If you had walked along the beach in Venice in the early 1970s, you would have come across the sagging, crumbling, partially incinerated ghost of an old amusement park on a pier. If you've watched the skate documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," which shows surfers nimbly riding waves under the gnarled carcasses of roller coasters, you've seen much the same thing.
But when it opened in July 1958, more than half a century ago, Pacific Ocean Park — or P.O.P., as it came to be known — was the thing: an amusement park that married Venice Beach's kitschy seaside carnival culture with the space-age Modern architecture of the late 1950s.
A new book by Christopher Merritt and Domenic Priore (with a brief foreword by Beach Boy Brian Wilson) chronicles the fantastical life and spectacular death of this incredible seaside park. "Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles' Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier" (Process Media; $34.95) tells the story of P.O.P. in words, but also lots of pictures — as well as concept drawings, era silk-screen posters, postcards, vintage family snapshots and newspaper articles.
The book covers all of the salient details: the area's early 20th-century history (Moorish bathhouses, anyone?), its fall into seediness in the 1940s and its reemergence as a destination in the late 1950s, when P.O.P. opened its doors to tens of thousands of visitors and the national media.
The park, which opened in the wake of Disneyland (which debuted in 1955), aimed for clean and wholesome family entertainment. It also embodied the latest in Modern design. In fact, an early rendering was created by the firm of Pereira & Luckman, the corporate architecture firm that gave L.A. so much of its iconic Modern look (including LAX and CBS' Television City).
The final design, however, was eventually helmed by Fred Harpman, who had designed portions of Disneyland's Main Street, and had also put in time at the film studios. (He designed major sequences for the 1956 adventure flick "Around the World in 80 Days.")
And while it seemed then that P.O.P. might be a part of L.A. forever, that was not to be. The costs of creating and maintaining the park were astronomical. The public's thirst for new attractions meant continual redesigns, and the scenic location, on top of the roaring Pacific, had the salt air eating through all plaster, wood and steel at ridiculous speeds.
A plan by a real estate development agency to clean up the area around the pier, tearing down old bungalows and other vintage architecture to put up what they considered to be more respectable high rises, tore up many of the roads leading to P.O.P., fatally hindering access. By August 1967, less than a decade after it had opened to so much fanfare, Pacific Ocean Park closed for repairs — and never opened again.
In paging through Merritt and Priore's photo-laden book, it struck me that P.O.P. serves as a pretty terrific way of looking at the ways in which we have embraced, then rejected Modern design. In the 1950s, Modernism, with its focus on industry — and in L.A. specifically, the Space Age — seemed full of promise, the solution for fixing all of society's ills. By the 1970s, its more brutal aspects had left critics and designers wary of structures that didn't seem to serve their inhabitants as much as they served as grim symbols of state power or poor planning.
"Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles' Space-Age Nautical Pier" is now available in bookstores and online. You can see additional photos, not featured in the book, on the Facebook page. For some great vintage audio of some of the musical happenings that went down at P.O.P., check out this report by KCRW's Steve Chiotakis.