Advocacy: Santa Monica Civic Auditorium
The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is currently an endangered building in a precarious situation, despite its city landmark status. Welton Becket’s innovative modern architecture retains a very high degree of historic authenticity, but the structure is seismically deficient, and its long-neglected systems require modernization.
Architect: Welton Becket
Style: Mid-century Modern
Designation: Santa Monica Historical Landmark, Eligible for National Register
Address: 1855 Main St, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Click here to access additional information about the Civic Auditorium including the Conservancy’s own blog posts and documents such as the City of Santa Monica’s Historic Context Statement.
Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium: A Comprehensive History
Research and writing by Nina Fresco
Edited by Catherine Azimi and Kaitlin Drisko
The full story of Santa Monica’s mid-century Civic Auditorium reveals the depth and complexity of the city’s historic and cultural heritage.
1. Origins of Santa Monica’s Unifying Civic Center Concept
2. Early Civic Center Master Plan and City Hall
3. Proposition U
4. Design and Architectural Significance
5. Exterior Architectural Details
6. Interior Architectural Details
7. Civic Creator Welton Becket, Master of Mid-Century Architecture
8. Landscape Designer Ruth Shellhorn
9. Notable Events at the Civic Auditorium
Origins of Santa Monica’s Unifying Civic Center Concept
The idea of a centralized Santa Monica Civic Center, of which the Civic Auditorium would eventually become a part, was first proposed in 1911 as a place where all the city’s public buildings, offices, and services could be located together, surrounded by public parks. The desired location between Ocean Avenue to the west, Pico Boulevard to the south, Fourth Street to the east and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks to the north, was comprised of the portion of the Bandini Tract known as Belmar and a large undeveloped parcel owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad known locally as “No Man’s Land”. To the south was a developing African American community clustered around 4th and Bay Streets, and in an adjacent area known as Belmar. This was among the oldest African American settlements in any seaside community in the region.
Over time, the Civic Center idea gained momentum in an effort to centralize the city’s civic services and unify north and south Santa Monica, and because of racist motives to displace the thriving African American neighborhood from the center of the city. Today, the erased history of the Belmar Triangle has been brought back into public memory in part through the Belmar Art + History Project, located north of the Civic Auditorium along 4th Street. Click here to learn more about the project and the neighborhood.
Early Civic Center Master Plan and City Hall
In 1928, the Planning Commission proposed a design contest for concepts for a Civic Center Master Plan. The Great Depression put a stop to expensive planning initiatives, but the Civic Center idea lived on. In 1937, the City bought the first ten acres of “No Man’s Land” and built a new City Hall using New Deal PWA funds as well as proceeds from the sale of the old City Hall, originally in the downtown area. Next, a new Los Angeles County Courthouse building was added to the Civic Center in 1951, south of the City Hall. By this time, plans were underway for the City to use federal Urban Renewal funding to purchase the Belmar neighborhood through eminent domain. At the same time, the school district initiated a similar process to purchase the rest of the Bandini Tract to expand Santa Monica High School.
The City decided that a Civic Auditorium in the Belmar area would enhance the existing Civic Center and serve as an economic engine that would result in new housing to make up for what was demolished. Displaced residents from Belmar, primarily African Americans and individuals from other marginalized groups, were guided towards other racially segregated areas of the City. Many left Santa Monica altogether.
The Civic Auditorium was completed in 1958 under a bond issue called Proposition “U” (with the slogan “I’m for ‘U’”) that passed in 1954 with 21,377 yes votes to 4,280 no: a 5:1 margin. As originally conceived by Santa Monica Architect Frederic Barienbrook, who had just built the adjacent County Courthouse, the project would be a grouping of civic uses with a modern cultural venue as well as wings with the City’s Recreation Department, offices for the Chamber of Commerce, and conference and banquet facilities. This first plan was never realized and instead, master architect Welton Becket would design and build the Mid-Century International Style Civic Auditorium that stands today.
Design and Architectural Significance
Constructed in 1958, the Civic Auditorium was the third of three major 20th Century Civic Center structures. These include Santa Monica City Hall, designed in the Moderne Style in 1939 by Donald Parkinson and J.M. Estep, and the Courthouse, designed in the International Style in 1951. Completion of the Civic Auditorium served the original purpose of the Civic Center as a centralized hub of community activity.
Designated as a City Landmark in 2001, the Civic Auditorium has a high level of original architectural integrity inside and out. The building also meets all six of the local criteria for designation, a very rare distinction. Click here to read a summary of how the Civic satisfies each criteria in the City of Santa Monica’s Statement of Official Action, dated April 9, 2002.
The Civic Auditorium is an excellent and innovative example of the Mid-Century Modern phase of the International Style. Mid-Century Modernism grew out of the earlier and more severe, doctrinaire International Style. In response to the industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, International Style emerged in Europe and rejected decorative historical precedents for building and product designs, using materials such as steel, concrete, and glass in unadorned, functional volumes. Common character-defining features of the style include, flat roofs, brise soleil, glass curtain walls, solid rectilinear wall expanses devoid of ornamentation, rectilinear ribbon windows, and the merging of interior and exterior spaces. By the 1950’s, new modern trends appeared expressing more dynamic and energized forms and spaces.
Architectural historian Alan Hess suggests that while Welton Becket & Associates’s 1954 Parker Center is an example of International Style Modernism, the firm’s 1958 Civic Auditorium design goes “beyond the style to introduce more complex geometries and shapes than the International Style’s rectangles.” Hess also suggests that the building’s character defining exterior features reveal a connection to Brazilian Modernism, “perhaps the best example in California.” He notes that “In 1958 Brazilian Modernism was very popular and forward looking,” in part due to the construction of the Brazilian capital of Brasilia. Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer is most famous for his designs for Brasilia, which was inaugurated in 1960. Interestingly, the only residential design by Niemeyer in the United States is the Strick House here in Santa Monica.
Exterior Architectural Details
Architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter have called the Civic Auditorium “a perfect period piece of the late 1950s.” While the building has many commonalities with the International Style, its construction adds more curves and angles to that style’s geometric vocabulary.
To this day, the Civic Auditorium retains a very high degree of architectural integrity, inside and out, which is to say that very few alterations were made to the resource, allowing it to retain its original design, expressed through a set of character defining features. In architectural history and preservation, character defining features are elements that communicate the building’s character and can include the overall shape of the building, its materials, craftsmanship, decorative details, interior spaces and features, as well as the various aspects of its site and environment.
The Civic Auditorium’s major exterior architectural details, or character defining features are:
- The building’s mass and form. The building is large with an imposing visual presence from the street. The façade has a slight convex curve, the sides are concave, and the roof has an angled concave form.
- The broad open entrance canopy, which is not fully attached to the façade but appears to float.
- The dramatic soaring pylons at the canopy edge, with their elegant, curved profile, are a unique and distinctive feature with allusions to the space age.
- The tall façade brise soleil with abstract geometric forms floats over a glass curtain wall.
Interior Architectural Details
The Civic Auditorium also retains a high degree of architectural integrity on the interior, again because few alterations have been made. Those that have occurred have not impacted the organization of space, proportion, scale, composition, openings or materials that comprise the original design. In addition to Becket’s architecture, the Civic also features unique engineering and landmark use of hydraulic technology that could adapt an assembly space to accommodate a vast variety of stage performances, athletic events, and exhibitions. The pioneering acoustical consultant Vern O. Knudsen was responsible for the design and engineering of the auditorium’s state-of-the-art acoustics.
The landmark designation of the site includes the following interior character defining features:
- The sweeping glass-enclosed lobby, which is bookended by monumental concrete, metal and wood staircases, as well as the auditorium entry doors and wood paneling along the south wall of the first floor.
- The volume and configuration of auditorium main hall space.
- The adjustable auditorium main hall floor with hydraulic lift mechanism, metal acoustical panels and wall sconces in the main hall and the soundproof sliding doors to the conference room.
Civic Creator Welton Becket, Master of Mid-Century Architecture
The Civic Auditorium is one of a host of iconic buildings that have helped to define the look and feel of mid-century Los Angeles designed by master architect Welton Becket. In an essay for the Los Angeles Conservancy, architectural historian Alan Hess wrote, “Welton Becket’s greatest buildings are as much a part of Los Angeles as Christopher Wren’s are of London,” and that his work “cannot be divided from the way we see or think of L.A.”
Welton David Becket was born in 1902, in Seattle, Washington. He studied architecture at the University of Washington and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. Becket subsequently formed a partnership with Charles Plummer and Walter Wurdeman, and they moved to Los Angeles in 1933.
In 1934, the team won an international competition for their Art Moderne design of the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. Completed in 1935, the Pan Pacific Auditorium became a symbol of the architecture unique to the city at the time. It was destroyed by fire in 1989.
Other early works by Becket included “House for Tomorrow,” a demonstration dwelling for builder Fritz Burns (1946); the Bullocks Department Store in Pasadena (1946); and the General Petroleum Building in Los Angeles (1949). By 1950, Becket was running a solo practice, and one the largest architectural firms in the country, under the name Welton Becket and Associates. The firm worked according to a philosophy of “total design”, in which every facet of a project from the building’s structure and engineering to its interior design including lighting fixtures and finishes, were designed to achieve a unified look and feel.
Welton Becket and Associates went on to create a Master Plan for UCLA, including the designs of Pauley Pavilion and Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Becket’s other 1950’s projects around Los Angeles included Parker Center police headquarters (1955), which was demolished in 2019, despite efforts by the Cultural Heritage Commission to save it; the Beverly Hilton Hotel (1955); and the iconic Capitol Records Tower (1956), which was just completing when the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium job came in. Becket and Associates wunderkind architect Louis Naidorf, who designed the Capitol Records building at age 24, was given the Civic assignment. Click here to read more about Naidorf in recent LA Times article.
The “father of Century City” Edmond Herrscher commissioned the firm to design a master plan for the new city in 1957. Then, in a collaboration with William Pereira, Charles Luckman and Paul R. Williams, the firm designed the Los Angeles International Airport (1959), including the famed Theme Building. In the 1960s, Becket built the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood (1963), and the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1964) and Mark Taper Forum (1967).
Becket also designed numerous buildings abroad including hotels in Cairo and Tehran.
Many of Becket’s buildings have been landmarked, due to their significant impact on the architectural milieu of postwar Los Angeles. Several of his buildings in the city are designated cultural monuments, including the Capitol Records Tower, Cinerama Dome, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. His designs for the Pan-Pacific and Santa Monica Civic auditoriums received Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects. Becket died in 1969 at the age of 66. His firm continues today as Ellerbe Becket, a division of AECOM, a construction engineering company.
Landscape Designer Ruth Shellhorn
The landscape surrounding the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was designed by renowned landscape architect Ruth Shellhorn. Ruth Patricia Shellhorn (1909-2006) was raised in Pasadena, California. She attended Oregon State Agricultural College from 1927-1930 and transferred to Cornell University to work towards degrees in architecture and landscape, then opened a landscape architecture practice in Pasadena in 1933.
Shellhorn worked on many significant projects over the course the next sixty years. For example, she was a member of the Shoreline Development Study for the Greater Los Angeles Citizens Committee, which was a coastal protection plan that became a precedent for the California Coastal Act. Her work on the design for Bullocks Pasadena Department Store established a long professional association with Civic architect Welton Becket. In 1955, Shellhorn was the landscape architect for Disneyland in Anaheim, California, establishing not only the plantings but the circulation plans which remain extant.
Notable Events at the Civic Auditorium
The Academy Awards
For more than half a century, the Civic Auditorium presented a galaxy of international superstars, but perhaps no booking brought more wattage and prestige to the Welton Becket showpiece than the Academy Awards. The Civic hosted the Motion Picture Academy’s annual ceremony honoring the best in film from 1961 to 1968 before a live audience of 2,500 and many millions of television viewers worldwide. The decision to move the ceremony more than 15 miles west to Santa Monica from a succession of previous venues around Hollywood was largely prompted by the need for a larger auditorium to accommodate the Academy’s growing membership. The Civic also offered state-of-the-art production capabilities, including a novel hydraulic floor that could be sloped for performance shows or level for other events. In addition, the Civic boasted ample parking and an expansive entrance area that allowed for a robust arrivals scene, complete with an extended red carpet and bleachers seating 1,000 fans.
It took three months to prepare the Civic for an Oscar show. While other performances continued in the hall, miles of cable and mountains of equipment were being temporarily installed backstage. During the Oscars’ eight years in Santa Monica, Bob Hope hosted the show for six years, followed by Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon. In 1969, the Academy Awards moved to another Welton Becket venue — the 3,400-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center.
The 40th Annual Academy Awards – the last Oscar ceremony held at the Civic — were postponed from April 8 to April 10, 1968, because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 3. It was the first Academy Awards show to be postponed. Award presenters Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll, along with musical performers Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Jr., dropped out of the original ceremony to attend Dr. King’s funeral. But they all agreed to be part of a rescheduled April 10 program. In an opening address, Gregory Peck gave a moving tribute to Dr. King, emphasizing how the motion picture industry can build a “lasting memorial” to Dr. King by “continuing to make films that celebrate the dignity of man, whatever his race or color or creed.” Presenter Sidney Poitier, whose films “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were both nominated for awards that year, received a moving standing ovation. The 40th Academy Awards were the second major event that was postponed by the assassination of a beloved American leader. The 1963 civil rights benefit “Stars for Freedom” was delayed 11 days to Dec. 6 because of the Nov. 22 death of President John F. Kennedy.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Civic Auditorium was a world-class performance venue for decades, and its massive hydraulic floor would often lower for popular trade and hobby shows. Occasionally, the Civic would also serve as a platform for political and social activities, as on December 8, 1961, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended a civil rights rally sponsored by Santa Monica’s Calvery Baptist Church and a local business group. Addressing a crowd of 1,500 people, Dr. King delivered a rousing version of his Future of Integration speech. According to an Associated Press story appearing in newspapers nationwide, King asserted the African American vote in the American South was being illegally curtailed and that if five million eligible Black voters were allowed to cast ballots, it would rid the region of racist politicians and add 10 African American members of Congress within the decade. Perhaps not lost on the Santa Monica rally was the poignant irony that the vibrant Black neighborhood of Belmar was demolished to make way for the Civic Auditorium.
Stars for Freedom
On Dec. 6, 1963, the Civic hosted another major event in support of social justice – the Stars for Freedom civil rights benefit, organized by Sammy Davis Jr. and featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s second appearance at the Civic. The event grossed nearly $46,000, which after expenses netted more than $8,500 each to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality. Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown served as honorary event chairman, and Santa Monica Mayor Rex Minter and Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty were honorary vice chairs.
Davis enlisted his famous friends Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Count Basie, and Nelson Riddle to perform with him. Dr. King, Davis, Sinatra, Martin and Basie stayed on to host a backstage gala after the concert. Stars for Freedom was originally planned for Nov. 25, but was postponed 11 days due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy three days earlier. In the interim, the Santa Monica City Council voted to rename the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Auditorium, but the renaming fell through on a technicality and a second vote was never called. A second Stars for Freedom program was presented at the Civic on Dec. 4, 1964. The event co-chairs were June Allyson and Carolyn Jones. Featured artists included Steve Allen, Bill Dana, Oscar Brown, Jr., Bennie Carter, and Carmen McRae. Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston and many other stars endorsed the event. Wendell Franklin, the first African American to be hired as an assistant director on a major Hollywood film, directed the Stars for Freedom show, breaking yet another barrier.
The T.A.M.I. Show
The T.A.M.I. Show (Teenage Awards Music International) shot at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was the first Rock n’ Roll concert documentary ever filmed. On October 28 and 29, 1964, the Civic was filled with an audience of excited teenagers from Santa Monica High School who were given free tickets to the event. Filmed using an early predecessor to digital cameras called electronovision, the T.A.M.I. Show became a model for live musical performance broadcasts and the later concept of music videos. Chuck Berry kicked off a lineup featuring superstars across all pop genres, including Diana Ross and the Supremes, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Leslie Gore and more. In 2006, the T.A.M.I. Show was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Watch the show:
In December 1963, three young men packed professional camera gear, two 10-foot surfboards and a minimum of clothing for a two-month round-the-world surfing and filming expedition in search of pristine beaches and perfect waves. The result was Bruce Brown’s highly influential surfing documentary “Endless Summer,” which had its game-changing public debut at the Santa Monica Civic. At a time when surf culture was limited to coastal regions of the United States, Endless Summer was the first — and to some, the best — surfing film ever made, bringing surf culture to the mainstream. The nomadic surfer lifestyle reflected in the feature-length documentary influenced a generation of teens, even capturing the imaginations of land-locked kids.
After showing it in school auditoriums to small indifferent groups, Brown succeeded in booking his film at the Civic, where it was screened as part of a surfing fair. It sold out seven nights in a row, giving the independent film the buzz it needed to earn national distribution and record-breaking box office. In 2002, Endless Summer was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Stairway of the Stars
In 1949, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District began mounting a district-wide student concert each spring called Stairway of the Stars. It continues to this day, featuring students from the 4th through 12th grades, sometime joined by performers from Santa Monica City College in a culminating recital. When the Civic Auditorium was completed in 1958, the Stairway event moved to the venue from its original location at Santa Monica High School’s Barnum Hall. After more than half a century at the Civic Auditorium, Stairwayreturned to Barnum Hall in 2013 following closure of the Civic. At least four published record albums were recorded of Stairway concerts at the Civic, in which one can hear the quality of the pioneering acoustical design by consultant Vern O. Knudsen. The state-of-the-art venue also made it possible for Stairway concerts to attract well-known composers for guest appearances, including Nelson Riddle, Roger Nichols, Ferde Grofe, Ernest Gold, and Bruce Sutherland.