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The Grand Santa Monica Hotel

The Hotel Arcadia was Santa Monica’s first high-end beach hotel, and the site of scams, hijinks, and at least one attempted murder

This summer, many local Angelenos and droves of vacationers will descend upon Santa Monica’s famed North Beach. They will find ample amusements: adults swinging from monkey bars at the original muscle beach, the rickety roller coaster on the Santa Monica Pier, swimming in the almost always chilly waters of the Pacific. For those staying overnight, there are a variety of high-end options—the exquisitely art deco Casa Del Mar, the charming Shutters, and Loews Santa Monica. These hotels all stand in the footprint of the long-gone Hotel Arcadia, which, for a brief two decades at the turn of the last century, helped put Santa Monica on the resort town map.


The town of Santa Monica was officially incorporated in 1886. Founded 11 years earlier, this sleepy, rustic village had increasingly become a go-to amusement spot for the booming population of Southern California—a 50-minute journey by rail took visitors from Downtown Los Angeles to the North Beach of Santa Monica. There they could frolic in beachside bathhouses like the one owned by Michael Duffy, where you could soak "yourself in the oceanic fluid, hot, cold, fresh salt." The Santa Monica Hotel had been built in the late 1870s, but besides it and some rudimentary boarding houses and cottages, there were few accommodations for overnight guests. And there were no grand, "first-class hotels" for wintering and summering visitors from the East. This, after all, was the age of the grand California resort hotel—Pasadena’s Raymond and Castle Green, the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, and the soon-to-open Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego.

J.W. Scott, the former proprietor of the Santa Monica Hotel, was determined to change this state of affairs. In 1885, he bought a large plot of oceanfront land from the Southern Pacific Railroad Company and subdivided it into 40 lots. He sold 30 of the lots for $1,500 each. He used that money and investments from the Pacific Improvement Company (the development arm of the Southern Pacific) to begin building the Hotel Arcadia, named after Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker, a wealthy landowner and wife of the co-founder of Santa Monica.

The switchback railway in the 1880s.
photCL_555 Ernest Marquez Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Located on Ocean Avenue between what is today Colorado Avenue and Pico Boulevard, the grand hotel’s construction was reported on by the local papers with breathless interest. According to the Los Angeles Times, building materials included 450,000 feet of lumber, 300,000 shingles, and 200,000 bricks. The grand opening of the 125-room hotel (which was later expanded) was celebrated on January 24, 1887.

The Hotel Arcadia ... which was opened to the public with a grand ball ... is a building which will compare favorably, both externally and internally, with any hotel on the coast. It has a magnificent location on a low bluff ... which affords an uninterrupted view of the ocean on one side and of a wide extent of valley, plain and mountains on the other. There are three floors on the land side and four fronting the ocean. Everything provided for the comfort of guests in the leading hotels of the world will be found in this establishment. Each room has an electronic bell. There is a handsome billiard room for ladies, and a "sun parlor" overlooking the beach, where invalids can enjoy the solar rays without any wind. The carpeting, decoration and furniture are extremely elegant, the latter having been carefully selected in the East. [An] idea of the size of the hotel may be formed when it is stated that about 1000 yards of carpet were required for the halls alone.

Santa Monica finally had a hotel worthy of a first class resort town and the 3,000 or so visitors said to flock there daily during the summer. A novel, undulating Thomson Switchback Railway transported guests 500 feet, over a marshy ravine, from the Southern Pacific depot to the Arcadia’s front door. The hotel had a ballroom, a hot saltwater bathhouse (essential due to the Pacific’s cold temperature), six hundred feet of porches, an elegant garden of palm trees, and open ocean bathing. The Arcadia’s imposing tower offered panoramic views and became a landmark visible from miles around.

Left, ca. 1900; right, 1890.
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

In the grand dining room, patrons dined on of-the-moment delicacies like terrapin stew and took in views described by one columnist thusly:

The light dash of the murmuring waves is below you, and as you breakfast you can look out upon the cool, blue expanse of waters and see the white surf as it creeps in upon the sands. Windows fill nearly all the outer wall space of the room, and upon one side is the smooth cheek of the ocean, dimpled by sunbeams; upon the other hand the gardens full of bloom and perennial fragrance.

The hotel sponsored excursions to the outlying country, where guests enjoyed hay rides and picnics, and sang along while their peers played the banjo. There were casual midweek balls and formal Saturday balls, which found Southern California high society ladies in dresses made by tony designers, including the House of Worth in Paris. Holidays at the hotel were always especially busy and festive. The Los Angeles Times reported on the seemingly idyllic scene at the hotel on July 4, 1892:

The delicious lunch was enlivened by the music of the Lewinski orchestra and at dinner they gave a fine medley of national airs among their other fine selections. All the afternoon the bathers kept time to the fine music by the Douglass band on the beach. There was a merry crowd all day long in the surf. Fireworks on the beach after dark gave beautiful pictures in colored lights of beach groupings and surf, and were very enjoyable. The ball was a great success, the ballroom being beautifully decorated with ferns and bunting – A fan of flags at one end was noticeable. There were just enough people on the floor, and with the delightful music and excellent time of the orchestra, everybody looked well pleased and happy.

However, things were not always as idyllic as they appeared. The hotel changed management numerous times, but for most of its existence was owned by the Pacific Improvement Company (which also owned the Del Monte) as a kind of promotional resort for the Southern Pacific Railway. Slow seasons occasionally led to the hotel’s closure, especially as middle and working class attractions like nearby Ocean Park and Venice were opened to the public.

There were interpersonal problems as well. In 1888, a fight between the poorly treated African American waitstaff at the Arcadia and their white steward turned ugly when the steward assaulted a waiter with the butt of a gun after a perceived slight.

Meanwhile, prominent LA men used the hotel as an assignation spot, souring the hotel’s reputation.

In 1899, a fire originating from the fish grill in the basement drove hysterical guests scrambling to save their property:

One lady rushed into her room, threw her shoes on top of her best hat, then put her hat on her head and dashed out, after securing an ink stand, filled with ink, which she held high above her head. When asked why she had the stand, she regained her presence of mind sufficiently to drop the ink, spilling the fluid all over a handsome gown, which was ruined.

Luckily the fire caused minimal damage. More damage was caused by the periodic appearance of "hotel sharks," who targeted resorts of the rich and idle during the Gilded Age. In 1889, one such man appeared at the Hotel Arcadia. According to the Los Angeles Times:

During August, in the full flush of the season, arrived one day a well-dressed, good looking young man, who, as he returned J.W. Scott’s salute of "good morning," inscribed his name on the register as "W.T. Inglis," omitting, however, to write a place of residence. He was accompanied by a large trunk, a hat-box, and a valise, all of first-class style and make, and judging by his general appearance and that of his outfit, he was a man of means. He soon became a marked figure about the hotel lobby, for he, as a rule, wore a jaunty nautical cap.

Postcard ca. 1902.
Courtesy Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection/William H. Hannon Library

Claiming to be a wealthy Irish lieutenant on sick leave, he soon charmed many hotel guests with his excellent bass voice, becoming "much in demand at the piano in the drawing room." He quickly swindled the hotel, local bars, and hotel guests out of large sums of money, escaping before he could be brought to justice.

Like many seaside hotels, the Hotel Arcadia operated often as a makeshift hospital, and occasionally as a morgue. This was the era of the "sea-air" cure, when many Midwestern, Eastern, and local invalids flocked to the shores of the Pacific to try and repair their health. In 1900, Dr. Elizabeth J. Palmer, one of the first female doctors in Los Angeles, lay dying at the hotel when it was discovered that her former nurse had stolen two diamond rings from the good doctor’s fingers.

In 1901, many Arcadia bathhouse-goers were frightened when they stumbled across a disturbing sight:

A hole large enough to contain the body of a man had been scooped out in front of the Arcadia bathhouse, and in it, sure enough, was [a] body, cold and lifeless, but made of wet sand, [it] had such a creepy look that many women and some men would not take more than one glance at it.

By 1901, the Arcadia had bigger problems than a ghoulish sand-sculpting prankster. As the city of Santa Monica grew in residents, they were increasingly at odds with the tenters, hoteliers, and amusement vendors that congregated on the shore. A city ordinance stated that liquor could only be served along with a meal costing "not less than 25 cents" at a "table in a dining room in which there is no bar." The management of the hotel balked at this and threatened to close the hotel altogether if they had to close their bar. That April the hotel’s management was fined after a city marshall claimed that during his most recent inspection he had seen a "first class bar with a white-jacketed man in attendance."

Reporters descended upon the couple’s blood-splattered suite at the Arcadia, taking pictures and drawing diagrams of how the crime occurred.

But greater trouble was to come. On September 3, 1903, a legendary crime occurred at the Hotel Arcadia. Prominent Angeleno Griffith J. Griffith, mining baron and father of Griffith Park, spent the summer months occupying rooms 101 to 105 with his wife, Christina, and their 15-year-old son, Van. It was the end of the season, and Mrs. Griffith was packing a trunk in preparation for their imminent return to their home in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reported on what happened next:

Griffith entered the room and pulled his revolver. He pointed it at Mrs. Griffith, and said. "Get your prayer book and kneel down, and cover your eyes. I’m going to shoot you, and going to kill you." Mrs. Griffith then begged him to lay aside his pistol, saying "Oh, Griffith, don’t, don’t," and thereupon she was shot by Griffith. She sprang toward him after being shot, and scuffled with him, and noticing the open window, let go and jumped out. She fell on the porch roof and fractured her shoulder. She got up and walked on the roof to the open window and got into the room on the second floor, where she collapsed.

Remarkably, Christina survived, though her left eye was removed and her arm broken. She was determined to prosecute the blustering Griffith, who she claimed was a secret alcoholic prone to paranoid outbursts of violence. Reporters descended upon the couple’s blood-splattered suite at the Arcadia, taking pictures and drawing diagrams of how the crime occurred. Less than two months later, a still recuperating Christina took prosecutors on a tour of the crime scene, reliving her ordeal with "fortitude" before having dinner in the hotel’s main dining room. Griffith was convicted, and would serve less than two years for attempting to murder his wife.

Shutters and Casa del Mar today.
Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock

In many ways, the Griffith shooting signaled the death knell of the Hotel Arcadia. As the 20th century progressed, North Beach was increasingly eclipsed by the southern beaches. The crumbling hotel’s grandeur was usurped by bigger, more luxurious hotels in Long Beach and Redondo. A 1904 plan to turn the hotel into the beachside clubhouse of the downtown Occidental Club failed, as did a plan to turn it into a military school. By 1909, it was reported that "during the past year it has been deserted by all save the bats and a lone watchman."

The once grand Hotel Arcadia was torn down that year by its new owner, the developer Charles F. Schrader. "In the passing of the Arcadia, the beach sky line has suffered a change," one observer lamented. "The hotel tower, lone sentinel overlooking the sea, was the highest peak to pierce the clouds that blew off the sea, and was a familiar sight from all parts of the city." The palms from the formal gardens were planted on the new terraced residential tracts that were laid out in its place. North Beach would not recuperate until the 1920s, when the construction of expansive beach clubs and elegant hotels like Casa del Mar would again make it the center of seaside fun in Santa Monica.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler


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