. Today the museum’s collections include tens of thousands of artifacts and more than 600,000 photographs.

Gabriel was “indefatigable in seeking donations of time, labor, materials and funding,” said Gould, who interacted with her from 2009 to 2014. “Her passion and determination were decisive in convincing the City Council to afford the museum a highly desirable lease of a portion on the new central library complex. Her control was so total that at one point she fired and replaced her entire board of directors, explaining that they had accomplished their purpose and new talent was needed.”

In 2015, the museum simultaneously feted Santa Monica’s 140th anniversary and the museum’s 40th. The museum’s annual gala benefit dinners at the historic Hotel Casa del Mar celebrated the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe (launched from Clover Field, now Santa Monica Airport, in 1924), and the notorious Prohibition-era  Santa Monica Bay gambling boat S.S. Rex.

Through the museum, Gabriel sponsored Santa Monica’s first archaeological dig, successfully campaigned to save the city’s oldest brick building (the first Santa Monica City Hall) and helped the Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club acquire landmark status.

It’s no easy task “to get a group of people together, to grow a society, to grow that collection and to get it to sustain itself. It takes someone who is dedicated to moving and pushing it forward,” O’Connor said.

Potter said her mother drew from a deep reservoir of determination and had absolutely no use for self-pity.

“She would tell us, ‘I cried because I had no shoes until I saw someone who had no feet,’” Potter said.

As children, Potter said her mother was so involved in her museum that she and her brother became jealous of it.

“We would call it her favorite sibling. There was never a conversation with her that she did not say something about the museum,” said Potter, who will assume her mother’s role as the museum’s interim director. “She instilled in me that same passion for the community. She’s always going to be my shining light.”

In addition to Potter, Gabriel is survived by son Robb Gabriel and daughter Sharyl Gabriel Szydlik; grandchildren Patrick Potter, Bryan Potter and Michael Szydlik; and sisters Josephine Van Buren and Elaine Bruner.

A public memorial service is set for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, at St. Monica Catholic Church, 725 California Ave.). In lieu of flowers, people are asked to donate to the museum.

“We invite the community,” Potter said. “That was her passion.”