Barnum Hall, named after an esteemed principal of Santa Monica High School, was constructed in 1938 under the auspices of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was one of several federal agencies founded to create jobs during the Depression of the 1930s. Because of its work many public buildings across America were conceived and constructed. In Santa Monica, Barnum Hall, the Main Post Office and City Hall are monuments to this historical moment.
Barnum Hall is an excellent example of one of the most popular architectural styles of the day—Streamline Moderne. Streamline Moderne was a particularly appropriate choice for WPA buildings because it conveyed a sense of progress and optimism that more traditional styles lacked. Drawing on the aerodynamic imagery of modern transportation machines—such as ocean liners, automobiles, and trains—the style suggested forward movement and a trust in the future.
Designed by the locally active firm of Marsh, Smith & Powell, Barnum Hall displays many of the classic trademarks of the style including curved end walls and smooth stucco surfaces. The typical emphasis on horizontality seen in Streamline Moderne is achieved here by a horizontally-striated narrow canopy over the entrance area, as well as by the grid of rectangular glass windows above the canopy. The use of metal poles (supporting the canopy and facing the glass grid) is also a hallmark of the style. Finally, porthole windows on the entrance doors, as well as the overall bulk of the building, lend the structure a nautical feel that brings to mind the modern ocean liners of the day.
Barnum Hall has interesting interior features as well, particularly the tile mosaic and fire curtain mural executed by Stanton MacDonald-Wright. MacDonald-Wright, an artist of international renown, received funding from a branch of the WPA known as the Federal Arts Project and supervised a team of artisans to complete these artistically significant works.
Located on the Santa Monica High School campus, Barnum Hall was originally called the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and served as a vital community performance space for many years. By the 1990s, however, it was in a state of disrepair and was closed in 1997. A dedicated effort by the school district, community volunteers, and the city led to Barnum Hall’s successful renovation and the building was reopened as a working theatre in 2002. Both inside and out it is a superb example of a style that captured Americans’ imaginations at a difficult time in our country’s history.