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Monumental Plan : Santa Monica Holds Contest for 'Stairwway' Design to Lead from Pico Boulevard to the Promenade


New York Harbor has the Statue of Liberty. The Gateway Arch overlooks the Mississippi River at St. Louis, and the Golden Gate Bridge crosses San Francisco Bay.

So, why not put a monument where one of Southern California's "grandest boulevards" meets the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.

That is precisely what the Santa Monica Arts Commission hopes to accomplish by creating the "Pico Seagate" at the end of Pico Boulevard, next to the now-under-construction Park Hyatt Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

Santa Monica's monument won't be on the scale of the Statue of Liberty. Instead, city officials plan to spend a modest $650,000 to create works of art along a wide staircase, similar to the Spanish Steps of Rome, leading from Pico Boulevard to the Promenade that runs along the beach to Santa Monica Pier.

Four projects proposed by artists were chosen as finalists in a city-sponsored competition to design both the staircase and accompanying works of art. Models of the four proposals will be unveiled Thursday at Santa Monica City Hall and will be exhibited there through April 19.

The winning artist will be chosen by the Arts Commission and the City Council. Pico Seagate is expected to be finished in time for the opening of the hotel in May, 1990.

"The first charge given to the artist was to create a new public access to the beach that would be fitting for Pico Boulevard, which is one of the major arteries and thoroughfares of the city," said Henry Korn, the city's arts administrator. "That's why we called it Pico Seagate."

Although the four proposals all fall within the guidelines of the Arts Commission to create inexpensive, durable and functional works of art, they have little else in common. "They range from the esoteric and philosophical approaches to satiric, good-natured ideas filled with the joy of life on the beach," Korn said.

One artist envisions lining the staircase and promenade with sculptures memorializing Muscle Beach in nearby Venice, while another would create a garden of desert, forest and marine plants, winding down to the beach.

A West Los Angeles artist would place sculptures along the Promenade made of discarded nautical equipment, and an Arizona artist's design includes a ribbon of lights along Pico Boulevard leading to the steps and an artificial 40-foot-long tide pool at the beach.

Korn said 25 artists submitted proposals for Pico Seagate, and a jury of three artists and museum curators picked the four finalists. The same jury will recommend one project to the Arts Commission, which will make a recommendation to the City Council. The public will be asked to comment on the finalists at workshops next month.

Perhaps the most light-hearted of the four final projects is that of New York artist Red Grooms. Inspired by Muscle Beach, Grooms' design envisions a "bodyscape" of life-size sculptures of body builders and athletes, including a painted epoxy statue of a smiling body builder doing a handstand at the center of a fountain with turquoise-blue water.

"I got interested in muscles as a kid going to Tarzan movies," Grooms said in a letter to the Arts Commission, adding that as an adult he discovered that many would-be actors developed their bulging muscles at the beach.

In a tribute to the flora and fauna of the Los Angeles Basin, Helen and Newton Harrison of San Diego proposed lining two serpentine pathways from Pico Boulevard to the beach with gardens representing four ecologies--desert, forest, marine and lake.

And although the money available for the project probably won't be able to pay for it, the Harrisons would like to cover the Pico-Kenter storm drain, a concrete wash at the end of Pico Boulevard that has been known to pour sewage into Santa Monica Bay.

"It seemed amazing to us that we would be asked to make a stairway going downhill and ending in a storm drain," Newton Harrison said. "When was the last time you took a grand stairway down into a sewer?"

Assemblage artist George Herms of West Los Angeles wants to keep the storm drain, placing 58-inch steel buoys along its edges. He would also create five sculptures using discarded nautical equipment, such as hooks, pulleys and helm wheels.

One of the sculptures, "Purification Station," would consist of four pillars of Italian limestone, topped by a translucent dome. By riding a fixed bicycle underneath the dome or by holding a pair of bicycle handle bars--Herms hasn't decided which--visitors could channel their spiritual energy to rid Santa Monica Bay of pollutants.

"I would like to use art as a symbolic beginning to clean up the bay," Herms said. "The Pico Seagate project is dedicated to future generations being able to go into the water."

Finally, artist James Turrell's vision of Pico Seagate includes a ribbon of lights embedded in Spanish-style steps, leading to an artificial tide pool and to a garden of California cactus and palms along the Promenade.

In a letter to the commission, Turrell, a Sedona, Ariz., artist, described his proposal as a "magical, perceptual experience."

Korn said funds for the Pico Seagate project were provided by Solit Interests Corp., the developer of the Park Hyatt Santa Monica Beach Hotel, as part of the agreement with the city that allowed the hotel's construction.

"One of our main motivations is to help participate in the revitalization of that part of the Promenade," said Mark Solit, president of the San Francisco-based development firm. "We hope to clean up the beach in front of our area and to somehow hide the Pico-Kenter storm drain. . . . Anything is better than what's out there today."

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