Historic Places

History of Santa Monica

Few traces remain today of Santa Monica’s early history – home to Gabrieleno Indians and Spanish and Mexican ranchos.  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.

Huntington Map

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 Sante 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.


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.


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.