ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE Carolina A. Miranda

The rise and spectacular fall of Venice Beach's Pacific Ocean Park

Pacific Ocean Park has been a Modernist icon and symbol of urban decay. A new book tells the story
The spectacular rise and fall of Pacific Ocean Park, the amusement pier that would become a Dogtown icon
L.A.'s Pacific Ocean Park was a funhouse mirror for Modern design in the 20th century

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.

For those of us who grew up in the Southern California of the 1970s and have vague memories of a charred hulk sitting in the waters off the Venice/Santa Monica border, the book will serve as an enlightening ride through the history of Pacific Ocean Park. (Interesting fact: the reason everyone went to party in the seaside ballrooms of Venice in the first half of the 20th century was because the prudes in Los Angeles had practically outlawed public dancing.)

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.")

The park, which covered a pier and some of the adjacent land where Venice meets Santa Monica, embodied everything optimistic about the 1950s. There were Googie-esque buildings — including a 60-foot starfish-like structure at the entrance — which combined the nautical with the space age. After the opening, one reporter described it as "a misty dreamland of timelessness, fantasy and never-never."

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.

It spent the next eight years rotting and catching fire (mostly from arson) as the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica and various state entities fought about who would be responsible for the mess. In the meantime, the site was occupied by the homeless and drug users, as well as a cadre of enterprising surfers who skillfully rode the waves as they broke through the derelict pilings.

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, in many ways, was a mirror of all that. A funhouse mirror, but a mirror nonetheless. And definitely worth a look.

"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.

Find me on the Twitterz @cmonstah.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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