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A return to glory for a Santa Monica beach mansion

April 19, 2009|Martha Groves

With its stately colonnade and sweeping staircases, the three-story U-shaped beach mansion in Santa Monica exuded grandeur.

Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst lived there in grand style with his mistress, silent-film star Marion Davies, and in the 1920s and '30s they entertained such bright lights as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Cary Grant and Gloria Swanson.

On Saturday, where entertainment royalty cavorted during Hollywood's Golden Age, commoners are expected to turn out in force for the opening of a new public beach facility featuring volleyball courts, rooms for community and private events, a playground and the same elaborately tiled swimming pool where Davies splashed with Charlie Chaplin.

Years in the planning, the Annenberg Community Beach House fulfills a dream to turn a historic but long-derelict property into a public showplace.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 21, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Beach house: An article in Sunday's California section about the new Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica said the Guest House and tiled pool at the property were national landmarks. They are Santa Monica landmarks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 10, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Beach house: An article in the April 19 California section about the new Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica said the Guest House and tiled pool at the property were national landmarks. They are Santa Monica landmarks.

"I remember having great days as a girl at the beach when it was the Sand & Sea Club," said Wallis Annenberg, the TV Guide heiress and philanthropist whose Annenberg Foundation provided $27.5 million of the nearly $35-million cost to build and furnish the attraction. "I'm delighted that families from all walks of life will be able to enjoy our beautiful coast and make their own fond memories."

If only the sand and sea could talk.

In 1926, the married Hearst assembled 15 beach lots to create a compound for his beloved Davies, whom he had met 11 years earlier when she was a chorus girl on Broadway. With Hearst as cheerleader, she joined the Ziegfeld Follies and then began starring in silent movies.

In 1928, they moved into their Georgian Revival main house, designed by a Hollywood art director and production designer named William Flannery, at what is now 415 Pacific Coast Highway. It was the largest of the Gold Coast beach houses, with 18 Grecian columns stretching across the back. The interior featured huge Oriental rugs, Tiffany chandeliers, 37 fireplaces and separate bedroom suites, connected by a hidden door, for Davies and Hearst.

Four other houses were occupied by Davies' family, long-term guests and more than 30 full-time servants. All told, the complex included 110 bedrooms and 55 bathrooms.

In 1945, after 17 years of memorable merrymaking, Davies became embroiled in a property tax dispute and sold the compound to investors for $600,000.

Hearst died in 1951 and Davies a decade later. By then, the property had gone through many iterations. At one point, a hotelier added three buildings. In April 1957, pieces of the main house -- shingles, columns, interior fixtures -- were put up for sale. Soon after, the house was demolished.

The state bought the land in 1959 and leased it to the city of Santa Monica, which in turn leased it to the private Sand & Sea Club (where Annenberg was a member) from 1960 to 1990.

During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a brick chimney crashed through the roof of the northernmost house, known as the Guest House, the sole remaining structure from the Davies era.

Restoring the heavily damaged pool tiles and rehabilitating that mothballed house, national landmarks designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, were just two of the tasks facing Frederick Fisher & Partners, the Los Angeles architects.

"A strong idea came to me early on, to create a ghost of a mansion," Fisher said. In front of the pool he placed a colonnade of 16 white concrete columns to stand in, as it were, for the house.

Behind them is the Pool House, with changing rooms, bathrooms and built-in cabana areas lined with wood stained in muted colors found in the pool tiles. On the second floor is a glass-enclosed event room (for yoga classes, among other activities) and an open terrace overlooking the pool. Next door is the Event House, with public meeting rooms and space for art exhibitions.

Midway along the existing boardwalk, a new walkway runs perpendicularly across the wide beach to near the water line. The Guest House, set within gardens and terraces, will offer interactive exhibits about Davies, Hearst and Hollywood, with a soundtrack of laughter and tinkling champagne glasses.

Fisher said the project was especially meaningful to him because he spent time at a community beach while growing up in Cleveland. When fire destroyed the wooden beach club, his father, an architect, designed the replacement.

At the public unveiling on Saturday, Cirque du Soleil performers will inaugurate the pool with a "First Splash." Families will be invited to fly kites, take volleyball lessons and watch sand sculptors. No parking will be allowed that day at the site, but a free shuttle will carry visitors from the Santa Monica Civic Center. A bicycle valet and bike rentals will be available.

Once the facility opens for business next Sunday, access to the beach and most of the facility will be free. Beginning in May, a pool day pass will cost $10 for adults, $4 for children and $5 for visitors 65 or older. A family pass for two adults and two children will be $24.

Davies would have been delighted to see the property put to such use, said Kay Pattison, a Santa Monica Conservancy member who has volunteered as a docent at the beach house.

"We're going to bring her out of the shadows," Pattison said, "and put her back in the sunshine on the beach where she belongs."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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