The bell ringer smiled broadly when the holiday shopper dug into his pocket and then dropped a handful of coins into the familiar red kettle.
But in terms of one Salvation Army project, Christopher Adams' donation the other day in Santa Monica was just a drop in the bucket.
A mile away from the shopping mall where Adams was making his contribution, workers were putting the finishing touches on new Salvation Army housing worth at least $1 million.
This place won't shelter the homeless, however.
Boasting a marble hearth, a built-in family-room entertainment center and a view of the ocean, the two-story hillside structure will be the residence of the Salvation Army's Santa Monica captain.
Officials have spent nearly a year replacing an older house with a new one with a tile roof, cut-glass entry doors and extensive new landscaping.
Some questioned whether the $430,000 construction project, on a lot worth an estimated $538,600, was out of character for an organization that portrays itself as austere and promises "the best use of your donated dollars."
Adams, a college sociology student who lives in Westchester and has volunteered in the past at the Salvation Army's homeless shelter on Santa Monica's 4th Street, was surprised to learn of the project.
"That's definitely not good. It's against everything the Salvation Army stands for. That money could be used to help a lot more people than just a captain," he said.
"I've always looked to the Salvation Army to keep other charity services in check. But who's watching them? Maybe some oversight is needed."
Salvation Army officials say the house makes economic sense.
"We found it cheaper in the Santa Monica area to tear down and build a new one than to purchase a new house," said Salvation Army Maj. George Baker. "We were starting to put a lot of money into repairing the old one."
Baker, the Salvation Army's Southern California divisional secretary for business, said his group provides housing -- mostly centered in the Torrance area -- for 49 commissioned officers in the organization.
Officials decided that Capt. Brian West should live on the Westside near his Santa Monica office, he said.
"I can understand folks looking at it and questioning it," Baker said of the Santa Monica house. But he said the property was viewed as a long-term asset for the group.
The cost of the new house is being covered by the Salvation Army capital projects fund, not operational expenses, Baker said. He likened the Pearl Street home to a church parsonage or parish house.
"All our officers are ordained ministers," he said. "We don't receive large paychecks in the Salvation Army. The system is designed so there is freedom of movement of officers without the burden of buying or selling a home."
That kind of arrangement is unusual among charities, philanthropy experts say. But the Salvation Army has always characterized itself as an evangelical ministry.
"They are a church. That kind of allows for them to rationalize it," Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based charity watchdog organization the American Institute of Philanthropy, said of the parsonage comparison.
"But people aren't going to give their $20 knowing the captain has this kind of housing. It doesn't look good, and it's not going to help contributions. It may cost them a lot to have this kind of arrangement. There's a lot of cynicism out there," Borochoff said.
Marcus S. Owens, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and expert in charity tax fraud issues, said Los Angeles' soaring property values suggest that the house's costs are not out of line.
"Spending that kind of money in Santa Monica -- a half-million dollars on a half-million-dollar lot -- isn't going to get you the Taj Mahal," he said.
Property records indicate that the Salvation Army obtained the property in mid-1959 from Arthur Erickson, who had owned it from the 1940s. His three-bedroom, two-story home had been built in 1939. Baker said the Salvation Army bought it for $13,000.
The organization has remodeled and updated the three-bedroom home several times over the years. A bathroom and workroom were added in 1962, the kitchen and master bath were remodeled in 1967, and a breakfast room was added in 1971, according to Santa Monica Building Department records.
The place had something of a faded look early this year before workers razed it. West, who moved into the old house about three years ago, described it as "a two-bedroom with an illegal third bedroom" added to it.
During this year's reconstruction project, passersby have frequently stopped to ask how much the new house was selling for. Workers politely explained that the four-bedroom, 2,396-square-foot home wasn't for sale, that it was for the captain.
Many in the Sunset Park neighborhood defended the project. They said they were glad to see the 63-year-old house go.