the transformative power of live theater


90403: Funky Houses in Santa Monica

Ryan McRee

ZIP code 90403 covers an almost entirely residential area of Santa Monica. The diagonal rectangle is bordered to the southwest by the Pacific Ocean, to the northeast by Centinela Ave, to the northwest by Montana Ave and to the southeast by Wilshire Blvd. The neighborhood is 83% white, and compared to the national average it’s comprised of an extremely large proportion of singles and an extremely small number of families. The 1.43 square mile area has a population of nearly 25,000 and the median home value is approximately $920,000, which is relatively high compared to the median home value of $650,000 in L.A. County as a whole.

Santa Monica was launched by two entrepreneurs: mining industrialist Colonel Robert S. Baker and silver mine owner and Nevada Senator John P. Jones. They founded the city in 1875, plotted the layout, and donated some of the land for public use (the 26-acre plot that now makes up Palisades Park was donated by Jones). The city was incorporated in 1886, and the first commercial buildings appeared on Second Street in the 1880s and spread to Third Street in the 1890s. Senator Jones built his famous “Miramar” mansion (later to make way for the Miramar Hotel) on Ocean Avenue; while no longer standing, the spot is marked by the Miramar Moreton Bay Fig Tree. The naming of the city is supposedly connected to the Kuruvungna Springs, a sacred site for the original Tongva inhabitants that still survives today beneath a 150-year-old Mexican Cypress on the campus of University High School. Father Juan Crespi, a Franciscan missionary who catalogued Junipero Serra’s exploration of California, had remarked that the springs reminded him of Saint Monica’s tears for her wayward son Augustin. This story inspired Baker and Jones in choosing a name.

In 1896, electric trolleys began running between Santa Monica and Los Angeles, and the city benefited from a real estate boom caused by low rates from competing railroad companies. The current Santa Monica pier, which is today the only remaining amusement pier on the West Coast, was opened in 1909 to great fanfare; it was expanded in 1916 to include the amusement park that remains today. In the mid-1910s it appeared that Santa Monica would become a hub for the movie business with the opening of several studios, but they soon fled inland to avoid the coastal fog. In the 1920s, Douglas Aircraft brought extensive commercial growth to Santa Monica, and the first around-the-world flight in 1924 was flown by Douglas Cruisers from the city. The Depression slowed Santa Monica’s growth, but it was somewhat kept afloat by offshore gambling ships. The beginning of WWII put a lot of people back to work at Douglas Aircraft, which had aircraft contracts with the U.S. military. The surge in population from the wartime production led to another real estate boom. The completion of the Santa Monica Freeway in 1966 failed to uphold its promise of commercial prosperity by actually driving consumers away to inland shopping centers. An attempt to re-vitalize the retail sector led to the creation of an outdoor pedestrian mall on Third Street, but it failed to achieve any real success until Frank Gehry designed Santa Monica Place, which breathed new life into the commercial area. The Third Street Mall was then re-designed and became the Third Street Promenade, which has enjoyed considerable success and become a model of successful city planning. It has also become a model for neighborhood advocacy and preservation, as the residents of Santa Monica saved the Santa Monica Pier from multiple rounds of slated construction in the 70s and 80s and revitalized it to become one of the city’s most adored attractions to this day.

A significant landmark in the 90403 ZIP code is the house of Frank Gehry himself. The 22nd Street home was originally an extension of an old Dutch Colonial home that Gehry had bought in 1977. He used unconventional materials, such as chain-link fences and corrugated steel, to build outward from the original house and create a sort of enclosure. Some architects today consider it to be one of the first Deconstructivist designs—a label that Gehry himself denies— because of its somewhat transparent nature. Gehry stripped parts of the house to reveal the framing, exposing joists and wood studs, and rather than meld one cohesive design he drew attention to the new and old elements of the house and sought to distinguish them from one another. He further renovated it in 1991 to meet the needs of a growing family, and in 2019 moved his family to a larger complex he had designed on Adelaide Street, also in Santa Monica. Gehry said of the original house:

I loved the idea of leaving the house intact… I came up with the idea of building the new house around it. We were told there were ghosts in the house… I decided they were ghosts of Cubism. The windows… I wanted to make them look like they were crawling out of this thing. At night, because this glass is tipped it mirrors the light in… So when you’re sitting at this table you see all these cars going by, you see the moon in the wrong place… the moon is over there but it reflects here… and you think it’s up there and you don’t know where the hell you are…

Allegedly the house has been quite unpopular with neighbors, but that hasn’t changed the fact that the house attracts amateur appreciators and fellow architects to appreciate the facade as a fusion of a modern art piece and functional architecture.

Another quirky residence that respectful passers-by can appreciate is the Farnam House. Owners Aziz and Louise Farnam spent 14 years decking out the exterior and interior of their house with mosaic tiles, glossy, glittering surfaces, and a kaleidoscopic mixture of colors and easter egg objects re-purposed and utilized in the design. The house has become famous both to residents and beyond; the house won a TLC contest for interesting houses in California in 2013. Like the Gehry house, there are rumors that it has at times been unpopular with neighbors, but has become a community staple with others.

Other artistic sites include the Miles Memorial Playhouse, located in Christine Emerson Reed Park. Gifted to the city by civic leader J. Euclid Miles in memory of his daughter Mary, the playhouse is dedicated to the young men and women of Santa Monica, and has been a source of entertainment to the community since 1929. The building was designed by noted architect John Byers, who designed many celebrity homes in Los Angeles, in a Spanish Colonial Revival style. The Idaho Gate, another notable architectural landmark, can be found at the Idaho Ave entrance to Palisades Park. The Craftsmen-style masonry gates feature decorative tile insets by Pasadena-based artist Ernest Batchelder. The original architects of the gates are unknown, but renowned architects Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene have been put forth as candidates.

Related Blog Posts

90024: University Students and Changes in Westwood

90012: Discovering DTLA

90011: South Central Los Angeles, the “West Coast Harlem”

let's talk!

Sign up for the Antaeus Newsletter