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Postcards From the Edge | INSIDE STORY

Cruising Pre-Beach Boys PCH at a Ventura County Exhibit

September 21, 1997|Mary Melton

California's coast did not readily accept becoming one of the world's most famous scenic drives. From Oregon to the Mexican border, her craggy rocks, precipitous cliffs and roaring surf were less than hospitable to highway construction. But persistence--coupled with wagons full of dynamite--won, and the Pacific Coast Highway was born.

The early years of PCH--before the Beach Boys, car commercials and Dustin Hoffman cruising in "The Graduate"--are the focus of an exhibit, "Coast Road: 1900-1950," currently at the Ventura County Museum of History & Art. The display, organized by the Automobile Club of Southern California and the museum, traces the history of the highway "before the media representation became so thick," says Matthew Roth, curator of the Automobile Club archives. Culled from photographs, hotel brochures, diner menus and postcards, the exhibit defines our fascination with a coastline that is at once inviting and forbidding. "The images show this human creation being literally carved into the shoreline," says Roth. "If you live here, you've driven that route, but at the same time it's poorly understood. Hey, God didn't create this highway. This resulted from an allocation of social resouces and an application of enginering skills."

The highway would eventually incorporate roads in existence before the turn of the century. But it was the building of portions like Point Mugu, north of Malibu, begun in the mid-1920s and culminating with a dynamite blast in 1940, that would present some of the most dramatic engineering challenges. "They were driven by aesthetic considerations, the idea that we could build something beautiful and fun," Roth says.

The highway's beauty is perhaps most vividly showcased in the exhibit's vintage picture postcards, which tourists purchased from motels, auto courts and roadside stands. They reveal, in hand-tinted splendor, an ocean finally made accessible to the masses, whether seen from the stunning and oft-photographed Bixby Creek span near Big Sur or while enjoying the enchanting wonders of the Santa Cruz pier. Roth notes that the penny postcards--actually filled-out and mailed--provide "our best clues" to public fascination with the region.

Roth and his co-curator, Tim Schiffer, have also gathered, among other gems, a 1929 brochure for Rancho Malibu (the forerunner to today's exclusive Malibu Colony), striking Art Deco promotions for the Redondo Beach Bath House and photos of children digging for Pismo Beach clams circa 1928. One shot from 1934 shows a row of cabins on a bluff south of Monterey--a construction camp for convicts building the highway. "You got thrown in jail," Roth jokes, "and lived in high-priced real estate."

But he thinks perceptions of the present--the deep reflection and contemplation now associated with jaunts along PCH--didn't apply then. "The coast is not forbidding to urban society anymore," he says. "It's refreshing."

"Coast Road: 1900-1950" will be at the Ventura County Museum of History & Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura, through Jan. 4.

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