By Michael Aushenker
Today is Aug. 22, 2013, and on this Southern California morning, you rise from your bed. As you draw the blinds, the morning sun hits your face like boxer Manny Pacquiao’s Everlast glove. Once your pupils adjust to the light, you gaze eastward at the wide swath of calm Pacific waves spanning out toward the Will Rogers State Beach coastline on your left; the Ferris wheel glistening off the Santa Monica Pier on your right.
Should you take the connector across the ocean to the Country Mart or the Malibu Ralphs and do some grocery shopping? Or should you take the other thruway into the Palisades? You gaze at the clock on your nearly obsolete iPhone 5 and you realize you’re running late for work. You’ll drive east onto Arizona Avenue instead and cut through downtown Santa Monica.
In an alternate universe, this could have been the beginning of your day had eccentric developer John Drescher had his way back in the mid-1960s, when the architect proposed his offshore causeway that would have spanned from Santa Monica to Malibu. Drescher’s concept, and other unrealized plans for Santa Monica, Venice, the Los Angeles International Airport area and other Los Angeles communities, are currently on display at the Architecture + Design Museum near Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.
Never Built Los Angeles, which runs through Oct. 13, gives Angelenos a glimpse into several what-if scenarios of the Westside that could have been – or not have been, as was the case with one idea in the 1930s to keep the city’s entire coastline free of any development.
Historically, the Los Angeles region has been no stranger to architecture that is experimental, quirky, kooky, even down right preposterous. From the Modernism of Schindler, Soriano and Neutra and Pierre Koenig’s iconic Case Study House #22 in the Hollywood Hills, to the 1950s-60s Googie and Tiki movements, Albert Frey’s 1950s B-movie science-fiction flourishes in Palm Springs, and John Lautner’s U.F.O.-ish Chemosphere hillside house off Mulholland Drive, Southern California has long been ground zero for some zany concepts.
After all, Los Angeles has been identified around the world by structures such as Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, a giant hat (the defunct Brown Derby restaurant), a Godzilla-sized donut (Randy’s in Inglewood), a towering stack of records (Welton Beckett’s Capitol Records building), an oversized stack of gold coins (the old May Company building on Fairfax and Wilshire), and a pair of binoculars large enough for King Kong to peer through should he ever touch down on Google’s Venice headquarters.
And yet, some of the concepts implied by the unrealized projects revealed in Never Built: Los Angeles top even some of those far-fetched creations.
Three years ago, curators Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell’s journey began after the director of their museum was made privy to some architectural models in a Valencia warehouse.
“We kept finding stuff,” Lubell said. “The further back we went, the better the material got.”
Architect Sam Wacht conceived Santa Monica Island in the early 1960s – what Goldin describes as “a Marina del Rey complex offshore,” offering a residential and economic destination. Designed to replace the Santa Monica Pier, what the concept actually came to symbolize was the undoing of then-Santa Monica City Manager Perry Scott and the entire old guard of Santa Monica’s City Council.
“The city of Santa Monica had tried for years and years and years to tear down the pier and replace it with something else,” Goldin said. “The pier was on economically shaky ground.”
The epoch saw a lot of urban renewal underway: the tearing down of Bunker Hill, the controversial establishment of Dodger Stadium in Echo Park (which Santa Monica resident Ry Cooder famously chronicled with his 2005 Grammy-nominated album “Chavez Ravine”).
“Perry Scott pushed very hard to have Santa Monica Pier demolished,” Goldin said. “He wanted to see it replaced by an island connected to downtown Santa Monica, with tram cars going to the Palisades.”
The times though, as Bob Dylan sang back in the 1960s, were a-changin,’ and the project Scott championed proved tone deaf by 1969.
“Suddenly, there was this convergence of an environmental consciousness and a preservationist movement,” Goldin observed. Locals wanted to preserve the pier and its Ferris wheel. Not helping matters were the oil slicks caused by offshore drilling in Santa Barbara, which Santa Monicans felt might foreshadow Santa Monica Bay’s future should construction on this project take flight. “That kind of environmentalism was really in the air,” Goldin said.
When those two movements congealed, it politically became sudden death for Scott and his cronies, he said.
“This proposal was the undoing of old Santa Monica and the birth of new Santa Monica,” Goldin remarked. “Perry Scott and the majority of council members who voted for this proposal lost their seats.”
A new wave of municipal politicians were ushered in, anticipating today’s progressives.
“They changed all the rules,” Goldin said. “(From that point on,), every single project had to be publicly vetted.”
Between 1968-73, real estate developer and speculator Jack Morehart proposed an even more dubious endeavor: a hotel tower with surrounding condos and apartments to replace Pacific Ocean Park (POP), the dilapidated amusement park decaying just south of the Santa Monica Pier.
It remains unclear whether Morehart, a landowner, had bought the POP property but evidently, Goldin says, “he had a big enough stake to call the shots.”
Once a thriving destination – a sort of West Coast Coney Island – POP, by the late 1960s, had already closed and proved something of an eyesore.
“It was just a ruin,” Goldin said. “A place where they would shoot episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
However, Morehart had problems.
“He owed more than $250,000 in back taxes on the POP property,” Goldin said.
So Morehart commissioned the L.A. firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall, and Anthony Lumsden sketched a replacement for POP.
“What they came up with was this tower that appears to float offshore,” Goldin said.
The central glass cylinder Morehart proposed would loom 30 stories high and 300 feet offshore.
Since Morehart owed back taxes, this entire project might have been a ploy “increasing values of his holdings by getting approval by the city of L.A.,” Goldin suggested. “In order to pay them, he was involved in a two-way land swap between him and the city of L.A. where he was able to pay his taxes. He then ceded his property to the city of L.A. At that point, they had POP torn down but they didn’t acquire it with his (proposal).”
The offshore Santa Monica-to-Malibu development Drescher envisioned had essentially called for a string of islands spanning from the McClure Tunnel in Santa Monica to Malibu’s Carbon Beach with a causeway connecting residences for some 20,000 people. Environmentally, this project would have been “catastrophic,” Lubell said, as it called for importing land from Catalina and parts of the Santa Monica Mountains to create the manmade islands.
Drescher, an eccentric who himself lived in a Santa Monica artist’s colony called “Drescherville,” planned for single-family homes and apartments, yacht clubs, and a major shopping center.
“The city of Los Angeles and the city of Santa Monica both approved of this idea,” Goldin claimed.
However, the entire causeway project was scrapped by the mid-1960s because, at $600 million in 1965 dollars, it was deemed as “too expensive,” and its numerical designation, the “101,” went to the Ventura Freeway instead.
The exhibit covers abandoned projects throughout Los Angeles, including Hollywood, downtown, and Century City, where Beckett, famed architect behind the recently mothballed Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, attempted to create a 50-story mixed-use office. Another highlight includes a 1930s plan (seemingly far-fetched from today’s perspective) to create 100,000 acres of parks large and small across Los Angeles that would keep the coastline, from Malibu down to Palos Verdes, free of any development.
While these endeavors have been known to historians for some time, Goldin points out, “Nobody has ever assembled it quite in this fashion. Here’s an alternative vision of Los Angeles and we’re putting it all under one roof.”
Currently planning piggy-back panel discussions and events, the museum has already received much attention since the show opened July 28.
“People have reacted so favorably to the show,” said Goldin, who added that, even on a surface level, “you also see the magnificent artistry, the architectural drawings in their own right as a work of art.”
Ultimately, for Lubell and Goldin, this sort of architectural “Land That Time Forgot” might point the way toward what may lie ahead for Los Angeles and its Westside.
“People are contemplating Los Angeles today through the lens of what might have been,” Goldin said. “I hope that’s some kind of contribution to the understanding of the city.”