From Grandeur, To Grandeur
Adrian Forty, Professor of Architectural History at University College London insisted, “No design works unless it embodies ideas that are held common by the people for whom the object is intended.” If any grandiose beach club property has achieved this feat, it is Santa Monica’s Hotel Casa del Mar.
In the early 20s, Santa Monica was experiencing an economic boom, and soon became known as the “Atlantic City of the West.” During this time numerous beach clubs sprung up along the coast, including the lavish Hotel Casa del Mar. Constructed in the Renaissance Revival style in 1926 by Los Angeles-based architect Charles F. Plummer for $2 million, Hotel Casa del Mar was originally a glamorous beach club for Hollywood’s A-List, and deemed Santa Monica’s “Grand Dame.” Members paid dues of $10-$12 per month to belong; the club was the hub of L.A.’s “see and be seen” elite social club.
In 1941, during World War II, fear of the Japanese invading the area beaches led the military to enlist the club as military housing. Hence, the US Navy claimed the building and used the hotel for a recreation center for enlisted men. In the early 1960s, the club closed its doors after struggling to regain its pre-war glory. The next 10-year chapter of Hotel Casa del Mar continues its fascinating history, as it served as home to the Synanon Foundation, a drug-rehabilitation program. Synanon was the first of its kind; a self-help (no doctors) drug rehabilitation program founded by Charles “Chuck” Dederich Sr. who directed the program for over a decade. In the late 1970s, Nathan Pritikin purchased the building. He developed a nutrition and health-care facility, the Pritikin Longevity Center, which closed its doors in 1997. Finally, the Edward Thomas Company, comprising brothers Edward and Thomas Slatkin, hailing from a long line of hoteliers, purchased the building and infused it with a $50+ million dollar restoration while working in partnership with the Historic Resources Group. The property reopened as Hotel Casa del Mar in 1999. Today, the property is one of the only remaining examples of the 1920s beach clubs that once monopolized the coast, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The 1996-1999 renovation, which restored Hotel Casa del Mar to its former opulence and grandeur, was led by HLW International, a New York/Los Angeles firm in partnership with Thomson Design Associates of Boston. Leslie “Lale” Armstrong was the project manager and senior designer. An architect for 35+ years, she is also responsible for the renovation of the Chantilly House in Bel Air. Structurally speaking, Hotel Casa del Mar is actually three structural systems in one. The underpinnings are concrete, while the second and third floors are built like wooden framed houses. The renovations included removal of the beach lockers and the beach/basement level swimming pool (where Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams perfected their swim strokes). In their stead a large ballroom with side spaces was built including insertion of vertical seismic sheer walls and 60” deep beams to carry and balance the weight of the main salon and terrace above. All the rooms and bathrooms were reconfigured, and all electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems were replaced. It was redesigned to be wheelchair accessible throughout the hotel. As well, a wading pool was built on the terrace two levels above the beach.
Additionally, the eight-story property features a brick-and-sandstone facade, red-tile roof, brown iron balconies, and elaborate relief work with escutcheons adorning the front door. There are an array of sculpted figures throughout the facade including cupids, angels and Renaissance personalities. The interior design was managed by several Los Angeles firms using a 1920s aesthetic including simple, soft lighting and classic materials that were preferred in the 1920s such as damask and velvet draperies, and fruitwood and bronze furnishings. The color schemes reflect both land and sea. Today the fine finishes are in elegant gold and green hues complimented by shades of blue and apricot.
Hotel Casa del Mar offers 129 elegantly appointed guest rooms and suites, imparting the ambiance of a chic beach estate, with a historic sense of place. Most rooms boast panoramic views of the Pacific coastline from Palos Verdes to Malibu, while others offer cityscapes of Santa Monica. Hotel Casa del Mar offers 5,100 square feet of meeting space, a sea wellness spa and several restaurants including the newly opened Terrazza where guests can look forward to a unique aesthetic and culinary experience inspired by the classic Italian Mediterranean seaside.
This was an enormous project that restored Hotel Casa del Mar to its original elegance. It’s a magnificent destination for a family vacation, an anniversary getaway or just a quick weekend jaunt. The hotel is right on the sand of the Santa Monica Southern California beach community surrounded by the Santa Monica Bay and the famous Santa Monica Pier. It is walking distance to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, the bustling Third Street Promenade, Main Street and the stunning vistas of nearby cliff-top Palisades Park.
In many ways, the architecture and the building itself serves as a link to the past, as the building has come full circle to again host the quintessential grand beachfront club experience. Juhani Pallasmaa, professor of architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology and former Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture asserted, “A profound design process eventually makes the patron the architect, and every occasional visitor in the building a slightly better human being.” Frankly, who wouldn’t be better for experiencing the grandeur of the Hotel Casa del Mar? Absolutely no one.