History of Santa Monica

The Tongva or Gabrielino, indigenous to Southern California for thousands of years, inhabited the Los Angeles Basin, north Orange County, the Southern Channel Island and San Clemente Islands. Their villages were often built near water sources like rivers and creeks. A hunter-gatherer society, they traded widely with other tribes like the Chumash, fished along the Los Angeles and also built sea-worthy canoes, padding to Catalina Island for abalone.

Kuruvungna Springs survives today beneath a Mexican Cypress that is more than 150 years old. Located on the site of a former Tongva village, it is now developed as the campus of University High School in West Los Angeles. The Tongva consider the springs, which flow at 22,000 gallons per day, to be one of their last remaining sacred sites and they continue to hold ceremonial events at the springs. Descendants of the Gabrielino-Tongva have restored and revitalized the springs which today are preserved and protected by the The Gabrielino-Tongva Springs Foundation.

A mature Mexican Cypress tree rises above a section of the Kuruvungna Sacred springs.

A Mexican cypress planted more than 150 years ago at Kuruvungna Sacred Springs in West Los Angeles. Photo: Lesly Hall

The Tongva, forced to assimilate to Spanish and Mexican culture, were rechristened Gabrielinos because of their close association with the Mission San Gabriel. The Tongva language was on the brink of extinction by 1900, leaving only fragmentary records of the native tongue and culture. But fortunately, through oral tradition, the Tongva passed their lessons, customs and beliefs, and how to understand the natural world through the generations.

The springs are tied to the naming of Santa Monica, according to accounts of the Portola expedition. Father Juan Crespi’s diary remarks that the flowing water reminded him of Saint Monica’s tears for her then wayward son Augustine before his conversion, as that day was Saint Monica’s name day. When Santa Monica’s founders later heard this story, they were inspired to name their new city after the saint.

The town of Santa Monica was launched by two entrepreneurs: Colonel Robert S. Baker, who made a fortune in mining equipment before taking up cattle and sheep ranching, and Senator John P. Jones of Nevada, owner of silver mines. They purchased land along the coast, hoping to develop a prosperous industrial port. An eloquent auctioneer initiated the sale of the first town lots for the new city on July 15, 1875 with evocative imagery:

We will sell at public outcry to the highest bidder the Pacific Ocean draped with western sky of scarlet and gold; we will sell a bay filled with white winged ships; we will sell a southern horizon, rimmed with a choice of purple mountains carved in castles and turrets and domes; a frostless, bracing, warm yet languid air braided in and out with sunshine and odored with breath of flowers.

Although Baker and Jones built a wharf and railroad, their dream of a port city ultimately failed. Rather, the natural scenic and environmental assets extolled by the auctioneer set the new city in a new direction as a beach resort and an attractive place to live.

An 1875 lithograph map of Santa Monica shows the city’s first borders, street grid and lots. A submap at the bottom left shows the “proposed city” in the geographic context of greater Los Angeles county, and as the terminus of a railroad line.

Cycles of boom and bust followed in the decade after the city’s founding. The first commercial buildings appeared on Second Street in the 1870s and 1880s and moved up to Third Street by the early 1890s. In 1886 the city of Santa Monica was incorporated. By 1887, a rate war between the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads brought floods of people to Southern California, setting off a real estate boom. Much of Santa Monica was agricultural at this time, with flower barley and bean fields.

Electric trolleys began running in 1896, linking Santa Monica to Los Angeles and stimulating growth. New residential subdivisions sprang up and the town of Ocean Park became part of Santa Monica. Piers were a great attraction for coastal cities – at one time Santa Monica had five. The current pier, built in 1909 and 1916, showcasing a historic landmark carousel, is the last remaining amusement pier on the west coast. Movie-making also came here, with the Vitagraph Film Company setting up shop next to the Rapp Saloon and other companies filming in town and on the beach. By 1915 they decamped for Hollywood, fleeing the coastal fog.

The 1920s were years of explosive growth helped by the establishment of Douglas Aircraft at one of the abandoned film studios. The first around-the-world flight in 1924 by Douglas World Cruisers started from Santa Monica. Residential development and the central business district expanded rapidly, with Henshey’s Department Store and the Criterion Theater opening. Commercial development progressed eastward onto Fourth Street. A number of prestigious beach clubs opened and film celebrities built beach houses north of the pier in an area dubbed the Gold Coast.

 Black and white photo from the 1920s of Henshy’s department store. The four-story Beaus Arts Classical building is seen at an angle, among a few other smaller buildings in the city’s existing commercial district.

Henshey’s Department Store. Photo: Santa Monica Public Library

When the Depression struck, Santa Monica was hit hard. The owners of the new Bay Cities Guaranty Building went bankrupt. As an antidote to the city’s economic distress, offshore gambling ships attracted many patrons by water taxi. The Rex, the most luxurious of these ships, began operations in 1938.  State Attorney General Earl Warren forced its closure following a dramatic 9-day siege battling high-pressure water hoses used as weapons by the ship’s owners.

People returned to work locally with the development of Douglas DC-3 commercial airliner and new public works projects, such as the City Hall on Fourth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard.

with a dramatic corner tower at left and a section of park with a few trees in the foreground.

Santa Monica City Hall, 1903. Photo: Santa Monica Public Library

World War II brought a massive surge in population with the infusion of military personnel and workers at Douglas Aircraft who worked shifts around the clock to build military aircraft. Postwar prosperity brought a boom in housing construction, especially milt-family and business development. The Sears store opened in 1947 followed the next year by the Rand Corporation.

Although the Santa Monica Freeway, completed in 1966, brought the promise of prosperity, in fact it dispersed consumers away to outlying shopping centers. In an attempt to revitalize downtown’s fading retail sector, Third Street was converted into a pedestrian mall in 1965, but its urban design plan did not bring shoppers back. Santa Monica Place, an enclosed mall designed by Frank Gehry, was constructed as a redevelopment project in 1980. With the rapid fading of the old pedestrian mall in the 1980s, the city created the Bayside District Corporation to revitalize the area. The public space was redesigned and a mix of entertainment, restaurants and retail uses transformed the old mall into the vibrant Third Street Promenade. Theaters were the catalyst for attracting people, and two older theaters – the Elmiro and the Criterion – were converted into multiplexes. The success of the Promenade has made downtown Santa Monica a model for cities everywhere.

Santa Monica continues to evolve as city and community. With thoughtful attention to our past, we can preserve Santa Monica’s rich heritage. Click here for a video of the history of Santa Monica.

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