Santa Monica Pier was saved from destruction 50 years ago

It’s unthinkable now, but the iconic Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, California, once was very much in danger of being torn down a half-century ago.

The Santa Monica Daily Press recently published an article about the history of the pier, including a successful grass-roots effort in 1973 to preserve it after the city council voted to raze it to make way for a 35-acre island with a high-rise hotel, restaurants, a convention center and a four-lane bridge to connect it to the mainland.

The Santa Monica Pier first opened in 1909 — designed simply to carry sewage pipes beyond the ocean’s waves. It had no amenities.

The pier began to take a more recognizable shape in 1916 when Carles Looff signed a 20-year lease with the city and added an amusement arcade, a rollercoaster and a carousel. La Monica Ballroom was added in 1924.

That brings us to the early 1970s:

Despite the island proposal being rejected and while many of the assembled residents were outside celebrating, the Council surreptitiously passed a motion to tear down Santa Monica Pier. Two community groups were created immediately, Friends of Santa Monica Pier and the Save Santa Monica Pier Citizen’s Committee and set forth to sway public opinion and ultimately save the treasured landmark.

“We started printing flyers, sending out press notices, and highlighting the pier’s danger of extinction in our menus and sharing that news with customers – who were up in arms at the prospect,” says Larry Barber, who was Chair of Friends of Santa Monica Pier and instrumental in its salvation. “We started attending every City Council meeting from that day forward to keep an eye on what council members were doing.”

Weeks of almost nonstop political push-and-pull followed until late February when the Council agreed to rescind the decision to demolish the pier. The local election in 1973 proved to be a turning point and the newly elected City Council negotiated the purchase of the amusement park section of the site, bringing the entire structure under the ownership of the City of Santa Monica for the very first time.

“Eventually, it took the defeat of three of the city council members in the 1973 election in order to defeat the misguided idea of tearing the pier down,” Barber says. “It turned out to be one of the most exciting times of my life, and I go back often to soak up the unlimited bounty of the ocean as viewed from the deck of Santa Monica Pier.”

The pier was saved, though it had to be rebuilt after a big storm in 1983 washed away one-third of the structure.

The activists who were instrumental in saving the pier in 1973 recently gathered for a group picture at the landmark.

The Santa Monica Pier is the home of the oft-photographed “Route 66 – End of the Trail” sign that serves as a traditional if not actual endpoint for many westbound Route 66 travelers. The sign, shepherded by 66-to-Cali owner Dan Rice, was installed in 2009.

The actual western endpoint of Route 66 is a few blocks east at Olympic and Lincoln boulevards. It once was a boring intersection, but that has markedly improved with the recent addition of a Mel’s Drive-In restaurant.

(Image of the Santa Monica Pier by cultivar413 via Flickr)

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