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For celebrities, the Gold Coast was an endless VIP summer.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

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How Old Hollywood and starchitecture built Santa Monica’s Gold Coast

The stars of the silver screen collided with the stars of architecture on a small strip of beachfront in Santa Monica

On a Sunday afternoon in July of 1937, a housewarming party was held at 546 Palisades Beach Road in Santa Monica, on one of America’s most exclusive and fabled streets. Dubbed by various wags “the American Riviera,” “Rolls Royce Row,” and the “Gold Coast,” this low stretch of oceanfront below the craggy Palisades featured 30 or so eclectically-styled summer homes. But the reason for this neighborhood's international fame had nothing to do with its innovative architecture and everything to do with its residents, who included the most powerful men and women in the movie business. The new neighbors at the Wallace Neff-designed “Monterey Colonial” were no exception:

When guests arrived for the Sunday cocktail house warming at Virginia and [20th Century Fox President] Darryl Zanuck's Santa Monica beach house, Surf Cottage, there was time out for a series of admiring comments on the quaint New England type dwelling. The authentic old English glass pictures, the beautiful hand hooked rugs and the lovely colonial type furnishings all caused enthusiastic approval. Then into the sea and the surf filled swimming pool and on with sports and social festivity went the guests.

The Zanucks were joining an endless VIP summer. In 1922 the Santa Monica Land and Water Company had offered this prime stretch of beachfront to the city of Santa Monica for under $100,000. The city declined the offer, and instead private beach clubs, which had long dotted this swath of waterfront north of the Santa Monica Pier, continued to rule the shore.

Members of the burgeoning silent movie industry, living and working punishing hours in the landlocked neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, spent off-days at the clubs relaxing into newly fashionable tans.

Within a few years, dozens of cash-flush movie folks had ditched the clubs and built vacation “cottages” on the narrow beachfront lots offered by the Santa Monica Land and Water Company. Many of these “cottages” were designed by California's most important architects: Richard Neutra, Wallace Neff, Julia Morgan, John Byers, Paul Williams, and Webber and Spaulding.

Aerial view of actress Marion Davies’s beach house.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
From the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection: Davies dives for a ball in front of her beach house.
Public domain

Hollywood in the twenties and thirties was a tightly-knit nouveau riche community eager to assert itself as America's new aristocracy. Luckily, their ascendance paralleled that of the great California architects, many of whom specialized in the whimsical revival styles, which served as striking backdrops for Hollywood's public duties and private revels.

Though today these styles seem incongruous on the beach, at the time they signaled taste and pedigree. They were houses built in reverse, with showy fronts facing the beach and fortified garages and gates lining the busy beach road.

Curious motorists who drove by had to content themselves with the line of chauffeurs polishing “nickel appointments” on one luxury car after another in front of the garages on Sunday mornings.

Many of these mysterious retreats quickly became famous the world over. There was the John Byers-designed French Provincial beach house of MGM's undisputed movie “queen” Norma Shearer and her husband, the producer Irving Thalberg.

Frequent guest F. Scott Fitzgerald described their homes as being “built for great emotional moments” with “an air of listening as if the far silences of its vistas hid an audience.” To make sure the sickly Thalberg's rest was undisturbed, Shearer insisted that the “homey and comfortable” beach house be completely soundproof, blocking the noise of the crashing surf.

Nearby was the Wallace Neff-designed Venetian-adobe revival belonging to the “King and Queen of Hollywood,” Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. It was a showplace, filled with “antiques purchased in Florence and Venice during a recent world tour.”

Sounding ever the weary royal, Pickford explained that it would “be a resting spot for Doug and me. A place where we can entertain our friends away from the city.”

The popular and debonair Neff also designed Pickfair, the couple’s famous Beverly Hills home. Neff adored working with the pliable and deep-pocketed film community. “The motion picture people are used to hiring experts and taking their advice,” he explained. “And the stars—well, they've learned to take direction.”

Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives

MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was the exception to Neff’s theory. Used to getting his way, Mayer was much too impatient to deal with troublesome architects. As he explained to his daughter, “when we need a set at the studio, we build it overnight.”

He simply had famed MGM art director Cedric Gibbons draw up plans for his Gold Coast lot. Using studio carpenters and outsourced labor, a 20-room Spanish Revival vacation house with one-foot-thick walls—to assure the cool temperatures Mayer preferred—was ready in a record six weeks. In the ’60s the house became famous as the pad where Peter Lawford entertained brother-in-law John F. Kennedy during the height of Camelot.

Breaking from the revival tradition, MGM story department head Albert Lewin commissioned modern master Richard Neutra to build one of his “machines in the garden.” The finished product was a narrow, curving masterpiece, “gold and creamy white,” that was later occupied by Mae West.

Ever conscious of her likewise creamy complexion, West never ventured onto the beach. Her costar Cary Grant lived for a time up the shore at the Norman Revival designed by Paul Roe Crawley for the silent movie star Norma Talmadge. It was here that the perpetually tan Grant and his housemate Randolph Scott would spark gossip about the nature of their relationship.

Grant could often be found partying at the comedienne Marion Davies’s 100-plus-room Georgian Revival Palace, which dwarfed every other structure on the Gold Coast. Davies’s longtime partner William Randolph Hearst turned to a young architect named William Flannery to build this gargantuan showplace, filled with Hearst's numerous historic interiors plundered from the castles of Europe.

His main architect, Julia Morgan, perpetually busy with the construction of San Simeon, contributed the guesthouse, which still stands, and the 110-foot-long pool. Here, Marion hosted massive costume parties and weekend-long outdoor soirees that became part of Hollywood lore. Ever considerate of her guests, rows of lockers and changing rooms and scores of bedrooms were available for their ease and comfort. The actress Louise Brooks recalled a typical day at Marion’s:

There were 20 people to lunch, 40 were added in the afternoon to swim in the Venetian pool of white marble which separated the house from the ocean, and 40 more were added for the buffet supper served on the porch overlooking the pool.

Darryl F. Zanuck’s Santa Monica beach house.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

But Marion wasn't the only resident who threw parties everyone would remember. According to the Los Angeles Times, “during prohibition, bootleggers in high powered boats reportedly made regular liquor deliveries at Gold Coast homes.” Screenwriter Jesse Laskey Jr., the son of Paramount founder Jesse Laskey, remembered his family’s slightly more humble abode:

Our Santa Monica beach house … was a two-story hacienda surrounding a garden with a fountain. It originally had twelve guest suites... [which] my father enlarged… still further. We became a kind of hotel for the famous... I can remember no time when we were not inundated with house guests.

Despite all the raucous parties, the Gold Coast also had a decidedly family feel, with networks of coworkers, intermarried families, and longtime friends that exemplified early Hollywood.

In time, both of Mayer’s daughters, powerful players themselves, would have summer homes near their parents. As a teenager, Darryl Zanuck's son, legendary producer Richard Zanuck, would practice his swimming in Marion Davies's pool and flirt with the Thalbergs’ daughter, Katherine, on the beach.

Houses were leased, borrowed, and sold to other movie folks frequently, meaning that at some point almost every Hollywood celebrity one could think of lived or stayed on the Gold Coast. This list includes Orson Welles, Harold Lloyd, David Niven, Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, Anita Loos, and oilman J. Paul Getty.

But the glitz of the Gold Coast soon began to dim. The slow exodus northward to secluded Malibu accelerated after World War II.

The 1933 construction of the public breakwater—a seawall built to reduce the intensity of the waves and reverse the effects of erosion—massively expanded the shoreline, making the beaches wider and less private. This 1933 pier was built to create the short-lived Santa Monica Yacht Harbor, which was located next to the Santa Monica Pier. Privately owned groynes (similar to breakwaters) also assisted in the buildup of sediment along the coast.

In 1945, Davies sold her legendary beach house, which was eventually torn down and turned into a private club. Palisades Beach Road was tremendously expanded, becoming part of what we now call the Pacific Coast Highway.

The state of California began buying up the beachfront, determined to make it accessible to the public. Most homes were renovated repeatedly, rendering them practically unrecognizable, or torn down to make way for public parking lots. The area reached its nadir in the 1980s, when resident and developer Dan Kolodziejski complained, “This is supposed to be the Gold Coast. But it looks more like the scum coast.”

In the past few years, the Gold Coast has experienced the beginnings of what could be a remarkable resurgence. In 2009, the beautiful Annenberg Community Beach House opened to great fanfare on the old Davies property. The innovative public beach house was designed by Fredrick Fisher and Associates in the footprint of the Davies mansion.

Both the restored Julia Morgan pool and guesthouse are open to the public. Since at least 2010, the South African luxury hotelier Kirk Lazarus of Molori Private Retreats has been quietly buying the historic homes of the Gold Coast and restoring them with the aid of archival photos. Long-neglected houses are being transformed into exclusive “boutique” hotels in the spirit of the original design.

Contemporary Santa Monica beach houses.

Today, a walk along the Gold Coast, stretching roughly from the Annenberg Beach House to the parking lots of the Santa Monica Pier, is a decidedly mixed architectural journey. Some of the houses are falling down, some are funky, and some seem to have been turned into swank private clubs.

At the old Mayer-Lawford house I had to blink twice, because there on the balcony was a butler in full white tails and tie, wiping down an already-glittering door jamb. I wanted to call up to him and ask when the party was supposed to start, and if I could join in on the fun.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 966 Palisades Beach Road was being turned into a hotel. In fact, the property is a single-family residence.

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