Camera Obscura

Known As
Mid-century modern
Weldon J. Fulton
1450 Ocean Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Santa Monica’s Camera Obscura is a quirky artifact — a pinhole camera capturing images from outside and showing them in a darkened room. It’s one of the many unique historic objects located in Palisades Park that contributed to the park’s designation as a landmark in 2007.

The principle behind the Camera Obscura can be traced to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Named in the 16th century from the Latin phrase camera obscuratio, or dark room, the devices were used by artists and scientists alike, and eventually led to the development of photography in 1838. The cameras became popular tourist attractions in the 19th century and were commonly found in seaside resorts.

Santa Monica’s Camera Obscura dates back to 1898, when it was acquired by Mayor Robert F. Jones, the nephew of city founder John Percival Jones. Mayor Jones, who had a passion for novelties and attractions, operated his device on the beach, where it became a big hit at 10 cents a view.

Although it was briefly relocated to then-fashionable Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park) in Los Angeles, the device returned to Santa Monica in 1899 and became part of the North Beach Bathhouse attraction.

The turret contains a lens and mirror that project an image of objects outside onto the disk inside the room.

In 1910, the city bought the Camera Obscura and moved it to Linda Vista Park (now Palisades Park) near its existing location at the foot of Broadway. As a young city, Santa Monica needed to attract tourists and hoped that this popular novelty would draw visitors to the park.

The Camera Obscura was housed next to the old Pacific Electric Station in ramshackle quarters that also contained the “Chess and Checkers Club,” a forerunner of the Senior Recreation Center.

When the new Senior Recreation Center was built in 1955, the Camera Obscura moved to a room specifically built for it at the center and it remains there today. Comprised of a revolving metal turret, with periscope, mirror and lens, it captures views from outside through a hole in the turret and projects them inside. Once it even reflected a burglary in real time.

The Senior Recreation Building where the Camera Obscura is housed was designed by noted architect Weldon J. Fulton and given to the City by philanthropist Marcellus L. Joslyn in memory of his wife. Characteristic of Fulton’s mid-century modernism is the large-scale diagonal script attached to the building’s exterior that spells “Camera Obscura” and is combined with an abstract image of a box camera atop a tripod. The same script appears in Fulton’s other local buildings, such as Zucky’s and the Montana Branch Library. He also adorned each location with the signature stonework of the era — especially prominent at the Senior Recreational Center.

It is distinctive as being one of the only revolving types of its kind in the world and serves as a reminder of the city’s origin as a seaside playground. In 2014, the Santa Monica Conservancy recognized the City of Santa Monica’s Community and Cultural Services Department with a Preservation Award for the restoration of the distinctive signage of the historic Camera Obscura.

Sources:; “A Most Novel Attraction: The Camera Obscura of Santa Monica” by Hadley Meares, June 5, 2015

City Landmark Assessment Report, Palisades Park, May, 2007