The neighborhood starts just north of the pier with tall slivers of houses flaunting their differences. There's a colorful trio of houses looking as if they were imported from Key West, contemporary houses gleaming with metal, a house with windows as big as Imax screens and a few — very few — original beach cottages.
Farther north, past the big beach parking lots, is the area once known as the Gold Coast. The houses were built by movie stars, directors, producers and screenwriters in the 1920s and '30s.
Most of the Hollywood crowd has since moved on to Malibu for beach property, but as longtime resident Jennifer Diener says, the ghosts are still here.
And in the case of her house, built by film star Norma Talmadge, rented for three summers by Irving Berlin and once owned by Randolph Scott, Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton, she swears a specter has visited. Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, was once quoted as saying the happiest she'd ever been was when she lived on the beach with Grant.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks led the Hollywood exodus here in 1922, which included Harold Lloyd, Mae West, Norma Shearer, Mervyn LeRoy, Marion Davies and later Peter Lawford, who often entertained his brother-in-law President Kennedy at 625 Palisades Beach Road.
Many of the Gold Coast houses were designed by leading architects: John Byers, Richard Neutra, Wallace Neff and Julia Morgan. A number of the original houses are still standing, along with beach clubs, two condominiums and an informal restaurant called Back on the Beach.
This is beach living with an urban edge: The energy of Santa Monica — restaurants, shops, movies and farmers markets — is all within walking distance.
Good news, bad news
The good: The beach and the Pacific Ocean are at your back door.
The bad: living next to the dirt and danger of a major highway. Residents issue party invitations with guidelines for crossing PCH. Weekend summer beach traffic makes last-minute errands a hassle; you stock up and stay home or leave for the weekend. If you stay, you may be serenaded by loud, thumping music from boom boxes beneath your bedroom windows. (The sound of traffic, on the other hand, becomes white noise for residents.)
There's graffiti on garden walls, but Santa Monica has a graffiti-removal hotline.
After Labor Day, the beach is almost empty, and in September and early October, it's usually warmer than in summer.
Anyone who visits the beach can enjoy an almost-deserted bike path at dawn and the view of the sunrise over the buildings on Ocean Avenue or share the sights and sounds of the pier with a congregation of seagulls.
Houses built so close to each other create a paradox of behavior. On the one hand, there may be a temptation to peer into a neighbor's windows and gardens. But on the other hand, there is a strong camaraderie — and respect for privacy — among the longtime beachside residents.
Houses on the beach are eclectic — contemporary, Spanish Revival and everything in between. They're rarely for sale. At the moment, only one house is on the market.
In 1998, it was possible to buy a 6,000-square-foot Spanish fixer-upper for $1.4 million, but the current real estate frenzy combined with the finite number of properties have pushed prices out of sight.
On the 2004 Academic Performance Index, Roosevelt Elementary School scored 870 out of a possible 1,000. Lincoln Middle School scored 834, and Santa Monica High School scored 720.
Sources: California Department of Education, Santa Monica- Malibu Unified School District.