Conservancy News

Historian, author and West LA native Ronald Drabkin reveals some of Douglas Aircraft and the historic Associated Telephone Building’s WWII era secrets in the following article, adapted from a chapter in his new work of spy nonfiction, Beverly Hills Spy: The Double-Agent Flying Ace Who Infiltrated Hollywood and Helped Japan Attack Pearl Harbor.

The first Douglas Aircraft Company plant on Wilshire and 25th in 1920, where the foreign spies first came to observe the advanced planes being made. Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

The citizens of Santa Monica in the mid 1920’s were used to the strange sight of big airplanes being wheeled across Wilshire Boulevard, on their way to Clover Field. Douglas Aircraft was still producing planes at its original location at 25th and Wilshire Boulevard, the current Douglas Park, and needed to get the planes to a location with a larger runway.

Originally, the small Douglas planes were delivered to their customer by simply having a pilot get in the completed plane and take off from the runway adjacent to the plant, and flying directly to the customer’s location, such as the new San Diego Naval Air Station. However, the planes were getting bigger, and larger planes need more space to take off, and the eucalyptus trees on Wilshire were getting larger as well, making it dangerous to take off in this small location. Therefore, the planes needed to be moved to the location that is currently the Santa Monica airport.

A Douglas World Cruiser on world flight in 1924 with a ship traveling the ocean below the airplane. Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

In the 1930s, the three countries that were most interested in obtaining this US technology were Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan. The Soviet Union had perhaps the easiest time recruiting agents. Los Angeles had a large number of Americans who were believers in communism, and with Douglas becoming Santa Monica’s largest employer, finding a local person to get a job at a plant and steal secrets was a reasonably achievable proposition.

Germany’s local organization, the Bund, also had a large number of adherents, many of which had immigrated to California in the 1920s to escape the depression and inflation of their home country post World War I. Plant security chiefs such as John Hanson at Lockheed often had extra screening for German nationals, but agents could slip through the cracks in the process.

Japan had the hardest time infiltrating the plants; although there was a substantial Japanese population in the area, the color lines of the time made them stand out. Furthermore, throughout the 1930s and 40s, the Japanese government gave direction to their agents to not work with Japanese Americans, since they tended to be loyal to the United States.

A young Frederick Rutland in his military uniform, on board a seaplane carrier. He was the poor son of a migrant laborer who dropped out of school and joined the Royal Navy at age 14. In 1916, he flew his plane from an aircraft carrier over the German fleet during the Battle of Jutland, being the first person to fly a plane from an aircraft carrier in battle. Image in the public domain.

The Japanese government had hired a British war hero named Frederick Rutland, sending him to Los Angeles to be their spy who would be able to find the necessary secrets from the US aircraft manufacturers. It was, in theory, perfect. Rutland, an ace flier and engineer for the Royal Navy in World War I, knew as much about warplane design as anyone. Quickly buying a house on the Bird Streets in Hollywood, he established himself in the westside aerospace community, opening an office across from the runway on Clover Field and drinking with Douglas employees at locations such as the Townhouse Bar in Venice, which at the time was a members club known as the Del Monte.

Associated Telephone Building, date unknown.

Rutland hid in plain sight; his status as a British war hero meant he was maybe the last person who anyone would suspect to be a Japanese spy. By 1940, though, the FBI had gotten wind of Rutland’s activities and began to tail him to see what exactly he was up to. One of the easiest ways to track someone’s actions is by their phone records, which they did at the then new Associated Telephone Building on 1314 7th St in Santa Monica. All long distance calls were logged in those days, and at the time, a call from Hollywood to Santa Monica was long distance. The FBI agents discovered many of Rutland’s associates via these call logs; in particular, he was closely associated with Lloyd Strickland, branch manager for the Santa Monica Commercial Savings Bank.

Sample phone records from the Associated Telephone Company. Cyril Chappellet was an early executive at Lockheed.

Other FBI agents were able to ascertain what kind of aircraft information Rutland was obtaining from somewhere in Santa Monica, as can be seen in the declassified memo below.

A sample FBI file showing Rutland’s activities in Santa Monica.

The complete details of what Rutland was able to obtain from Douglas, Lockheed and others aren’t known. However, we do know what the Japanese Navy asked Rutland to obtain. It included information on the new dive bomber, which was being assembled at the Douglas plant in El Segundo, and the A20 Havoc bomber, which was being assembled in Santa Monica. This information was used to inform Japanese manufacturers on how best to improve their own planes, which would soon be in combat with US planes at Pearl Harbor and across the Pacific.

Drabkin will be in town to discuss his book in person at Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood on Tuesday, February 13. Click here for details and to reserve a seat.

The Santa Monica Conservancy strongly supports the School District’s plans to modernize Santa Monica High School’s (Samohi) 100 year-old English Building for school uses. In historic preservation terms, the modernization plans are considered an “adaptive reuse” of the historic building and show a vibrant and engaging transformation to support a 21st century learning environment that gives the building another 100 years of use for future generations of Santa Monica’s students.

The modernization project for the English Building, presented by architect Jim Favaro of the architectural firm Johnson Favaro, is a remarkable example of an adaptive reuse project that transforms the historic building. Johnson Favaro’s proposed uses and related rehabilitation are sympathetic to the original building’s characteristics, including adapting the original library spaces for contemporary student learning. Click here to explore Johnson Favaro’s presentation.

But there is still uncertainty about whether the District will pursue the path of adaptive reuse or choose the same fate as befell the campus’ historic History Building in 2021; demolition and replacement. The District requests community input for decision-making about modernization or replacement. In the coming weeks the Conservancy will reach out to school representatives and the wider community regarding the benefits of preservation.

The English Building is a unique historical resource on the Samohi campus, as the only survuving building from the first construction period of 1924. It still retains character-defining Beaux Arts features from the original design of eminent architects Allison and Allison. Among the extensive new construction following the Long Beach earthquake in 1933 by architects Marsh, Smith and Powell reflecting the New Deal period, this building alone was repaired and restored. As a historic resource the building is irreplaceable, and its historic value must part of any equation which determines its future.

Learning environments with a historical context help students internalize an understanding of place and history, creating a strong connection to their community. Preservation of historic buildings provides a tangible way to understand the past and points the curious in the direction of further research and historic inquiry. Many educational benefits come from integrating historic learning environments into the student experience.

The loss of the History Building generated a community controversy that left distrust and suspicion of the School District in its wake, and bitterness is still felt among some community leaders in Santa Monica. The modernization of the historic English Building will go a long way towards repairing and restoring our community support for the District’s planning.

The Conservancy supports preserving and revitalizing the Samohi English Building.

Let’s make history part of our future!

Image credits from top to bottom: (1) The English Building at Santa Monica High School. 7th Street Elevation composite: Nina Fresco. (2) Interior of the Santa Monica High School Library, Padilla Studios, 192-. Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives, Santa Monica Unified School District Collection. (3) Samohi’s former History Building in a still from Rebel Without a Cause where it served as the location for “Dawson High School” in 1955.

Read the Application here.

The Conservancy strongly supports preservation and revitalization of Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium. As a community benefit, historic preservation provides a framework and toolkit for developing community consensus and support for revitalization of the Civic Auditorium. With this in mind, the Conservancy recently submitted a nomination for the Civic Auditorium to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) to raise awareness and visibility for this stunning example of Mid-Century Modern architecture.

The application describes the architectural merits and cultural significance of the building, and the importance of the underlying site which tells an important story about the City, its people, and its place in history.

The National Register of Historic Places is the nation’s official list of buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts worthy of preservation. Listed properties have a high level of architectural or historic significance, an intangible benefit that is nonetheless valuable.

Listing in the Register is honorific, recognizing important places, and does not affect property rights or add additional regulatory requirements beyond those already established with city zoning and Landmark status.

As a financial incentive, listing in the NRHP does provide opportunities for federal and state tax incentives to attract private investment, as well as grants and use of State Historic Building Code alternative that could make a critical difference when analyzing the feasibility of any project or venture. See the Fact Sheet here.

The Santa Monica Conservancy continues to explore possibilities for new educational outreach and partnerships, streamlining of regulatory processes, and incentivizing proposals that take advantage of this unique opportunity to create a vibrant new future for an important community resource and introduce the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to the next generation.

The City has just completed the Surplus Land Act Process (a state-mandated process, FAQ here) that will now allow for sale, lease, or partnership opportunities in considering next steps for revitalization.

The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is an iconic Mid-Century Modern landmark designed by master architect Welton Becket. Designated as a City Landmark in 2001, today the Civic Auditorium is an endangered building in a precarious situation, despite its landmark status. Welton Becket’s 1958 innovative modern architecture retains a very high degree of historic authenticity, but the structure is seismically deficient by today’s standards and its systems are outdated. It has been closed since 2013.

IMAGES Left: The Civic Auditorium in 1958, photograph by Julius Shulman. Credit: © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Right: The Civic Auditorium in 2023. Credit: Stephen Schafer Photography.

Following nearly a year of organized public engagement, including outreach, learning workshops, and discussions, Meztli Projects released an Executive Summary of their highly anticipated Phase 1 report this month. The Summary includes the consultant team’s long-awaited list of recommendations for the murals in City Hall. The report does not recommend removing or covering the murals, rather it focuses on commissioning new artwork and interpretive panels, assessing the City’s public art collection through the lens of equity and belonging, as well as suggesting how the City might “materially address issues related to the exclusions seen in the mural” beyond the cultural sphere of City Hall. (Metzli’s Working Circle meets at Historic Santa Monica City Hall. Photo by Kenneth Lopez, Meztli Projects, 2023.)

Click here to read the Executive Summary.

In addition to the list of nine recommendations, the Executive Summary contains a significant amount of material describing Meztli’s thoughtful and thorough process to engage with community concerns about how First Peoples’ are represented in the murals, among other issues. The report states that the murals have caused considerable harm to many viewers, and that the City’s response should include and center Santa Monica First Peoples and those excluded in the murals’ depictions. The report also offers an analysis of community responses, and addresses more general themes of inclusion, repair, civic memory, and public space. The Conservancy strongly recommends that the community read the ten page Summary.

Release of Meztli’s full report in January of 2024 will mark the end of Phase 1 of the City’s overarching Reframe: City Hall Murals project. The particulars of Phase 2 will depend on what happens when City Council reviews and votes on whether to accept the recommendations during their January meeting. Specifically, Cultural Affairs will look for approval to proceed with Requests for Proposals for recommendations #1, 2 and 3. Implementation will be managed by the Arts Commission, its Public Art subcommittee, and Cultural Affairs Director Sofia Klatzker. The Conservancy will continue to be involved and supportive as these efforts move forward.

In the meantime, Meztli Projects will host an Open House at City Hall on November 9 from 5-7 p.m., to present and discuss their recommendations with the public for the first time. We hope to see you there!

Click here to register.

On October 17, the Conservancy filed a City Landmark nomination for a 65-year-old meeting hall built and owned by the Philomathean Charity Club, Inc. The organization, which is still in existence today, is one of the oldest African American women’s clubs in Southern California. Founded by seven African American women in 1921, the Philomathean Club has supported a wide range of social services, given financial support, and provided educational opportunities in the community for over one hundred years.

Click here to access the nomination.

Women and girls pose at a Philomathean Charity Club Inc. social event in the 1950s. Credit: Quinn Research Center.

Club members made a wise investment in 1958 when they built a meeting hall that included two retail spaces, allowing them to engage in community building while paying their mortgage. The rental income has been directed into a college scholarship program for Black high school students since the mortgage was paid in the 1970s. Known as Philomathean Hall, the mid-century commercial building is located at 1810 Broadway, in the heart of what was once a thriving Black community before construction of the 10 Freeway in the 1960s severed the neighborhood and displaced many residents. Once designated, Philomathean Hall will become the first landmarked building along this historic stretch of Broadway to celebrate Santa Monica’s African American history.

Philomathean Club Building, October 2022. View of Broadway elevation. Credit: Nina Fresco.

In recognition of the club’s deep significance to the local community, the Conservancy worked closely with Philomathean officials and the Quinn Research Center (QRC) to prepare the Landmark application. The nomination is supported by all current members of the Philomathean Club and will be submitted for review and approval by the Landmarks Commission next year. In the meantime, the Conservancy has made the full site history from the application available online. Click here to access the document.

“This structure visually represents a century of charitable deeds provided to people in Santa Monica and other communities. It will tell the story about seven ladies who had a dream that has multiplied over the years and is still being carried on by current members,” said Carolyne Edwards, Conservancy Board member, Philomathean Club member and co-founder of the QRC, an archive of local Black history. “Soon people will see the corner of 18th and Broadway in a more meaningful way, and future generations will have the opportunity to know this history.”