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Santa Monica Pier kicks off 100th birthday bash

September 09, 2008|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

People were already in a celebratory mood on Sept. 9, 1909, the anniversary of California's 1850 admittance into the union.

But for the thousands who turned out for the parade that day from Santa Monica City Hall to the beach there was an even grander reason to don their party hats. After 16 months of construction, the city was opening its municipal pier, the first on the West Coast to be made of "indestructible" concrete.

Crowds swarmed onto the 1,600-foot-long structure to enjoy band concerts and swimming and boating races, as a flotilla of naval vessels floated offshore. Capping the festivities was a performance of "The Surrender of Rex Neptune," in which the god of the sea, known for battering piers into splinters just for fun, admitted to Queen Santa Monica that he had met his match in this sturdy dock. Surrounded by flames, he retreated into the waters of Santa Monica Bay.

Ninety-nine years later, Santa Monica Pier officials and city leaders will begin the countdown to the pier's 100th anniversary on Sept. 9, 2009.

They will kick off a centennial year of street performances, concerts and other events with the theme "100 years in the past, 100 years in the future." On the more futuristic side, officials will unveil the Sand Tram, a vehicle powered by natural gas that in 2009 will begin carrying beachgoers across the sand to the pier and other locations.

The pier that is approaching the century mark is, of course, made of wood. The concrete proved vulnerable to the effects of Mother Nature, if not Neptune, and was replaced a decade after the opening with wooden pilings and boards.

Whether concrete or wood, the pier proved an immense draw. Impressed by the crowds, an amusement entrepreneur named Charles Looff, an immigrant woodcarver who created the first carousel for New York's Coney Island, won the city's permission to build a companion pier alongside the municipal pier, in exchange for a share of the revenue. The Looff Pleasure Pier, completed in 1917, featured the landmark Hippodrome building, a Byzantine-Moorish-style confection that housed a merry-go-round, and what came to be known as Pacific Park, an amusement zone that includes midway attractions, a Ferris wheel, a roller-coaster and other rides.

The conjoined piers have long been one of Southern California's most popular attractions, with about 3 million visitors annually from the region and around the world.

But for a populist uprising, they might have missed their chance to stroll the creaky boards. In 1973, Santa Monica's city manager proposed tearing down the pier, which had fallen into such disrepair that it was considered a blight, and building an island with a resort hotel where the breakwater is now. Pier business owners and other citizens launched two committees to save the structure. After gathering signatures of support and speaking at emotional meetings, they succeeded in winning City Council support for a rescue.

The city then engaged in a long-running discussion about how best to upgrade the pier. Before any repairs could begin, the El Nino storms of 1983 destroyed the western end.

"Mother Nature effectively did what the City Council had tried to do," said James Harris, the pier historian and community events liaison and author of "Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier," slated for publication in January.

The damage galvanized the city, which quickly formed the Pier Restoration Corp. to oversee the pier's redevelopment. In the years since, the city has spent more than $60 million to repair and upgrade the pier, on top of substantial investments from private businesses and tenants, according to Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of Pier Restoration.

To visitor Julie Brown, who grew up in Long Beach and now lives in Sacramento, the pier rescue preserved a historic venue. "It really is a fun place to come," she said as she shepherded her two young grandchildren toward Pacific Park. "It's a great place for families."

The pier's revival was especially noteworthy given the demise of other popular piers, including Pacific Ocean Park, or POP, just south of the municipal pier. The 28-acre park, which had a nautical theme, opened in 1958 and at times rivaled Disneyland in attendance. It closed in 1967.

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